Born in Surakarata, Indonesia, visual artist Boedi Widjaja was only 9 years old when he was separated from his parents and sent to Singapore amidst racial tensions in his home country. Forced to adopt a new home and way of life, Widjaja embraced a rare perspective of our island state: one from which he was able to observe many of the things we take for granted, yet not feeling accepted in its system. Borne out of this duality, the artist developed an ongoing series of works, titled Path., with which he attempts to explore and understand his unusual connection and relationship with Singapore. From throwing graphite-coated balls on paper-lined walls to physically dragging doors through neighbourhoods, Widjaja has continued to offer intimate looks at his journey. Now, as a Singaporean citizen and with a daughter of his own, his latest instalment, Path. 6, Unpacking my Library . ??, offers an even deeper look into his past, present and future, in an attempt to discover where ‘home’ truly is.
Why did you use books as the medium for Path. 6, Unpacking my Library . ???
Path. 6, Unpacking my Library . ?? started from a place – Bras Basah Complex, nicknamed “??”, Chinese for “Books City”. More specifically, the work was triggered by my complicated childhood memories of the place that is embedded with both reunion joy and departure dread. Whenever my father visited during the week-long school break, we would hang out in the Chinese bookstores at Bras Basah. I remember being overwhelmed by the towering shelves and stacks of books. These elements – books, bookshelves and architecture – naturally found their respective expressions in the three installations that make up Path. 6.
Iron, specifically personified in the form of men or machines, is a recurring symbol across the books you have selected. Why?
In the beginning of Path. 6, I had randomly selected three books from three personal libraries – my dad’s, mine and my daughter’s. They are???????????or How Iron is Tempered in Chinese, DC Superman comics and The Iron Man. They differed in many ways, including language (Chinese translated from Russian; Bahasa Indonesia from English; and English), genre (semi-autobiographical novel; comics; and children’s story), and ideology (socialist; capitalist; and post-industrial environmentalist).
Hence, I was drawn to the recurring symbol of personified iron across the books. I was keen to pursue this common thread to look at how each ‘iron man’ worked through their respective identities. For example, in Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, the titular protagonist’s origins were never mentioned. He literally crashed into the scene, falling from a cliff into a new community. Can a new migrant establish an identity without referencing his origin? What kind of agency does he have over his identity in a new place? These are some of the shared questions across the three very different books, all embodied in the men of iron. These questions also largely informed the first installation in Path. 6 titled “Siapakah si Manusia Baja” or “Who is the Iron Man?” in Bahasa Indonesia. The installation comprises more than 350 books individually canvas-wrapped and marked.
For one set of books, you traced rocks on their covers. What was the significance of this?
The rocks that I had used for the mark-making were from Fort Canning Hill, Singapore’s historical hill that has worn different identities – Forbidden Hill of the Malay kingdom, the British military fort, a green lung in the city etc. I am able to relate to the hill’s many transformations in my own process of transitioning into a citizen. A National Parks guide said that the rocks are distinct to it, they are not found in other parts of the island. He also shared that the rocks’ origin is uncertain – they could have been naturally-occurring or man-made.
I have been using rocks, sourced from history-rich places, for mark-making in my practice. To me, rocks are compressed embodiments of memory and history of a place. One of the primary gestures for “Siapakah si Manusia Baja” is making marks on blank canvas-wrapped books, akin with depositing meanings onto a void.
Was it your idea to have your daughter involved in the live performances, or was it hers? And why was her inclusion important to you for this instalment?
It actually was my wife’s idea! She works with me to produce my larger installations and projects.
My daughter was involved in the making of the video installation????and in the live performance Cradle Song.????is Chinese for re-seeing and is also a homonym for re-building. I used a Canon XEED WUX5000 to projection map a video-within-a-video onto a 5 x 2.8-metre corner wall. The first video had my father reading to me excerpts from The Iron Man at Bras Basah. The second video, which also contained the first video through projection, had my daughter and I excavating cemented books at the same spot in the gallery where the audience was standing.
In Path. 6, I wanted to conceptually open up my otherwise isolated personal library outwards – towards the city. To do that, I had to first pass through my identity within my own family, hence the presence of three generations in the work. In my father, I see my remote past – where I came from and why I was brought here. In my daughter, I see a future and hope – of where things may lead from here. Coincidentally, the Iron Man was also led by a child into situations where he could eventually find acceptance in his newfound community.
What aspects of the live performance element elevate your work as a whole?
