Culture / Art Republik

Interview: Uji ‘Hahan’ Handoko

A man with a rebel heart, we sit down with the artist to find out more about what drives him and his influences.

Jun 04, 2016 | By Tan Boon Hau

Born 1983 in Kebumen, Uji ‘Hahan’ Handoko got his start at the Faculty of Fine Art at Indonesia Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta. In an eventful 2008, he was named a finalist in the top 30s for the Sovereign Art Prize, and undertook National Art Studio’s artist in residence programme in Seoul, Korea. Some of his more prolific shows include, ArtJog14, Jogjakarta (2014); The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (2012); National Gallery of Indonesia, Jakarta (2011); Primo Marella Gallery, Milan (2011); Korea International Art Fair, Seoul (2010); Kedai Kebun Forum, Yogyakarta (2010); Biennale Jogja X, Yogyakarta (2009) and Havana Biennale, Cuba (2009).

Always described in a breathless flurry of adjectives: bold, brazen, offbeat, rebellious, punk… The multidisciplinary artist, is characterized by an effervescent inquisitive energy — always questioning, always pushing boundaries of what is possible. One of the main aspects of his work, is characterized by the dualities between perceptions of ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. Burying realism with layers upon layers of dramatic ornamentation, his work represents the rupture between urbanization and agrarianism, the East and the West, the local and the global. Hahan deploys his film, music street-pop influences into an idiosyncratic visual language that comes together as a riotous skirmish on the canvas — bold colours that he has a well-known knack for spilling over his outlines. The ‘coloring-outside-the-lines’ adds to the movement and spontaneity that is characteristic of his output.

Trinity Series

Trinity Series, 2015

A true pop artist, he constantly seeks to reinvent ways to actualize his ideas — from coming in the form of being a singer in avant-garde art-punk artist collective band Punkasila; his rejection of canvas, experimenting in unconventional media and substrates; weaving of complex self-reflecting meta socio-political issues into ‘low-brow’, yet intricate composites; collaboration on a line of clothing with Australian surf-turf label Hurley International, to his determination to make his art accessible to his community as much as possible — Hahan appears to be spearheading an upheaval all on his own. Art Republik catches up with the artist rebel to see what’s up.

Your work brings together a variety of your influences – film, music and street culture into a distinct visual language. Are narratives and stories something you think about in your practice?

Each of the influences that you’ve mentioned has a different language of telling an idea. If I only combine the visual form and how it’s used, it may not differ from one another. More than that, I want to dig below the surface including its cultural and social background, then combine it with my own point of view to make it my own visual language.

People have characterized your work as an ongoing tussle between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, issues of polarities between East and the West, local and global – what is it about dualities that interest you?

I am part of a generation that, at first, had very limited sources of information but then now with the internet and globalization, we have more access to information from West to East – the line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art has become a blurred and hybrid. I am in this position at the moment, and I try to reflect what is happening today through my artworks. 

One for All, All for One....Sold (detailed view), 2014.

One for All, All for One….Sold (detailed view), 2014.

How much did growing up in Indonesia influence the way you approach your perspectives and art in general?

I believe that every place or country has their own characteristics which consciously or not, will shape one’s artist characteristic. Many factors in Indonesia, for example the unequitable physical development and income distribution, friction of local tradition and global culture in the disclosure era, and especially the developing of the art infrastructure, make a big impact in forming my point of view and my general thinking. In particular relation with visual art infrastructure, although there are no stages or levels of artist establishment and also insufficient government support, Indonesian artists become more motivated to think out of the box and experiment more. 

You’ve mentioned before, your artist residency in Seoul being the pivotal point in your life that gave you the conviction to be a contemporary artist. What was it like during your time there, how did the city affect you and how is it different from Indonesia?

At that time, Indonesia, especially Jogja… the opportunity as an artist for doing art residencies overseas was a big and luxurious deal. That’s because the recommendation and the link were so rare to get and hard to compete for, even against very established artists. For me, this became my starting point that convinced and motivated me to pursue a career as an artist.

In addition to artists and their works, Seoul also impressed me with their establishment of visual art infrastructure which got active support from their government and private sectors. It really opened my eyes as an artist. My works and art practices at the time were far behind what I experienced and saw there, and I felt even more so after meeting with the director of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.

