The gallery notes that accompanied Dadang Christanto’s performance and exhibition, jointly titled “Survivor,” referenced a recent eruption of hot volcanic mud, possibly triggered by underground gas exploration, which wiped out 11 villages in East Java, Indonesia. In the three-hour performance, photographs of victims were held by 30 silent and nearly motionless performers, including Christanto, all of them caked in mud from neck to toe. The participants’ mostly Anglo faces, juxtaposed with the clearly Asian faces in the photographs they held, lent the event an element of cross-racial empathy. The arrangement evoked not only those individuals affected by the disaster but those belonging to the so-called First World democracies generally less affected by humanitarian crises. The multi-ethnic work concretized, in an emotionally charged fashion, a growing respect and interdependence between Australia and Indonesia, its nearest neighbor.
During the 1990s, and in the subsequent decade that he has lived in Australia, Indonesian-born Christanto has become a leading artist in both countries, creating some of the region’s most politically resonant work. In another performance staged at the gallery shortly before the exhibition opening, “Litsus”—the title refers to a written political-sympathies test that all would-be candidates had to undergo prior to Indonesian legislative elections in the 1990s—Christanto sat cross-legged before a wall of suspended agricultural tools. As the menacingly sharp, medieval-looking tools hovered behind him, visitors to the gallery were invited to throw small parcels of white powder (starch). The packets exploded as they hit the wall behind. Over a period of 13 minutes, the dust sporadically obscured the artist from view, eventually turning him ghostly white—much as the test yielded parliamentarians who were phantomlike and ineffectual in their response to rural poverty.
Also included in the “Survivor” exhibition were five portrait paintings of nameless individuals, their faces devoid of distinguishing features. The sense of anonymity and powerlessness in Christanto’s work stems directly from the artist’s childhood experience of watching helplessly as a group of soldiers removed his father from the family home. Like thousands of other political prisoners taken during Indonesia’s failed Communist coup of 1965, the man was never seen again.
Three days before Christanto’s exhibition opened in Sydney, a judicial inquiry in Indonesia ruled the catastrophic mud explosion a natural disaster. Not everyone agreed with the finding, but “Survivor” was never intended as a comment on the specific hazards of gas drilling. Though tragedies are sometimes caused by the negligence or malfeasance of those in power, Christanto’s practice is less a form of rebuke than an act of remembrance.
Photo: View of Dadang Christanto’s Survivor 2009, three-hour performance; at Gallery 4A.