I find that ‘liveness’, of being present in a performative state together with the audience, opens up connections between people like no other medium. An introvert by nature, I had to overcome innate resistance to integrate live art into my works. My first live art show was Path. 1, The White City, where the audience was invited to draw alongside me by throwing graphite-coated balls while I sketched their moving figures. Live art is especially meaningful in Path. as the series aims for transformed relationships between the artist and his community in the city.
Live art activates spaces and art objects; it has a potency for revealing and expressing new meanings. In Path. 6, folk song composer and musician, Dawn Fung, my daughter and I performed “Cradle Song”. Dawn’s dense, poetic and symbolic compositions echoed in the gallery as a sensorial, aural form of books. My daughter saw the installations as her playground. While I was reading excerpts from The Iron Man, she crawled under tables, navigated through rows of books, ascended deconstructed shelves and unrolled the 15-metre printed cloth. The audience, who had walked with us down the 30-metre long gallery, was invited to participate directly at the last part of the performance. My daughter scooped the cement fragments that were part of the video installation into the hands of the audience. The audience then inked the fragment to mark onto the unfurled cloth. At the end of the live art portion, new layers of memories revolving around the objects and the space have been collectively made and shared by the performers and the audience.
Path. 6 feels less frustrated or intense than your previous Path. works. Do you agree with this?
In terms of visible bursts of kinetic energy, some of my earlier Path. works, such as Path. 1, 3 and 4 are indeed more expressive in that sense. The works had, respectively, the audience hurling balls onto paper-lined walls; me dragging a wooden door around a neighbourhood; and the audience sending a ball down a 4.8-metre table. I had approached Path. 6 with another type of energy; one that is more repetitive, sustained and contemplative – a quiet kind of intensity that is analogous to the experience of books.
Looking back on your Path. series, how do you think the narrative has evolved with each new addition to the series?
The narrative in Path. is a non-linear, non-planned one. The sequence of Path. works reflects which childhood memory I happened to want to address at the point in time of making the work. Hence, if I am to imagine an unfolding narrative now, it would be about how the past we remember has everything to do with our present circumstances. One of my favourite cartoonists, David Mazzucchelli, wrote about it this way: “ Every memory, no matter how remote its subject, takes place ‘Now’, at the moment it’s called to the mind.”
You’ve mentioned that Path. is a way to seek to establish your identity and connection to Singapore as your adopted home. If you succeed in this, will it mean the end for the Path series?
What I have learnt is that making a home first starts with a decision and is then followed by a sustained process to support that decision. The term ‘home’ isn’t so much the place itself but one’s relationship with it. Any meaningful relationship requires a nurturing process, and working on the Path. series helps me to do that through an art practice. I don’t foresee an end, but perhaps an evolution of concerns to be reflected in the future works along the series.
Do you feel that compelling art requires some form of struggle or quest?
I don’t think that is necessary but I must say that vulnerability is always an influence, since most of us can identify with personal struggles. A friend who works as a sociology professor once said that we all like to be victims. With a series like Path., the temptation would be to overplay the disenfranchisement card. I decided since day one that the Path. series would instead be an empowering process, one that affirms the individual and collective agency to recast the negative voids in one’s memory through positive actions.
Having become a Singapore citizen, do you feel that your connection to Singapore has grown stronger? Or is there still a long way to go?
My connection to Singapore has definitely grown, but I don’t know if I can ever feel about the place the same way as a born and bred Singaporean. There will always be a part of me that holds and treasures my Indonesian heritage and memories. Likewise, there will always be collective cultures and memories in Singapore that I can never fully appreciate. I have been feeling guilty about this, but I have now come to accept the hybridity of my identity.
As someone who had to make big adjustments when moving to a new country at a young age, what advice can you give to others that deal with those difficulties?
My own experience tells me that places, rituals and people are critical. Find your favourite places in the city – bookshops, parks, cafes, wherever that support your favourite activities and personal rituals. The more places you can connect with, the better you navigate your environment and the more you’ll feel that it is for you and not against you. Ultimately, nothing beats finding a community of like-minded friends for a sense of belonging – but this takes time.
When can we expect to see your next project?
I will be showing some new drawings in a series called Space, Flat sometime in October to November next year at a commercial gallery. It will continue my earlier exploration into how the city – as expressed in its architecture – can be seen as a recurring image or pattern that connects otherwise disparate individuals. The work is a commentary on urban isolation by expressing our collective compulsion to connect and to relate, in a fragmented yet interconnected global world.
Path. 6, Unpacking my Library . ?? is open free to the public until Sunday, 4 January, 2015 at Jendela Visual Arts Space. For more information, visit http://www.esplanade.com/whats_on/programme_info/visual_arts_path_6_unpacking_my_library/index.jsp.