Viewing the unknown

Viewing the unknow

Heru Hikayat. Curator of Art for the Exhibition in the National Gallery of Indonesia (Jakarta).

The thing is, this gallery’s like the normal sort of gallery for the first few rooms—pictures of fruit and all that, and then it starts to go weird. First we went through a couple of rooms where the pictures aren’t pictures of anything, just splodges, and then when we go to our bit, the new exhibition, there aren’t many pictures at all.”

(Nick Hornby; Nipple Jesus)


Observing the digital paintings from Nonia de la Rosa is a unique challenge for me. Since these are digital artworks, the first thing that came into my mind was: how different it is to view an “original” artwork and the image of such artwork? And then, abstract as the style of choice, brings up another question: what is exactly we’re looking at?

When I started studying fine art, I didn’t have any knowledge about modern art and its various sturdy supporting institutions. I hadn’t known what a gallery would look like; I hadn’t even touched a canvas. And then I spent my early adulthood in an art academy that once had been dubbed “the western laboratory.” That was a challenging period, filled with adaptation process, various difficulties, and it was fun.

In that period, I was slowly adapting to modern art, starting from the practical level progressing to the theoretical level. Little by little, I started to be accustomed with the forms that were agreed upon as artistic in the art field, up to a point when I was well acquainted with them. However, when I say acquainted with”, I do not mean that I had always completely understood what stood before me. Artworks remain unpredictable and continue to challenge the knowledge that I thought I had mastered.

Abstract work is one of those things. Although during years of exploration I had developed a liking towards Alexander Calder’s sculptures, for instance, I still simply couldn’t explain what was valuable to me in those sculptures. I still couldn’t say that I really understood what made a person spend a long time in front of a formless artwork.

One time, a friend who was also my curator colleague, having returned from New York, brought along a photograph of a man sitting in front of Jackson Pollock’s painting. That man was sitting on the right corner of a bench sofa for three people. The photograph was taken from behind that man, so we can only see his back, and also a quite clear view of the painting. After around a year later, I got a chance to see a Pollock’s painting. Funnily, in front of me, other than the painting, there was also a similar bench sofa that I saw in the photograph along with a man sitting on the right corner. So I queued, waiting for the man to leave. And then, I sat on the right corner, repeating the same scene.

In front of Pollock’s painting, I was stunned, my lips were sealed, but my mind was shouting loudly. What is this thing in front of me? Flashes of different interpretations from books, lectures from art lecturers; those were the things that occupied my mind. After several moments, I succeeded in managing these noises. And then my eyes started to explore the paint drops on Pollock’s canvas. I guessed how he would have poured his paints, how his body would have moved, and his emotions (might have) changed and other things. The noises, the effort to quell them, the action to enjoy what was seen had made me sat in front of Pollock’s formless painting for a long time. What’s even funnier was that I apparently re-enacted the scene in my friend’s photograph. How a painting can affect our bodies. Amazing!

My experience facing Pollock’s painting directly taught me a lesson about the uniqueness of viewing an original artwork and not only the reproduction. I can examine the flow, the presence of gravity and the body. These things would have been overlooked if I had only viewed the reproduction.

Now, what about facing Nonia de la Rosa’s artworks? By the time this essay is written, I haven’t seen Nonia, or her artworks. However, we live in the age where we can work together or even set up a path to future without having to see our counterparts, right? This facilitated our personal collaboration on this project. Regarding the artwork, Nonia’s digital paintings are composed entirely on the screen, and then formed not with hands, but with a machine. Most likely I won’t be able to see traces of the artist’s body in her artworks. I thought, this would present its own challenges. I need to manage the noises and open myself. How different it is to view images of artworks compared to the original artworks? How unique will the “ritual” of facing the artworks directly in the exhibition be?

An art exhibition is a ritual. In the age of an increasingly thin boundary between the real and virtual world, a fine art exhibition still glorifies the physical meeting between one’s self and the artwork.

The first question I asked Nonia was about her home, in what kind of environment does she live in? She said that she lived in the countryside, in a family home, with two dogs and a horse. I imagined an open environment, not crowded as we might and in urban space. However, I didn’t continue the conversation about her home when.

Nonia told me that she never had any “conventional” practice in fine art, and she wasn’t interested in creating representational forms. She clearly wanted to convey something. Perhaps what she wanted to convey could not be represented by a real form in this world.

Nonia admitted that she started to have an interest in composing formless shapes on the screen, triggered by her possession of sophisticated tools and programs that enable her to compose the form that she feels representing her feelings. Abstract feelings, of course. That’s how they are, aren’t they? Language is always essentially trapped in a dilemma: it can be understood because it is made of codes that are agreed in a social environment, but what it wants to convey comes from a private scope, often very personal; it even may be possible that it’s pre-language.

I have always been interested in Nick Hornby’s short story that I quoted in the beginning of this essay. In the quote, there’s an understanding that pictures are always pictures of something recognisable. Then, when pictures aren’t pictures of anything, the viewer has difficulties in understanding them. Regarding Nonia’s artworks, I reckon the important question is: what if the thing that she wanted to say cannot be represented by anything that is real in the world?

For me, the first key in facing Nonia’s artworks is by letting go of our attachment to visible things in our surroundings, and try to reach something within ourselves. If we can stand facing the unknown, then we can enjoy her artworks.

This was a period when the understanding of the world was being opened by adventurers that were brave enough to explore unknown territories. These pioneers took great risks to map this new world, so that we now have enough maps to explore successfully. The critical principal of this issue is: knowing means mastering. Now, things are different, and like the channel Nat Geo Adventure advises: “Let’s Get Lost.” The advanced explorers admitted that knowing everything is not the right attitude for explorers. Facing with Nonia’s artworks means that we need to open ourselves to the unknown, and by doing that, we expect to invite new experience.

Indonesia, Bandung, April 2014

Text translated by María Elisabeth Bailey