Natural Born Wonder: Interview with Indonesian artist Lugas Syllabus
Jumping down the wormhole that is Lugas Syllabus’ imaginarium.
‘Banana is Key’, goes the title of a 2016 work from Syllabus. In it is a hyper-stylised, ripped Indonesian-looking man decked in spiked cuffs and a batik loincloth, busting into the frame of the image like the Kool-Aid Man (albeit bringing an surreal amount of bananas instead of sugary liquid refreshment), and the supposed denizens of the area — various depictions of primates: Donkey Kongs, mysterious creatures in Donkey Kong suits riding elephants, real monkeys (one holding the staff of Journey to the West’s Xuanzang), monkey sock puppets — squealing, clapping and screaming in delight, in an opulent forested setting.
Experiencing a Lugas Syllabus work (one does not simply view, surely), is to the follow the trail of little baits and stimuli into an obsessive rabbit-hole vortex of a mediation of pop culture, the social, the political, fantasy, hypermedia, post-internet, personal memories and childhood urges — that is at once warped, weird, foreign and intriguing but somehow almost touchably familiar —and all at once tugging at your impulses.
Hailing from the art capital of Indonesia, Yogyakarta, Syllabus unsurprisingly stands out, with his unique, and very idiosyncratic vernacular and his archive of images, which is an elastic multiverse of a multitude of references. Taking socio-political observations, he weaves his own narratives, crystallises it through his iconography, and unravels his own contexts of astonishing scenarios, characters, tensions, and relationships. The viewer becomes disoriented, unsure of its humour or gruesomeness, as they are absorbed and settled into the nebulous logic proposed. Much like the inter-connected world we now live in, his work channels the hyper-distraction that is our current modernity, making one distracted and fixated. Clearly birthed in the grand traditions of Indonesian contemporary art — one can see overlapping tropes flowing out from (the highly mediated imagery of) I Nyoman Masriadi and S. Sudjojono — the irreverent Syllabus’s output pays no heed, liberated from what is expected from the Indonesian contemporary art meta.
Letting influences from his life meld into his work, his curiosity, hobbies and adventurous spirit all coming out through his acrylic paint strokes as brash, urgent plastic forms, influenced by street art and billboards. “Art has been an important part in my life. What I do in my life has a great influence in the creative process of my art,” says Syllabus, in a statement at an earlier solo show in 2017. “Both attractions and repulsions combined to form the influence.”
Art Republik sits down for a chat with the mercurial, earnest and affable Syllabus, just after the opening of his show ‘Golden Landscape’ at the Yogjakarta Institute of Art, to speak about life, his work, what makes him tick and the unique, iconoclastic imaginarium that is his universe.
Could you tell me about your artistic process?
I always try to enjoy the process. The first thing that comes is the idea, which becomes a sketch before I transform it to the medium. The sketch is the purest thing. What comes after just follows.
Could you explain your preoccupations with hypermedia and post-internet imagery? Most of your work, seems to be marked by your unique iconography of a jarring mish-mash (albeit fantastical!) palette of images sampled from domains as diverse as nature documentaries, art history and video games. Is the internet, and aspects of virtualisation — virtual life, avatars, artificiality, and video games — things that interest you?
When I get an idea, I like to use icons that are familiar and intimate to me. Through my hobbies and activities, I encounter many symbolisms of sorts (though I do “innovate” on them to avoid copying!). Sometimes, I don’t fixate on the aesthetic, but look in the hidden meanings. With my symbolisms — borrowed or not — it might look like what it is, although at times all isn’t what it seems.
Your main output medium for your ideas is through painting and sculpture. How do you decide which medium to use over others for your ideas? Or does the work decide for you?
The idea decides. The idea is boss; some can speak well only through painting, while others need “more medium” to come to life. I also engage in performance art, when I feel it needs to come through my body.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
My works are never totally finished, so to speak. Time and commitments decide for me when it’s enough.
Are narratives something that you think about in different bodies of your work? In your latest show ‘Natural Born Worker’, all the paintings seems to be an intimate close-up with each of the protagonists in their respective paintings, and are named as such as well, such as ‘The Mediator’, ‘The Storyteller’, ‘The Great Ape Scientist’… There seems to be a calculated creation of strange scenarios, tensions and relationships built into most of your work.
Yes, there are characters in my stories, and they have relationships through the narratives… Actually, I want to tell the stories not by creating visual beauty; I feel a good story will be able to create beauty on its own.
What are your relationships with your artwork titles? Your titles are often humourous with a generous sprinkling of bombast and panache — ‘Golden Limousine in the Heaven of Art’, ‘The Garuda with the Golden Egg’, ‘I’m Killing The Night’ — but also poignant and provides deliberate triggers for further thought and conversation.
I would like to make the title become art on its own, having its own charged power. To disturb, but also to navigate through the mindscapes of the viewer for them to really feel the work and its meanings.
What’s important for you when someone looks at your work? Do you see it as triggers, absorbing and affecting the viewer to bring back their own memories/stories?
Yes. My work has its own inherent meanings, but it can also be a multifaceted perception. I don’t ever want to put limits on my work.
Has there ever been a reaction to your work that surprised you?
My art is my life. Like so many surprises one gets in one’s life, sometimes the experiences, encounters and the reactions from others do blow my mind.
How important is illusion in your work?
The illusion in my work is the way to reveal the realities of what lies behind the stories.
A lot of your work deals with a sociological mediation/observation of societal power structures. Do you feel your works can be construed as political? Also, how do you decide the balance between “fun” and the political?
When I paint a banana, I might only speak about food and hunger, but people might put it into the sociological realm: about the lower classes, about gender issues. At that point, it becomes political by itself. So yes, there is the political aspect in my art — sometimes big, sometimes small — through the jokes I put into my works.
Do you feel art has the ability to move the needle for society, in terms of advancing the culture, as well as in the political aspects?
Yes. Art can move the needle in society, but art can also be the needle itself.
This is almost silly to say, as most of Indonesian contemporary art have emanated from (and beyond) threads of S. Sudjojono’s pioneering work — but it seems like you paint with a similar irreverence and disregard of conventional rules and accepted wisdom. Also, in line with Sudjojono’s ethos, that the “art of Indonesia should reflect the character of the land”, do you feel, alongside the wild, fantastical imagery, that your work is reflective of Indonesians in contemporary times, living in flux between traditionality and the invasive presence (for better or for worse) of the fast-paced interconnectedness of the internet?
When I paint about problems and situations, trust me when I say that I don’t want to portray it literally, even when I’m in the same situation. That is the “Jiwa Ketok” nowadays. I love this question. The way you’ve explained it is the reflection of my imagination through my reality.
Growing up in Bengkulu, and more specifically, Indonesia, how do you feel it has influenced your practice and your art? Also, what were the inspirations for you along the way — culturally, artistically, philosophically (musically, or even television and video games, perhaps!) — that got you to where you are now?
My village and childhood gave me the background. My life now, with all the things in it, gives me the visual. I love to use all of it together through my art to express the reality of my feelings.
What is it about dualities that interest you? That, and irony.
Like the yesterday that made me into who I am today, I combine it to speak about tomorrow’s dream.
How do you see your work? Do you feel it as having some sort of instrumentality?
I see my work, like I see life, with so many variables that ebb with time and the situational. What I know and what I can do is to make it stable, so that the colour will not change. Making art is the process of my life.