performingborders (Alessandra Cianetti): ‘I’m not a political artist – I don’t make work that way – but my personal story is so entangled in political issues that my body of work often seems to have ended unresolvedly, which brings back to […] how my work is painful.’ (Boedi Widjaja interviewed by Harvest & Wine). Boedi, you were born in Indonesia in 1975 to Chinese immigrant parents at the height of the Sinophobic policies of President Suharto’s New Order and you escaped the ethnic tensions moving to Singapore when you were nine years old. You trained as an architect in Australia, worked in graphic design for a while, and turned to art in your thirties. Your performative practice – that I had the honour of co-curate in a few projects when directing Something Human with Annie Jael Kwan – explores those journeys, trauma, memories in order to address what it seems a constant yet painful object of research: your own experience of displacement. I would love to know more about how your long-term commitment to those topics has been channeled into your performative practice with ongoing projects such as Path. (2012 – Present) and Imaginary Homeland (2015 – Present).
Boedi Widjaja: My family and I made a trip to Mount Merapi (an active volcano in Central Java) years ago not long after it erupted. It was an eruption that displaced hundreds of thousands of people and killed more than three hundred. Nearing Mount Merapi, we were informed by the locals that the roads to the volcano were inaccessible, having been buried under tonnes of volcanic ash. On the way back to the city, we spotted a boulder (I recall it to be about 3 meters high) along the road; we learnt that it was one of the many that Mount Merapi disgorged.
The memory of my childhood displacement is in many ways, similar to the crater that I didn’t get to see at Mount Merapi – both are voids that echo a sense of deep loss yet they also gave rise to new grounds of beginnings. Just as the boulder embodied the story of its birth, so does my practice attempt to evoke a metaphysical ground; non-material terra firma that invariably echoes its origin – an unlocated void marked by contradictions, traumas and longing. This meta ground – the multi-dimensionality of its terrain – suggests a multidisciplinary method of mapping; for that, I employ the strategies and techniques that I learnt in art, design, performance and architecture.
I imagine the different series in my practice to function as conceptual markers that loosely correspond to themes of house, home and homeland. Path. is a series that looks into migratory notions of belonging, physical movement and social connection through installations and live art performances. Imaginary Homeland is a series that focuses on popular imageries of national and cultural identities, using drawing and photography as the primary means to play with the visual and semantic instabilities of the source images and their transformative possibilities. Two other series – Black—Hut (2016-present) and Stone telling (2011-present) respectively look into the architecture of dwelling by the acts of building proto-structures, and the phantom memory of land through the process of making stone prints and frottages.
performingborders (Alessandra): Yours is a multidisciplinary practice that blends drawings, mark making, performance, languages, visual art, raw material such as stone and chalk, family members such as your father (i.e. Rivers And Lakes Tanah Dan Air exhibition) and daughter (i.e. Cradle Song), and audience participation (i.e. Path 1. The White City). How do those different elements dialogue within your performative work? Also, in our conversation a few months ago, you mentioned that when you and your long-term collaborator Audrey Koh encountered the Live Art Development Agency’s definition of Live Art, you finally felt you found a definition that would encapsulate the open nature of your practice. I am really interested in understanding more about why you feel that ‘Live Art’ is more in line with your practice than ‘Performance Art’.
Boedi: Performance for me is a strategy to intensify the meta ground around my person, that it might activate a potent spatial-corporeal situation that includes the people in proximity. Expressed through personhood, the works invariably reveal themselves through the artistic, cultural sensibilities – voice, drawings, handwriting, movement – and genealogy of the artist. As to the presence of terranean materials, they give visual context and help add a sense of tactility – an important dimension in my work.
There were a number of reasons why Audrey and I gravitated towards the term ‘Live Art’ but it mainly had to do with the theatrical influence on Performance Art. Audrey was involved in theatre for many years and she felt that my performative works were less concerned with dramatic strategies that would elicit immediate responses from the audience; she felt they were better described as conceptual processes that took place in public. ‘Live Art’ is suitable because the term indicates the artist’s physical presence as the primary form of artistic agency. It appeals to me for it speaks of the performative potential of personhood; it opens the spaces ‘off-stage’ so to speak, enabling me to move freely across the central and peripheral fields of my immediate environment and the people around me.
performingborders (Alessandra): In our conversation, you mentioned your more recent research of a place/space to re-imagine Southeast Asia before colonialism. How do you plan to use your multi-layered exploration of origins, identity and migration to locate and re-imagine that space in your coming projects and works?
