Exhibition: "When the Sky is Falling" by Entang Wiharso
On display in the Japan Friends of Harvard Concourse, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, from April 7 through May 31, 2022.
Entang Wiharso, b. 1967 in Tegal, Central Java, Indonesia, graduate of the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (Yogyakarta), maintains studios in both Java and the U.S. His life and family are bicultural, biracial, and inheritors of diverse religious and spiritual legacies. When the Sky is Falling is part of his work stemming from a 2019 Guggenheim fellowship.
Wiharso’s multi-disciplinary practice speaks with urgency through many media: painting, sculpture, video, installations, and performance. His dramatic visual language is instantly recognizable with its unique depictions of contemporary life, and its relation to the mythologies of a centuries-old Javanese and animist past and the high-speed, hyper-connected lifestyle of the 21st century, layered with social, political and sexual critique, revealing a complex picture of the human condition.
Wiharso has had more than 45 solo gallery and museum exhibitions. His work is held in over thirty international museums and private collections. He was in Prospect.3 (2014) and has represented Indonesia in the Kunming Art Biennale (2019); 55th Venice Biennale (2013); Prague Bi-ennale 6 (2013); 6th Nanjing Biennale (2010); Second Asian Art Biennale (2009); 51st Venice Biennale (2005); and the Second Beijing Biennale (2005).
The Harvard Asia Center’s exhibition, When the Sky is Falling, includes three recent pieces and two older ones. Don’t Touch Me is an earlier work (2004), lent to this exhibit by Professors Mary-Jo and Byron Good. "Don’t Touch Me embodies spiritual and visceral responses to Indonesian and American disorders and to global insecurities and paranoia, and a revulsion to fear of terror,” the Goods have written, based on Entang’s reflections. “Don’t Touch Me is a protest against being tainted with fear and terror and expresses a desire to escape being emotionally overwhelmed by the war on terror; it seeks ‘the sublime’.” Entang later reflected, with Professor Michael Fischer, that the blazing terrified “cannon ball” figures of Homer Simpson and his terror derives from the post 9/11 growing paranoia about foreigners in the U.S. and his own fear of going out in a time of attacks on people believed to be Muslim, at the same time that Muslims were publicly demonstrating patriotism and loyalty to the U.S. It is one of many images of the pervasive narrative of the American dream and what it represents around the world.
The metal relief sculpture, No Where to Go (2016), is one of a series of cars and buses overflowing with the intensity of human life, an early reflection on the global crisis of mass displacement and migrations, mixed together with imagery of a kind of steam punk and mechanical invasion of bodies through a maze of connectivities (pipes, hoses, wires, tongues, veins, arteries), and the exhalations from the bus and the mouth of the aluminum head in the lower right. This exhalation image, colored pink, becomes an organ of memory in Contaminated Landscape (2021).
When the Sky is Falling (2022), the title painting, dis-played in the stairwell, provides an introduction to a vocabulary of cartoon-like images. They mirror reality but create a distance from the reality. The glitter, embedded in the acrylic paint, creates unfixed images and articulates the role of perception in reality: they create dimensionality and movement, and change the painting’s mood as the lighting changes. Cartoons, Entang Wiharso observes, like glitter, can neutralize dark content; they can be a kind of dark humor. They can also work through narrative forms, like the wayang puppetry of his native Indonesia but also like American and Japanese animation, in which stories may involve killing but the dead spring back up, alive again, for another installment of action, providing a continuing surface comedy. They work as pop culture to think about the operations of the unconscious, the effects of trauma, and the transfer of historical memory across generations.
White Cactus and Corpse Flower (2021) introduces the image of the brilliant ‘corpse flower’ that stinks with the whiff of rot and death. A single victim lies in the center; in the corners are a white cactus, a corpse flower and a red fire hydrant with a sign reading “not guilty on all counts.” Painted during the Kyle Rittenhouse trial for the murders of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, it could refer to any number of murders of mostly black men by white po-lice or vigilantes, often resulting in the acquittal of the perpetrators, injustices that in 2020 triggered the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the country and the world. The victim, Wiharso has commented, may be society as much as individuals.
Contaminated Landscape (2021) addresses climate change, authoritarianism, pollution of the environment and disease, from colonial times to the present. In a Wild West fantasy with green cacti, a black suited man with an amputated thumb faces a pack of hyena-dogs (his followers awaiting orders). It is perhaps Trump -- or Bolsanaro, Erdoğan, Modi, Putin, or the bankers and financiers who only pursue money. An open grave awaits, a skeleton in the foreground. Skeletons, too, have a way of reappearing: dirty histories cannot stay buried. Pink blobs of organ-like memory are scattered about: they too can lie dormant for years, only to reanimate amidst future generations, giving a sense of hauntings not only of the past but of futures. Note the image of Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930), the farmer and wife holding a (broken) pitchfork, pockmarked by disease. The flowers in this work come from Dutch still life paintings during the Golden Age. They represent the success of colonialism and slavery, the wealth generated, and the covering over of this ugly history. The flower on top of the organ-like memory shows how they hide them-selves, how these historical forces are embedded in current structures, and why we protest against them in an effort to advocate for a better life.
Wiharso describes his work as reflecting, through images, on our past and our present, as he invites his viewers to join him in attempting to understand this historical moment and our common destiny.
Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, Michael Fischer, and Byron Good
This exhibition is made possible by the support of the Harvard University Asia Center. This project grows out of a 25 year relationship between the artist and Profs. Mary-Jo and Byron Good of Harvard University. This exhibit was initially planned for the spring 2020, when Entang Wiharso was supported by a Guggenheim fellowship. Profs. Mary-Jo and Byron Good arranged an invitation for this exhibit with the support of Holly Angell at the Asia Center. When the COVID-19 outbreak made public exhibitions impossible, the project was postponed until 2022, when Jorge Espada and the Asia Center supported the project coming to fruition. Entang Wiharso and Christine Cocca thank the Harvard University Asia Center, its director, and Jorge Espada for supporting the exhibition and accompanying seminars, Profs. Mary-Jo Good and Byron Good for helping organize the project, and Prof. Michael Fischer for his contributions to the Exhibition Notes.