Heri Dono at Purna Budaya, Yogyakarta (1988)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 7 January 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post, on 6 October 1988, p. 6 with the title "Dono tries to expand the use of wayang puppets".

Heri Dono at Purna Budaya

In the last month a couple of articles have appeared in the Yogyakarta daily, Kedaulatan Rakyat, announcing something called "legend wayang". At the "creation-wayang" exhibit in the Purna Budaya, the most fantasy-comic contribution exhibited bore the same name. And the person in charge, we learn, is none other than the young painter Heri Dono. Clearly he has been unusually busy this year, with a spring solo exhibition of paintings at Cemeti here in Yogya, another solo exhibition in Jakarta last June and the wayang group exhibition in August. And now Heri Dono appears as the producer of a wayang performance, for [which] he himself made all the puppets.

Heri Dono’s involvement with wayang started when he became acquainted with Sukasman’s creative approach to the old art form and with the latter’s ideas about the psychology of form in wayang figures.

"Guided by Sukasman, I studied traditional wayang figures and their distortions: The long forward-stretched neck, the long nose, the large eyes and the wide mouths. And I realized that these exaggerations were not mere conventions— they were also necessary to convey the personality of the character across considerable distance."

For those who know Heri Dono’s paintings, which are cartoonish and at times caricaturish, it seems natural that he should choose to work with wayang, since that is also a form that uses the formal technique of exaggeration and omission to communicate psychological content. The difference between the two approaches is that wayang’s visual vocabulary has been frozen into convention, while Heri Dono is breaking free from traditional norms.

Heri Dono is not trying to rival or challenge traditional wayang kulit. He approaches his form of wayang as an experiment in art, as, in a sense, an extension of his painting. He does not worry about preserving old traditions from extinction.

"I am not worried about Javanese culture disappearing because of the influence of Western culture", Heri Dono says. "In my opinion it is not possible for a culture to fade or disappear, as long as there are people there who are actively creating. If there are no such people, why then the culture is already dead", he ends with a smile.

Heri Dono’s energies are steered towards creating new traditions, traditions which are relevant to contemporary Indonesians and not only in Java. As Heri wrote in a statement in the newspaper: “To me, wayang is only a medium for expressing a story. And folktales, legends and various types of folklore are widespread throughout Indonesia. Why do we only perform the stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Panji epics? As an Indonesian I feel a responsibility to make a contribution in the field of art. Say that each province in Indonesia has five folktales, for example, how many folktales could then be made into wayang performances in Indonesia’s 27 provinces? Wouldn’t wayang then truly become the property of the Indonesian people?”

The idea for using a Batak folktale arose from a feeling that the characters of the classical wayang repertoire were not so immediately relevant to daily life anymore— or at least that there are sets of other characters and moral-dramatic situations that could be equally relevant. So Heri Dono, whose speech is studded with references both to Western and Asian art and history, picked up several versions of Batak folktales, and as he read and compared them, characters started forming in his mind and the first sketches were made.

The idea of expanding on the use of wayang kulit naturally does not originate with Heri Dono. For decades, both before and after independence, traditional wayang was used as an allegorical vehicle to ridicule leaders and satirize situations. After independence, many different experiments were carried out, attempting to use wayang as a tool for both educational and political work. These forms were shortlived and have been replaced by contemporary experiments, both creative reworking of the traditional characters and stories as well as new material, as the wayang festival in Jakarta in August bore witness to.

Still a large gap remains between lovers and performers of traditional wayang, mainly older generations, and audiences who are open to changes, recruited mainly from the younger generation. Interestingly, in Heri Dono’s performance, the two young dalang were both sons of well-known traditional dalang, and their fathers not only permitted them but encouraged them to work with this new form, saying that for a dalang to be good he must not be afraid of experimentation.

All the friends that ended up working with Heri Dono on the "legend-wayang" were open to experiment, from the musicians and script-writer to the visual artists and the assistant dalang. After months of preparation, of writing and rewriting the script and rehearsing the performance, which kept changing at every rehearsal, and with the performance date drawing closer, Heri Dono had to shut himself up in his house for a full week to finish the paint job on the 60-odd cardboard puppets in time.