I met him with a peer who was at the residency with me. He first asked my friend, who was from India, where he was from, and he immediately mentioned “Anish Kapoor” as a familiar name. He then turned to me asking the same question, but quickly apologized for not knowing any familiar Indonesian artist. This stuck with me and is a big part of why I strive to experiment and stand out. 

The Landscape of Universal Problems, 2016

The Landscape of Universal Problems, 2016

Tell us more about your work within the Indonesian artist collective punk rock outfit Punkasila. It’s not the only band you’re in, right?

Punkasila was initiated by Danius Kesminas (Melbourne-based artist) in his residency program with Asia Link through Cemeti Art Foundation in 2005. At that time, I thought that it was only a temporary project, because firstly the aim was just to invite and collaborate with several visual artists (including me) as part of a rock band, which resulted in our ‘Acronym Wars’ album. But then it continued growing into an art collective, which started to invite from outside the visual arts realm. Now it’s been running for 10 years.

My other music projects that were made collectively with various friends are ‘Black Ribbon’ formed in 2004 exploring noise with analog tape recorder and DIY synth; ‘Hengky Strawberry’ formed in 2007 capturing the next wave of electronic music and Indonesian rave culture; ‘The Spectakuler’ formed in 2010, which was the collaboration of ‘Black Ribbon’ and ‘Demi Tuhan’ with Woto ‘Wok’ Wibowo; ‘Anusapatis’ formed in 2011 combining an electronic music and fast grindcore style; and ‘N.E.W.S’ formed in 2013, which is a vocal group that responded to curatorial text or anything text spread in the art scene. 

Sober Generation, 2013

Sober Generation, 2013

What’s work mode like for you? Is it always different, depending on and the nature of the medium?

Actually my working method is always the same. There is no differences between mediums. Usually it starts with an idea or notion, then the concept, and at the final stage the choice of medium. Each kind of medium has its own political value, and I think the right medium choice will best amplify the concepts and ideas. The differences in working method may appear but not because of the different medium, instead due to the varying involvement of others, working as an individual artist or a collective. And when I am working as part of a collective, there are added steps like group discussion and shared decision-making process. 

Is humor an important part of your work?

Living in Indonesia under a government that doesn’t rule with reciprocity and drives an unstable social system, of course humor becomes important, especially for me to be able to view the problems in society and communicate my ideas with my audience. 

You’re known to prefer having your work in public spaces, and that your work is accessible by anybody. Is that important for you, allowing people a sense of excitement, of awe and wonder with art, without experience or information that’s pre-required of them?

It doesn’t really matter actually. I believe anyone with any background has their own way of enjoying an art work, with or without experience or pre-required information. This is the excitement of public spaces for me, where rich and unpredictable perspectives will appear. For me, it is also important that art should create new negotiation spaces for the public. 

Lucky Country Series #2, 2013

Lucky Country Series #2, 2013

You’re currently the brand ambassador for surf and streetwear label Hurley International. Is this collaboration with Hurley something you always wanted to do?

Actually, I also have my own clothing and merchandise line that I started during my second year at art school. It is part of my strategy to make art more easily accessible so that it can reach more people. I’ve been collaborating ever since.

With Hurley, they have a strong track record in supporting the visual arts scene, and there is no intervention on their part on my creative process. More than that, Hurley does not only use my artworks on their products, but they also support my other art efforts individually and collectively like with Ace House.

The important thing in today’s art world, especially in Indonesia, is exploring new possibilities outside the existing manner of visual arts, and finding new ways to spread your message. 

What does beauty mean to you? You usually tend to ‘color outside the lines’, deliberately making the work messy or appearing incomplete. Is chaos something that captivates you?

I always enjoy the form of intentional mistake. It’s like showing the limitation of us as human beings. The beauty for me is not about the perfect result, it’s more about the process of reaching for that perfection. 

Float of the line, 2016

Float of the line, 2016

What are your thoughts on artistic expression, censorship and the general state of political correctness in the world right now?

Censorship should not even exist, moreover should it come from other people. There is only the consideration that comes from ourselves, even if it is affected by another. But the decision is made by us and that is the artistic expression.

This story was first published in Art Republik.

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