Monster Pop incarnates many things, a sizeable cast of creatures and creations imbued with all the devotion, desire and disgust that popular culture conspires. Wedded to this is a cross-cultural gaze bringing together artists from Australia and Indonesia including those who work, or have worked, in both countries. The theme is richly grounded and also ground-breaking; rarely is there a forum for such potent cultural comparison as ‘monsters’ and popular culture in both countries. We’re more used to voices of demonisation rather than debate from the pulpits of our popular press.
Contemporary art generally maintains a distinctly critical and political relationship with popular culture. In many cases artists recontextualise or amplify conceptual and aesthetic devices from popular culture to directly challenge and expose its baser values: fear, prejudice, hypocrisy, and hysteria, for example, which serve consumerist or totalitarian ends. Here popular culture is synonymous with social ill, or for perpetuating social ills, with the artist bent on disturbing its grip on the public psyche.
Since the advent of Pop Art in Europe in the mid-1950s, however, and arguably since Dadaism earlier in the century, the relationship to popular culture has been ambivalent. Artists have celebrated popular culture at the same time as they have ironically railed against it. For the contemporary artist, the terrain is less defined. Urban-based popular cultural forms such as street art have become part of contemporary art’s visual language, with many contemporary art projects also vested in the regeneration of more localised forms of popular culture (‘folk’ mythologies/artforms) which have fallen prey to a globalising age.
‘… disturbed by the wildest dreams …’
by Maurice O’Riordan
Monster Pop spreads its tentacles wide and deep to embrace artists whose monsters and monstrosities underscore popular culture in myriad ways: from Deborah Kelly’s giant inflatable vampire doll head (Sucka, 2007) to Bayu Widodo’s two-metre-high hands (Hand’s Series, 2015) which seem to rise up from the grave. Not all works are so monstrously-scaled. Krisna Widiathama’s Mark of the Beast (2012), inspired by The Bible’s ‘Book of Revelations’, is pet-dog size, ‘begging for a caress, but with a freak-looking grin on his face’.[ii] Jumaadi’s painted, cut-out buffalo hide forms are almost miniature in scale, strange figures and scenes that seem to hail from a private shrine or cult.
Religion as popular culture features strongly and in surprising ways, with Catholic/Christian triggers more prevalent in the Indonesian work as with Widiathama’s Mark of the Beast and Agus Suwage’s Holy Beer dan Kawan-Kawan (2003; literally ‘Holy Beer and Friends’) in which the artist portrays himself as Mother Mary in five differing poses from Catholic iconography. It’s a radical gesture, ‘monstrous’ in its transgression across lines of race, religion and gender.
Deborah Kelly Sucka 2007
Darwin-based Chayni Henry, the sole NT artist in the exhibition, depicts religion through her painted character cut-outs from the late 1970s Japanese cult classic TV series Monkey (‘Monkey Magic’), itself based on a 16th century Chinese Buddhist epic: Hsi Yu Chi (‘Journey to the West’). It marks the artist’s childhood as one of Australia’s few popular cultural engagements with the East, a site for sentimentality and kitsch but also new cultural leads.
Self-portraiture also features strongly in this monstrous array, implying perhaps that we become the monsters, the Frankensteins, of our own making. Along with Suwage’s Mother Mary self-portraits are those of Maria Indria Sari (Teredam (Muted), 2011) in which her face is depicted in multiple, each visibly bound (muted) at the mouth. This work echoes the exhibition’s key promotional image, Pinky I, by Sydney-based artist Justin Shoulder, which also shows the artist as a mouth-bound figure – his impossibly wide, ape-like mouth crammed with usb plug-ins. S&M meets SMS. Shoulder’s lithe young body is painted pink, eye-shadowed face, big poodle drag hair. His related photographic and video-based work in this exhibition is similarly less self-portraiture than performance-based documentation, though the performances are also at heart key to the artist’s strategy of embodiment as a political and social tool, as a way of physically and symbolically queering the monster.
[i] From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1818; the main protagonist, the young science student Victor Frankenstein, struggles to sleep in the wake of his monstrous creation.
[ii] Artist statement, 2015.
For the Indonesian work, Monster Pop largely taps Jogjakarta’s rich contemporary art vein including work by Melbourne-based Aboriginal (Gamilaroi) artist Reko Rennie, Warriors Come Out To Play (2014), made as an artist-resident at Jogja’s Cemeti Art House. Rennie’s film for this work involves him with a cast of 11 Jogja performers. Likewise, the other films in the exhibition represent broader creative ensembles as does Rodney Glick’s Everyone no. 64 (2009) sculpture produced in collaboration with artisan woodcarvers from Bali: Wayan Darmadi, Dewa Tirtayasa, and Made Leno. Jumaadi is an Indonesian artist who has called Sydney home since 2000 and undertaken formal art studies there. His work also shows a confluence of popular cultural traditions along with the cultivation of his own personal mythopoetics.
Contemporary art exchange with Indonesia and Jogja in particular is not a new thing but Darwin audiences have largely yet to see the work of the Indonesian artists in this exhibition including that of Suwage, one of Indonesia’s leading contemporary art lights, or of seminal street artists Bayu Widodo and Digie Sigit who will take to Darwin’s public spaces and share their trade with Darwin’s budding street artists. The work of many Australian artists in the show is also new to a Darwin audience. The span of works, from 2003 to the present-day, shows a curatorial team (Andy Ewing and Fiona Carter) dedicated to unearthing the nuances of their theme while evincing a longstanding interest in Indonesia which also includes literature and performing arts. Not all of the work sets out to shock yet all of it does disturb, each monster a figment of the forces of subversive change.
Maurice O’Riordan is a Darwin-based writer, and Director of the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art