Over the past twenty-five years, Indonesian artist Heri Dono has carved a niche for himself amidst the international art world of noisy surveys and bulging biennials. Working consistently within a self-defined conversation between Indonesian traditional arts and popular American cartoons, the artist skewers the topsy-turvy world of Indonesian politics and post-colonial modernism with deft humor and sarcasm.
Currently in Chicago to install his second solo exhibition at Walsh Gallery, Dono describes his practice as a marriage of globally recognized cartoon iconography and Indonesian folk iconography. Dono says, “The basic concept of my work is the concurrence of globally available cartoons with pre-Islamic Indonesian animist beliefs. In my practice I mix animism and animation. Both are based on the belief that everything has a soul to be reckoned with. In a cartoon a chair can run. Animists believe that every object is imbued with a soul. From this point I make socio-political commentary using humor.”
In Indonesia, global pop-culture icons and animist icons exist fluidly on the same plane. Marilyn Monroe can appear on a package of indigenous herbal medicines as easily as any other figure. Dono reinvigorates traditional iconography by introducing new narratives into staid genres. Traditionally confined to retelling episodes from the Ramayana, Dono has traveled to many parts of the Indonesian archipelagos staging Wayang Kulit (shadow-puppet theater) stories of Frankenstein and the devastating 2004 Tsunami. He says, “Suharto’s regime used traditional puppetry for propaganda, to Javanize the other islands, so I wanted to undermine that practice by introducing contemporary tales into the genre which could respect the experience of a larger audience.”
For this new exhibition, titled “Pleasures of Chaos,” Dono presents a series of superhero-inspired paintings. However, in Dono’s cosmology, the superhero is alternately an antihero, an absurd figure or a fallen hero. The paintings feature fantastical figures, amalgams of robots, cartoon superheroes, politicians and Indonesian mythological figures. The protagonist relies on the “upside-down mind” of an essentially corrupt political system. Dono paints halos above many figures, regardless of whether they are known as “good” or “bad” figures. This confusion is typical of Indonesian political life. Dono says, “It is difficult to know what is real and what is not. Television serves to confuse the public as to who is good, who is bad, who is corrupt, who is not.” With the advent of reduced censorship in the Indonesian press, sensationalism overtakes hard news. The painting “An Angel with Clowns” depicts politicians stylized in the Indonesian Wayang style cavorting with a blond “celebrity,” blondness being a status symbol across Asia. Dono says, “Nowadays, a leader does not have to be great, he only has to have power and be friends with celebrities.” (Sze Lin Pang)
Heri Dono shows at Walsh Gallery, 118 North Peoria, 2nd floor, through August 23.