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Man of the year

by Christine Clark, 1 July 2011

Exhibition curator Christine Clark introduces the work by Indonesian artist Agus Suwage created for Beyond the self: Contemporary portraiture from Asia.

Asuceleng (Dog-boar), 2010
Asuceleng (Dog-boar), 2010

For close to two decades in his home country of Indonesia, Agus Suwage’s name has been synonymous with self portraiture. His reputation as a leading contemporary artist with a penchant for the self image has been firmly established for many years in Southeast Asia and is increasingly being recognised internationally.

Suwage is known for his provocative drawings, installations, paintings and assemblages, which incorporate popular culture, religious imagery and examinations of the relationship between human and animal.

Born in 1959 and educated in the creative hub of Central Java, Agus Suwage attended an exclusive Catholic college in Yogyakarta before moving west to study graphic design at the Bandung Institute of Technology. In the late 1990s he set up his a graphic design studio in Jakarta. Eventually Suwage abandoned his career in graphic design to concentrate on his art, which has from its earliest stages included a strong focus on self portraiture. In 2006 Suwage’s installation Pink swing brought him into conflict with Indonesian authorities and hard-line Islamic groups. At a time when restrictive and controversial anti-pornography laws were introduced in Indonesia, the mild ‘classical’ nudity in the installation resulted in its censorship. In 2009 his contribution to contemporary art was recognised in a major retrospective exhibition and publication, This crazy life

Suwage’s artistic language incorporates witty appropriation, where he not only references other artists but also his own past series. There are overt personal references and evidence of certain predilections - his fondness for dogs and pigs, his struggle against the addictiveness of tobacco as well as substantial self criticism and the use of art as a means to heal. Suwage uses his face and frequently his body to represent a more collective sense of being. He relies on the camera to record a variety of poses and facial expressions before transforming these visual records into drawings or paintings. Suwage uses this procedure because although the narratives that he develops invariably have a personal aspect they are in fact related to his stance and views about the different social issues around him. Suwage’s art makes larger comments through recurring themes explored using considerable sarcasm. He once stated that ‘in order to be critical toward others, I opt to first be critical toward myself’. Asked why he uses the self image, Suwage explains that as he is the model it is uncomplicated and, importantly, free  of charge.

Man of the year has been developing since 2009 using a variety of media, starting from sculptures and painting on canvas to watercolour on paper.  The a creative development of Suwage's work can be likened to  that of a composer: starting from a simple melodic theme, moving on to creating a varieties of the theme and finally arriving at a complex composition. Suwage has created a new work in the Man of the year series for the exhibition Beyond the Self: Contemporary portraiture from Asia  at the National Portrait Gallery.  

The eight-metre long wall work comprises multiple zinc plates presented in a jigsaw formation. Suwage has painted directly and  boldly on the zinc plates and has incorporated numerous objects.  His signature usage of appropriation is ever-present likewise are his current self referential themes of smoking and skeletal representation. The main visual elements of Man of the year present Suwage’s head lying on the floor, pierced by a sharp object in the form of a star. The artist, however, does not seem to be in pain. Instead, he is grinning. We can presume that the series comments on the development in the Indonesian art market that can rapidly propel an artist to celebrity status as the prices of his or her work skyrocket at auction. The artist might take different routes: feeling tortured as he or she becomes the target of a market which treats the works merely as commodities; or enjoying the fame and prosperity. Or, the artist might also take a carefree attitude and accept the conditions. Man of the year also presents Suwage's self portraits in a vortex of death signs over fragmented zinc plates that look all dull and rusty. The grandness of the Man of the year is ironic amongst the many signs of ruin and decay.

Agus Suwage lives and works in Yogyakarta.

The exhibition Beyond the Self explores representation of the self in current South and Southeast Asian visual art practice and brings together nineteen notable mid-career and senior artists from Indonesia and India as well as the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Pakistan. The worlds in which these artists live are increasingly being shaped by global awareness and mobility, and altered economic and technological possibilities. The artists have focussed their attention on the self, as a means to investigate larger issues be they at local, national or international.

In addition to Agus Suwage,  several other artists have created new works specifically for Beyond the Self. Fellow Indonesian artist S Teddy D is creating a scrap metal wall sculpture at the Australian National University’s School of Art Sculpture Workshop. While others are travelling to Canberra to install their work at the National Portrait Gallery and participate in the accompanying conference convened by the Australian National University. 

Beyond the Self is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s ongoing commitment to exploring portraiture in our region, and through this endeavour enabling Australians to experience the art of leading contemporary Asian artists. Beyond the Self is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until 6 November 2011 and travels to McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Garden, Langwarrin, Victoria 12 May - 22 July 2012,  the Anne and Gordon Samstag Gallery, Adelaide 3 August - 5 October 2012 and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin 24 November 2012 - 4 February 2013.

6 portraits

1 Meleleh (Drip), 2011 . 2 Agus Suwage. 3 Man of the year #4, 2011. 4 Man of the year #4 (work in progress), 2011.

Related people

Agus Suwage

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