Boedi: My interest in Southeast Asia before colonialism is related to the disparate cultural identities that I associate with the different lands in my personal narrative. Colonialism gave way to modern nation-states in Southeast Asia and with the birth of the nation, boundaries were drawn along bloodlines and land borders; a rupture in the identities of many who were connected across the mainland and archipelago by trade and kinship, in one of the most multicultural regions in the world. The enquiry into history before and after nationhood in Southeast Asia has surfaced in a few upcoming projects and research.
I am now working on architectural-sound installation Black—Hut, Black—Hut (2018 – 2019) for the Singapore Biennale in November, and the solo presentation Declaration of, at Helwaser Gallery in NYC in September. Black—Hut, Black—Hut is a co-commission by QAGOMA and the Singapore Art Museum; the work is conceived as a diptych of two site-specific installations across time. The first installation was presented at the Asia Pacific Triennale last year. For the work, I have been looking at architectural gestures that are used in tropical and sub-tropical dwellings, while referencing the Javanese pendapa – an open pavilion supported by 4 columns that are inserted into exposed stone foundations called umpak. Marking the imaginary centre of each installation is the sound work Datum, a series of pulses composed from inverse gamelan sounds. Declaration of continues my enquiry into Indonesia’s national history during the Cold War by focusing on Sukarno’s (Indonesia’s founding president) diplomatic manoeuvres against power blocs; the works are in the form of drawings, photographs and installations.
Recent research has to do with a 15th century Old Sundanese poem Bujangga Manik. The only known copy of the poem, an incomplete version written on palm-leaf, is found in Bodleian Library, Oxford, stored there since 1627, and rediscovered in 1968 by Dutch historian J. Noordyun. The poem follows the titular pilgrim prince who made two trips across Java – from the Sunda kingdom in West Java to the populous Central Java and in the second journey, reaching up to Bali in East Java. The poem is interesting to me for it functioned literally as a map of Java – the author listed more than 400 names of the mountains, rivers and places along the pilgrim’s path. From the poem, I learnt about a historical-mythical kingdom named Medang Kamulan (“Medang the origin” in Javanese). Many Javanese creation myths, including the beginnings of the Javanese script and the gamelan (the traditional Javanese metallophone instrument), pointed to the place.
Since 2010, Audrey and I have been looking into using artistic methods to map places of beginnings in Asia through self-initiated artist travelogue project INSITU.ASIA. We have mapped two places to date – Fort Canning Hill in Singapore and Tengganan village in Bali. Similar to the Sundanese poem, our maps weren’t so much cartographical but they instead focused on phenomenological expressions of the places we went to. The maps ranged from drawings, frottages, installations and performance. With Medang Kamulan, I’d like to use a similar multidisciplinary method to map its mythical and historical terrain.
Boedi Widjaja (b. 1975, Solo City, Indonesia) lives and works in Singapore. The experiences of displacement, isolation, travel, and bridging multiple cultures have defined much of his practice. Due to ethnic tensions, the artist was sent to Singapore as a young boy, where he lived apart from his family. His works often refer obliquely to this autobiographical history or to the feelings of anxiety and estrangement. Widjaja trained as an architect and also has a background in graphic design; the techniques, materials and tools of drawing have subsequently become a defining element of his artistic practice. This is expressed through a broad range of media, from photography and text to architectural installations and ‘live art’, with an emphasis on process and bodily engagement.
The artist has shown in numerous exhibitions internationally, including: Singapore Biennale (2019) (upcoming); 9th Asia Pacific Triennial (2018-19); MAP1: Waterways (2017), Diaspora Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale; Jerusalem Biennale (2017); Yinchuan Biennale (2016), China; From East to the Barbican (2015), Barbican, London; Infinity in flux (2015), ArtJog, Indonesia; and Bains Numériques #7 (2012), Enghien-les-Bains, France. His solo exhibitions include: Rivers and lakes, Tanah dan air (2018), ShanghART Singapore; Black—Hut (2016), Singapore Biennale Affiliate Project, ICA Singapore; Path. 6, Unpacking my Library 。书城 (2014), Esplanade, Singapore; and Sungai, Sejarah 河流, 历史, 源 (2012), YRAC S-Base, Singapore. boediwidjaja.com
Featured image credits: Path. 7, New Ground (2015). Part of From East to the Barbican curated by Something Human for The Barbican’s Interfaces program. Photo by the artist