A curving line

Etched on the lowering sky

I release a dragon

That sits triumphantly on the arc

Latiff Mohidin,
A Curving Line , 1967.

 

From his early days, Setiawan Sabana has been rearing an inner dragon, it’s long serpentine body imbued with energy and strength. At times, the creature curls and coils effortlessly. The dragon glides past us, its fiery breath emanating from an unseen ‘curved’ throne that has lain hidden behind the thick fog of the art of printmaking for the better part of the past 30 years. A true artist will have room to meditate, a sacred square or throne upon which he resides. From the beginning, Setiawan Sabana has built that space, a little at a time.

His building materials are drawn from the cosmos itself. The moon and the sun, and also the banana trunks and the rice stalks which shall eventually crumble into the earth! This dream space is a place for the thinker, after long periods of contemplation and finding the joy of every exploration. The end result is thus born out of the heart and the mind; shaped by wisdom, tempered by his time-tested, fine and exacting skill.

Eversince his ‘paper exploration’ of 1979, he has become aware of a soul that seems to haunt his return from the wide, vast island that the world is. He feels it’s intimacy and it soon becomes apparent that such a spirit in fact his to begin with. The period of seven months living in Australia and Japan had left a profound impact on him. He describes it as being swept by a torrent of passion for seven entire months. It was akin to being raised up to the seven layers of heavens and later thrown into the seven depths of the underworld.

 

The breadth of the sea

makes my chest heave

my breath is caught

by the vast touch of death

Situr Situmorang
Cinta, 1951-1955

This is the genesis of Setiawan Sabana’s curve lines. This curve line will ultimately enjoin itself at one defining point if drawn out responsibly and with integrity. Adversely, it may also fade away, devoured by the changing seasons. This is not a mathematical or technical conundrum. It is a search for etches in meaning and the purpose of a life built upon honesty and sincerity. Similar to layers of plain white paper, while separate from each other, all may still be pierced by light, the source of which illuminates the path of an artist.

From the beginning, Setiawan Sabana had already displayed his capacity to understand the process of creation based on wide, encompassing frameworks. This is evident from his use of symbols and manifestations of curved lines that meet and become one in many of his earlier and even current works. (Mentari, Sky Scape – The Imaginative and Pandangan Langit IV). Due to the fact that these expressions were made on small prints, it was easy to overlook and had suffered neglect from deeper analyses.

In 1994, when I was still studying traditional Japanese printmaking in Tokyo, I had the chance to hold my exhibition Kilimanjaro in Nagasaki. The series, dominated by hues of red and black, were reproduced as postcards which I then mailed to Setiawan Sabana in Bandung. I was later told that he had also adorned black and red attire at the launch of his exhibition Menyapa Alam, Merambah Kertas in 1994. This could have been a mere coincidence, but was it also a primordial wave that cut across time and space, something difficult for the mind to expect and accept?

At the time, the political climate in Japan was quite highly-charged due to the threat of a nuclear strike by North Korea. Yet, the Land of the Rising Sun was quite adept at handling instigations by Uncle Sam whom frequently tries to take advantage of such murky international situations. The 1994 incident reminds us that we must constantly grow and mature for the preservation of civilisation.

Post-1994, I began to see Setiawan Sabana’s works under a different light. In my humble opinion, he does not deliberately set out to give new definitions or re-evaluations of prevalent printmaking methods, much less to do so specifically within the Indonesian context. If in his early days Setiawan Sabana was deemed to be influenced by the West due to his etching and silkscreen, which is in actual fact, a small technical issue. If he was seen to have adhered to European or Japanese printmaking methods, that is only an issue of art management.

We must realise that today’s printmaking is a legacy of modern art. To enhance it, a system was created to ensure a better management of the product so that it can be marketed effectively in the industry. It seems quite insurmountable for us to evaluate and measure such matters within the ideals of an artist. Alas, everyone can make the choice for himself. One can choose to adhere to the existing recipe of modern printmaking—afterall there are many other elements that we frequently adopt and imitate. One can opt to quietly nurture the spirit of modern art, for it does bring us many tempting luxuries of life. And one can also reject it all in entirety, daring a divorce that can never be reconciled.

Studying in detail the works of Setiawan Sabana, we are reminded that nothing in this world is truly perfect and eternal except for the Divine. We are too obsessed and desperate for material goods even when such objects are truly fragile. These are basic lessons gathered from archaeology, yet secular scholarship at its worst ego and arrogance, frequently banishes morality to the fringes. This final note of cynicism in the exhibition is apparent in the decaying pages and books placed upon stands on the edges of the exhibition floor. Nothing speaks more clearly of being ostracised.

One statement that impresses is how glory of the past are often reduced to mere song and mere entertainment pieces. At the same time, several rehals (book stand for the holy quran) are also installed in the exhibition, holding decayed pages. The artist hints to us of responsibility and value of knowledge, for the rehal is an icon that speaks of Islamic wisdom and knowledge. Or he could be somewhat jesting: choose what you like, a rehal or a musical note stand.

The desires and facets of Man are relayed to us via paper-based human forms, suspended and scattered throughout the exhibition space. Imagine for a moment, had these objects been made of heavier material such as rock, copper, iron or cement. Our reaction may be affected, visually perceiving the sheer weight of such suspended objects, glimpses of Man’s capacity for incorrigible arrogance. Quite the contrary, paper speaks of humility, of piety. Equally possible, one may not even be the slightest bit moved, for such is the way with some of us in this modern society. There are also others, who will only be convinced when the message and meaning is displayed and made audible through sophisticated electronic means; certainly not by these weathered, dilapidated relics of the past.

After viewing Setiawan Sabana’s exhibition, I arrived at my own conclusion that these works are manifestations of the layers and levels in the artist’s spirituality. Without being self-conscious, he had envisioned, executed and created to the full extent and dictation of Life’s precious values. His works are reflections of the early knowledge gained through life in the family home yet later extending out well and thriving. These are glimmers of light nurtured by the soul, expanding and always in danger of veering far from course if one isn’t careful tending to them.

After a life of exploration, he has retraced his footsteps and markers from the past. These beacons from the past are gathered, arranged and rebuilt. Now he returns home, with ease and joy, stepping on that ‘curved line’ which has since enjoined itself, forming the personal bridge that which the artist treads upon each day.

This article was written in conjunction with the solo exhibition of Setiawan Sabana’s ‘The Cosmos of Paper – Trail of The Self’, held at the Asian Art Museum, University Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, 21 Feb to 21 March 2013.