Dadang Christanto sits in a corner of Wei-Ling Contemporary, eyeing an assortment of kuih that’s just been set down in front of us. “Now, I shall be greedy and take more than one!” he exclaims, his eyes gleaming with impish humour. It’s mid-July and the Indonesian artist is making his first of several visits to the sixth floor of The Gardens Mall, scoping out the gallery in preparation for his upcoming solo exhibition, Missing.
Christanto’s debut exhibition in Malaysia, was until 4 November, stands in stark contrast to his gentle personality. His art is steeped in the bloodstained history of Indonesia’s mass killings of 1965 to 1966 and its countless victims of political violence. Repeated motifs of blood, disembodied heads and anonymous faces – symbols that highlight the ease with which crimes against humanity can be committed – carry the same chilling, highly unsettling qualities that run through Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Hell, Annie Leibovitz’s images of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and Vann Nath’s paintings of Cambodia’s notorious S-21 prison.
“Dadang’s work leaves an indelible mark on your mind and visually, too,” says Wei-Ling Lim, the Gallery Director of Wei-Ling Gallery. “This is not going to be a pretty exhibition. It’s not a show that’s easy – it is confrontational. But who wants a show that’s easy? Robert Rauschenberg once said: ‘The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.’ Someone like Dadang has got such a strong voice – not just in Indonesia, but internationally as well – because he’s being honest and truthful. He’s showing and talking about issues that people want to ignore.” Christanto’s pieces, it must be noted, are as much a warning as they are a memorial to the dead.
“If you look at the atrocities of World War II, everyone said: ‘Let’s never let this happen again.’ They asked how such war crimes were possible, but it’s still happening today, all around us – atrocities are occurring that haven’t even been brought to our attention,” Lim points out. “Take what’s happening in Syria or Myanmar, for instance. You think, ‘How much power do we have? What can we do to empower ourselves to make a difference?’ So, we always try to push boundaries with the work that the gallery shows, and if an artist has purity in their delivery, we want them to say it as it is, without censorship.”
The exhibition offers a cohesive selection of his artwork, including new installations, sculptures and a performance piece – a reflection of his diverse body of work, which also includes drawings and paintings. Within them, elements such as tortured figures that weep tears of blood and red threads dangling from portraits in the style of 1960s-esque Indonesian identity card photographs are more than artistic allusions. They bear witness to the artist’s own experiences as a child during the anti-communist purges, which saw supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), opponents of the military dictatorship, union members, intellectuals, landless farmers and ethnic Chinese being arrested, brutally interrogated and murdered.
While the exact number of victims of the 1965-66 mass killings remains unclear, the East Timor Action Network has stated that reliable estimates suggest between 500,000 and one million people lost their lives. (Recent estimates have stretched further, pointing towards a higher death toll of two or three million people, cementing its grisly record as one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century.) Although Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, helped drag the purges into the glare of the global spotlight, the events of 1965-66 have remained shrouded in silence, both in Indonesia and abroad – with a few brave lone voices being raised in protest.
I ask Christanto whether he watched Oppenheimer’s film, which – controversially – was overlooked for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards in favour of a documentary on American backup singers. “I saw it, yes,” he says evenly. “It shows the reality of what happened, but remember – the film only focused on Medan, which doesn’t have such a big population. Things were horrible everywhere in Indonesia during 1965-66, but in Java, it was even worse.” The artist himself was born into an Indonesian family of Chinese descent and raised in Tegal, a modest village in Central Java.
He was only eight years old when the rumblings of General Suharto’s campaign of terror reached his village – and once they did, Christanto’s father was dragged from their home by soldiers, never to be seen or heard from again. “I still remember my mother crying throughout that time, but she wouldn’t explain what had happened,” he recalls. “She just said: ‘Your father’s gone away to another city, and he’ll be there for a long time.’ It was only later, when I was playing in a field with some other children, that some of my friends told me: ‘Your father is being held in the military headquarters – he’s being tortured.’
“To hear about my father from my friends – it was horrible for me. Since I belonged to the family of a 1965-66 victim, I was stigmatised and bullied by my classmates. I didn’t want to go to school, so I quit and slept on the streets instead. It was a very hard time for my mother – she went from jail to jail in the city, trying to bring him food, but the military headquarters never allowed her to see him. That was the struggle of so many victims and their families, though.” Did he ever find any clues as to his father’s fate?
“I’ve never been sure. Four or five years ago, I met someone who was a former executioner in Tegah and tried to find the possible location of where my father might have died. There was a field near a beach where he said they’d executed prisoners and thrown them into the water or a nearby river after killing them. Every city in that area has a lot of mass graves. Near Yogyakarta, for instance, there’s a cave with a deep ravine and a river at the bottom. I spoke with a witness from that time, and he said every night, truckloads of people were pushed from that cliff – alive. And when the water flowed from the river afterwards, it was red.”
It is the Indonesian government’s refusal to acknowledge and apologise for the events of 1965-66 that fuels Christanto’s determination to carry on producing bold, challenging artwork such as Slaughter Tunnel (2015) and his 1979 performance piece, In Red. “Even my family in Indonesia – my brother and sister – don’t want to talk about that time. They’ve said: ‘The past is the past, don’t talk about it anymore.’ But that’s not for me: I have made myself a witness. Why? If we don’t talk about it, the same forces behind the fire and violence of the military will be back,” he asserts.
“No one was ever charged in court and, if that’s the case, they’ll return in the future. So, why shouldn’t we stand as witness through artwork about such violence?
“In Milan Kundera’s words: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ We must remember because the regime and its fascist movements will try to shut out the past, but it’s dangerous for the future. So, I hope that my work encourages the Indonesian public to open up and discuss their future as a nation.” He brings up the International People’s Tribunal on 1965 Crimes Against Humanity in Indonesia (held in the Hague in 2015), which declared that Indonesia committed crimes against humanity during the 1965–66 mass killings, and that the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia were complicit in these crimes.
“The government reacted by holding a 1965 Symposium in Jakarta, but nothing happened after that. I mean, what is the next step? There are human rights groups in Indonesia who are still asking the government to come up with a solution and make it clear what happened during the killings. If the nation is always stuck when it comes to thinking about what happened, it’s a nation that is not free. It’s different in Germany: they’re open about the Holocaust and they’ve apologised for it. After the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu and Tutsi communities reached out towards a reconciliation. But in Indonesia, nothing’s happened and that’s not good for our future.”
Despite the fact that Christanto moved to Australia in the 1990s, where he now lives contentedly in Brisbane (though he makes it a point to travel to Indonesia at least two or three times each year, where his sister runs a shop), has he ever worried about facing retribution for steadfastly producing his art? “Before this, during Suharto’s regime and the military order, there was always censorship. At that time, my artwork was quite metaphorical,” he laughs wryly. “Now, things are slowly opening up and my new works are fairly direct.
“But I am lucky. I have been lucky because I can say what I’m thinking, people know about me and my artwork, and I have a medium to communicate with an audience and with people. I can express myself and inspire them to think about Indonesia’s past.”
TEXT RENYI LIM
PHOTOGRAPHY LAW SOO PHYE