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Masks to unmask society
Publication Date : 11-09-2013
Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho experiments with masks, which he got the staff of a Singapore art institute to wear in every day settings
Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho's art is heavily influenced by Japanese cartoons and traditional wayang puppet theatre. In the past, he has used embroidery to create characters who often sport superhero masks.
This year, during his six-week residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, he had the chance to experiment even more with mask forms. Working with paper for the first time, he created large masks, which the institute's staff were made to wear in everyday settings.
The result is a rather ununusual solo show titled We Are What We Mask, which is on at the institute till October 9. On display are 40 of the 70 artworks that the artist created during his residency. They are priced from S$6,000 (US$4,731) to S$30,000 (US$23,655).
This solo exhibition has the feel of community involvement, thanks to the photo-documentation of the masks. The works show the institute's staff wearing the masks in settings including a coffee shop, hawker centre, park and taxi queue.
Eko, 36, tells Life!: "I was thinking of ways to challenge my artistic ideas centred on masks. I am intrigued by masks because I often find that in modern society, we are always putting on masks."
The idea, he says, could have ended with just creating paper masks and displaying them, but he was curious to see what sort of reaction they would generate when put into real settings.
"I wanted a conversation, a collaboration, an interaction with my masks. If I were to put these same masks on on the streets of Yogjakarta, where I live, no one would be surprised. Singapore is different. It is a very modern city. I wanted to see how people would react."
The residency helped him create wearable masks for the first time. Each mask has a fabric-like quality, achieved through the use of konnyaku. The Japanese root-based gelatin was used to treat paper pulp to give it that feel and effect.
The institute's marketing and communications head, Nor Jumaiyah, 31, wore one of these fabric-like paper masks and stood in a taxi queue. She recalls it being an "unsettling experience".
She says: "It was not only the strangeness of being boxed up in a large piece of paper, but also the strangeness of the reactions and of trying to finding my way in something as familiar as a taxi queue."
For Eko, the masks are also a deeper exploration of contemporary Indonesian society. He says he has always been intrigued by the "issues of identity". When he started his artistic career in the late 1990s, Indonesia was struggling with democracy after decades of dictatorship.
"I was watching how people were responding, how our Indonesian identity was being shaped and whether this mask of democracy could make the ordinary man feel like a superhero. Masks have these magical, mysterious powers," he says, a smile lighting up his face.
Some of these issues are addressed in works titled Fake Democracy.
The result is a deeply layered exhibition which unmasks various truths about people and society through fantastical masks often accompanied with lines such as "Do We Know Ourselves".
Eko, who graduated from the Indonesian Institute of Art and recently completed a residency in Paris which culminated in a solo show at the Musee d'Art Moderne de le Ville de Paris (Museum of Modern Art, Paris), says his masks also help him examine contemporary pop culture.
"Art, to me, is everyday life. It is not something complex, something far removed from society. This is one of the reasons I wanted to do a colourful mural to complete the presentation of this exhibition," says the artist who is among five representing Indonesia at this year's Venice Biennale, a top contemporary art showcase.
His show at the institute includes a mural drawn freehand, which covers an entire wall and was finished in two days.
Ask him how he paints so freely and quickly, and his reply is swift: "Just as you write so quickly. I think you can write faster than I can talk."