Exhibition and display
The original work was funded through a grant from the Japanese government and was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, in 1997, and then in Hiroshima. It consisted of 20 figures, four of which were purchased by the museum in Tokyo (it was unable to buy the rest, due to storage restrictions). The work then appeared at the 24th Sao Paolo Biennale 1998, where only six figures were shown due to the cost of shipping. In Japan, many of the audience left flowers or offerings at the feet of the figures, which Dadang saw as an act of contrition for the occupation of Indonesia during World War II.(1) However it should be noted that with much of Dadang’s art, this same type of offering occurs, which may infer that many find other personal meanings in his works.(2)
In July 2002 the work was first exhibited in Indonesia in the exhibition Unspeakable horror, held at an outdoor public space in the town of Palmerah, near Jakarta. However, two days before the exhibition’s opening, the townspeople objected to the public showing of the figures, primarily because their nudity was seen to be pornographic. It was decided that the works would be covered in black cloth and red ribbon – the act itself creating a very different work yet at the same time enhancing the issues hidden within the old. Nonetheless the works were soon removed entirely, as religious leaders objected to their very existence.
When Dadang came to exhibit this work in the Art Gallery of NSW’s new Asian galleries in 2003, he decided to do a performance piece, which was to unveil the work and give his figures a new life, presenting them in a context they had been deprived of in Indonesia. It should be remembered that Dadang is not just a visual artist in the traditional sense but also a performance artist, and while still in Indonesia belonged to a group of artists who did a mixture of installation and performance works, known as instalasi. This group critically addressed issues dealing with the natural and political environment but also examined the way society deals with such environmental issues and the consequences of this on humanity. Many of these issues continue to be addressed in Dadang Christanto’s work at various levels.
At the Art Gallery of NSW, the figures were covered in black plastic and red string, similar to how they were covered in Indonesia. During the official opening of the Asian galleries in 2003, he uncovered them in a performance that was symbolic of allowing the figures to breathe again, to give life and expression. The covering was a symbol of the dual oppression they were facing: they were already silent figures, but being covered in black plastic silences them once again and forces them to physically disappear.
Dadang often talks of the idea of ‘multiple readings’. If we were to walk in and just look at They give evidence, without knowing the historic or personal grief of the artist, we would still gain a feeling from the silence these figures emit: their mouths open; carrying the shells of clothes which could be the representation of death or a body disappeared; we can see that there are many figures, all following one another in a very organised, almost military manner; and we can understand something happened here, whether it be purely subjective and personal, coming from our own past experience, or more objective, from looking at the experience of others.
(1) Ingham 2003, p22
(2) Clark 2003, p55