Heri Dono at Mitra Budaya Gallery, Jakarta (1988)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 28 December 2011
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post, on 16 June 1988, p. 6 with the title "Artist espouses laughter and humor". Please note, in the original article "Heri Dono" is referred to as "Heri Dana".

Heri Dono at Mitra Budaya Gallery

This week the Mitra Budaya on Jl. Tanjung is hosting young painter Heri Dono’s first solo exhibition. The lively works by this artist from Yogyakarta can be seen until 19 June.

Heri Dono’s visual and imaginary world seems to be situated somewhere between Picasso’s Guernica and Monty Python or other European avant-garde animations, and somewhere between laughter and nightmare, where playfulness nonetheless often has the upper hand.

Heri Dono himself seems at first acquaintance to have not a care in the world, besides his passion for humor which becomes frustrated when people do not laugh along. This carelessness, however, we know from psychology is usually a facade— a facade which has traditionally been cultivated to a high degree in Java— and indeed the work of Heri Dono indicates that there is much going on behind his gentle, always jocular facade. Studying his work closely also supports this view.

The laughter and humor Heri Dono espouses is not that of an escapist running away from the world, laughing with his eyes closed. It is rather a sharp, often cynical, sometimes political, sometimes scatological or erotic, always absurd tivoli of commentary on man and his society in this case, Indonesian society. Laughter, according to Heri Dono’s view, is not just a way to smooth over social embarrassments, but an active healing agent in the therapy we all need as life and encounters with others wound our minds and spirits.

Heri Dono’s approach

Such laughter, however, cannot arise until we learn to open our eyes and see the ugliness around and in us, the absurdity of ourselves and others, and not least the comic and horrible beasts with which we populate our internal and external worlds. Maybe these present works are a contemporary Indonesian artist’s vision of age-old esoteric philosophical idea found both in the West and the East, that the sage’s final response to the world and all its pain, paradox and contradiction is laughter. From Augustine to Hermann Hesse and Umberto Eco, from Lao Tzu to the taoist guru of the 1960s, Alan Watts, the divine and transcendental wisdom of laughter is evoked.

In two and three dimensions as well as in the shadowy dimension (creating his own wayang kulit figures to enact folktales from various Indonesian ethnic groups), Heri Dono often absurdly contrasts common human activities with the most outrageous monster-forms, often in the process of metamorphosis often threatening each other with guns or teeth or claws. Thus the familiar and the fantastic, the laughable and the horrible, exist in one single medley of entwining forms. Sometimes we feel we are inside the head of a child, and the composition and colors are deceptively innocent and simple; sometimes we feel we are inside the head of an insane satirist and we don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. This approach renders Heri Dono’s pictures enigmatic enough that one does not finish with them quickly.

Heri Dono depicts grim reality
Philosophizing about the comic and the horrible aspects of the world is only one of the directions Heri Dono’s paintings may take us in. Any good work of art, or a work that shows potential, works on many levels of perception. On another level of interpretation, these paintings could be seen as a development of cartoon-art, which specializes in depicting violence among the strangest and ugliest beasts imaginable both in our own as well as in unknown dimensions.

Such cartoon-painting may or may not be taken as a comment on man and his nature. Many children— both young and old— are thrilled by the sight of violence, something which the enormous number of poor-quality action-movies bears witness to, where the minimal semblance of a plot [is] a mere excuse to move from bloodshed to bloodshed.

But in Heri Dono’s work we feel there is more intelligence at work than that. When we read the titles, another dimension is added to the work that dispels any possibility of them being mere cartoons. The titles reflect a wide range of preoccupations, in the field of art, within Javanese wayang mythology, as well as within both the local and the international spheres. Widespread hunger, addiction to gambling and drinking, unemployment and crime are heavy topics. By making us laugh, Heri Dono leads us unaware into a grim reality which we might turn away from if it were depicted realistically.

Heri Dono identifies with Durna
"The world is crazy!" Heri Dono says at the exhibition, before his largest canvas which is two by three meters. "Frightening. Look at the hunger in Africa, for example— what they ask for is rice, but what they get is bullets— Many people think I am a little strange to be thinking the way I do, but if I, as a young person, was NOT concerned then I would be really crazy."

When asked if he starts working on a painting with a theme or title clearly in mind, Heri Dono said that he tends to be obsessed with a certain theme for two or three months at a time. Accordingly, everything he scribbles, sketches or paints evolves around that theme. Only later, after the work is finished, does the exact title come to mind.

Heri Dono has to see both sides of reality, and most of this he sees during the day or at night when he has trouble sleeping. When asked if he often has nightmares, based on the nightmarish quality of many of his images once you have finished laughing and start seeing what it depicts with the help of the title, he answered that he cannot remember ever having dreamed. His insistence on not glossing over the ugly causes him to identify with a wayang character which people usually shun: Durna.

"Durna is so important in the stories. Because he is a problem-maker, it is his figure that creates the story. Just like Judas, without him there would have been no Jesus. It is not that they are simply negative characters, they both play essential roles."

Heri Dono is not an angry young man. His works may be strange but they are not ugly. Working in a variety of media, he creates beautiful textures with layers of paper or textile or glass. One weakness still apparent in his work may be that his for the most part extremely dense composition and fairly uniform palette create too little visual [variety] for the breadth of themes presented. This may be an outcome of the search for an individual style, where "sameness" is misperceived as indicating "personality".

At the age of 28, Heri Dono is not yet a guru of the mastery of laughter over horror or [of] the mastery of art. For that he is too young, and there is still a level at which his work [may] seem like theatrical posturing rather than a hard-won statement on life, however absurd. But his works and his sheer energy and enthusiasm bear witness to a strong commitment as an artist and a strong and individual personality. As such he stands out even within the group of young Indonesian artists who are similarly by children’s drawings, cartoons, and a comic relief from the laws of nature.