Heri Dono and the performance
The set-up is an unusual one: A large screen below a smaller screen on top. The lights dim and strains of impressionistic electronic music pervade the hall, alternating with the adrenal rhythms of tribal drums.

A dalang is seated with his back to us at the upper screen, where a number of puppets face us, colors and details fully visible. The cluster of shadows in the center of the lower screen suddenly come to life, the two side-figures are pulled away and in the middle is the shadow of a tribal house, pulsating to the drumbeats, locating the audience in Batak country.

The story is about a sculptor who carves a beautiful woman in wood. Through the magical intervention of a shaman, the sculpture comes alive, and the beauty of the young woman sends all the men, including the sculptor to her door begging for her hand. She is adopted by the shaman, who will listen to no lovelorn pleas until the attendant of the Batak king himself arrives with a large marriage gift of both wild and tame animals.

And thus the young woman with a lusty body and strutting breasts— not only indicative of a sculptor’s fantasies, surely!— becomes queen of the Bataks. Her wedding night with the fat and serious, but kindly king is illuminated by a light so yellow that it seems to drip with honey, and their passionate union is humoristically alluded to with a merging of shadows and a special puppet depicting a man and a woman lying side by side on a mat, waterglasses and a large, phallic, mosquito spray-pump at their side.

The first year the queen gives birth to a book containing the secret of life; the second year to a spinning wheel, and the third to twins: a boy and a girl who according to Batak tradition, have to be separated to grow up far apart.

But as stories go, naturally the two young ones meet and fall in love. As this is not only incestuous love but since Batak tradition prohibits marriage between anyone bearing the same clan name, no matter how distantly related, this love cannot be. In a fearsome flight, when the two lovers are pursued through the forest by a three-headed dragon, they are turned into a wooden sculpture— the now well-known Batak tongkat form— by the shaman who gave life to their mother. And so the moral goes...

Heri Dono’s visualization has a sense of freshness as well as echoes of a tribal tradition, interspersed with humor and melancholy poetry. The figures are different than any wayang figures seen earlier: The young woman is reminiscents of a sensual-humoristic primitive sculpture; the old sage is as crooked and bent as only the full-time practice of wisdom can make one; and the old woman who keeps asking the shaman to restore her youth and beauty so she can find a young husband, is a delightful caricature of traditional wayang women. The most wonderful court dancers with no legs but long arms and cowhorns perform a tribal dance for the lovelorn king.

Picasso and the cubists liberated the elements of the face and the body, a new expressive possibility to modern artists like Heri Dono.

Classical wayang figures, usually depicted in profile, have traditionally employed one large eye for expression, though in Solo, the convention was to show a part of the second eye on the other side of the nosebridge. But as a modern artist, Heri Dono feels free to blithely put two large eyes on one side of a nose in profile, adding more expressive power to the puppet face.

The use of the two screens was employed to expand the sense of distance between one scene and another echoing the fact that even literal distances between villages in Sumatra are much greater than in Java. Furthermore, the use of two screens gave us the chance to enjoy the puppets both directly as well as in shadow-form, something one at traditional wayang has to move back and forth to either side of the screen to enjoy.

Also, the two screens made a sense of naturalistic simultaneity possible. While the action is centered on the upper screen, the lower screen is empty but for a bird or two flying across it. Thus we are reminded that the world still exists above and beyond the story. A different element of time and perspective than in the traditional wayang, where no extraneous form or movement to the story is included. Heri Dono also uses a more linear, action-filled story-line which keeps the audience’s attention during the 2½ hour performance.

There were some obvious problems with the performance, mostly technical: The sound-system was not good enough, the dalang’s voice was often drowned out and the lighting didn’t always function smoothly.

Now that Heri Dono is finished with the performance in Yogya, he is ready to turn to other projects that have been left on the back-burner of his mind, like experiments with batik and with film-animation. "I am always looking for idioms that freshen the soul, the mind and the heart", he admits.

In a society where the new is often viewed with suspicion, Heri Dono calls attention to the importance of experimentation as the basis for all creativity.

Heri Dono makes a clear distinction between originality and sensationalism. And his soft-spoken, yielding Javanese manner at first glance divulges nothing of the thoughtfulness, vitality and humor which infuses his work, in whatever medium he is involved in the moment. But if he continues as he has been going, Indonesia is going to be hearing and seeing a lot more from him than munggo.