Interview with Reza 'asung' AfisinaAAA’s Enoch Cheng speaks to Indonesian artist Reza 'asung' Afisina about pain, the body, performance art and the art scene in Indonesia. The artist's work covers video, performance and installation and have been included in numerous exhibitions to include Recontres Internationales Paris/ Berlin (2006 & 2007); Move On Asia; KHOJ Live 2008; and Yokohama Triennale 2008. A member of ruangrupa, an artist-run initiative in Indonesia founded in 2000, Afisina has actively been involved in promoting art to the public.
AAA: You often use your naked body to address pain in your performance works, such as your work What in which you inflicted pain onto yourself by slapping your face while reciting the Bible and also An Easy Time With Parenthood in which you were tattooed with prose from a book by the writer Julio Cortazar. What does pain mean to you?
Reza Afisina: In the beginning I felt uncomfortable with unpleasant things. But when I was in fourth grade I had a terrible allergy, which I still have although it's not as bad as it was at first. My skin’s sensitivity was driven by my psychological thoughts, by stress or by thinking about something really hard. And that was when I found that pain had to be learnt – I needed to adjust with my body’s system in order to deal with pain.
As for my performance work, pain can be a reflection of happiness, of freedom and cleanliness, a brutal truth. Not necessarily as suffering or being physically sick, like damaging the tissue or organs, but pain can deliver an emotional experience. I learned to control and focus on it. Since then, for me pain can be transformed into anything. Like writing in my blog (http://www.felicisrecordationis.blogspot.com) or writing Cortazar’s words with tattooing techniques. The text I used in that work was taken from Las Babas del Diablo, I used the line “my birth was a product of tourism and diplomacy”. The text I put alongside Cortazar’s was taken from the Latin version of the Holy Bible “from hence you came, you shall remain, until you complete again” as well as “conformity of our minds to the fact.” I was playing with text as image, as when you write on your body.
AAA: Being a performance artist means that you confront your audience directly, as well as challenging their tolerance levels. How do you feel when your audience does not have the patience to endure or enjoy your performances?
RA: I will keep my focus on the space in which I perform, this is my area of presentation. As for my audience, indeed, for some of my performance works I consider my audience as a collaborator, which gives me surprising effects – as each audience can deliver different messages. But as for their attention or lack of attention as well their different background on seeing things, I consider that as a normal behaviour or attitude. It’s very human! And it should be tolerated, but yes I’m aware of it. For me, the most important thing is to present what I would like to present. So for me if the audience should or could tolerate my works then I should tolerate them back!
AAA: In your latest work, you placed fake Louis Vuitton leather on top of photographs of sexual organs – yet the photographs were printed on a type of material that makes the photographs vanish in one to three months. You have mentioned to me that you were playing with the concept of the product’s value and the body as a symbol. Again, you are focusing on the body and social conditions. Do you think we can free our body, or even our soul?
RA: How to free our body or our soul, well that’s interesting! For me, to keep thinking positively about everything, that keeps your mind free. At least it could cheer you up in some of the worst conditions in life, and so far, for me it works.
AAA: In Letters to International Curators you wrote to famous curators and promoted yourself and your work. What was your reaction when they replied, and indeed did they reply?
RA: One of the curators did send me a reply saying they would be considering my offer, another also replied to me and asked me to show all my works and my progress, and whether I would like to do an artist residency. Another one of the curators met me in Jakarta and he talked about my email/letter to him, and then found out that it was only a project.
I sent about 13 letters or emails to curators who in a way already knew me, or had met me even once. Not total strangers, but those who in some already knew me as an artist – and I offered them my works. I thought that in real life, meeting them one-on-one was such a good opportunity, just to talk to them. I think that curators and artists should always meet – not just communicate by letters or phone calls. I realized that I talk with my own language, so my English does not reflect who I am, yet my works allow me to communicate with others. So I needed to speak directly to be understood by another. That for me was a fair ‘trial’.
AAA: You studied film in school, what motivated you to become an artist, as opposed to a film director?
RA: At first I studied cinematography at an art institute. I thought that an art institute would give me greater freedom of exploring the medium. At that time, my major was sound recording for film and documentary features. I was dealing mostly with public space; I needed to convey the characteristics of the space or who is in the space through the sound/audio. Since audio coverage is a sensitive part of the process, I needed to learn many aspects of audio and visual issues related to the sensitiveness of the medium.
Unfortunately, however, many of the students in my major turned themselves into employees in the visual, creative industries. Indeed this is a reflection about how one survives in Jakarta; we always need to get a better job that will fulfil our needs. I did need that in the first place, I worked in many fields. But that experience made me take more of an initiative to create works in different mediums, therefore sound sometimes became part of my installation works and since then it’s developed into other related works of art.
AAA: Do you think you have the support you need as an artist in Indonesia?
RA: Yes indeed. Indonesia or especially Jakarta, where I live and work, can support me by its situations, by many experiences of everyday life situations. If we talk about the monetary support, it’s going to be a different issue of support! Sometimes of course it is important but in a way it’s also a cliché to be considered as a reason to be working on your works. I have to adapt in each of my work’s creative processes as well for the support that I need, if it’s more or less than enough, to make it work. What I would like to see is Asian performance art and artists strengthening their networking. I would like to see performance artists building strong relations with some networks (friends) in art fields elsewhere.
AAA: You have taken part in a number of important performance festivals and international residencies such as Khoj. What do you think of these experiences?
RA: These experiences were my way to learn different things in life, or to experiment with many mediums. The challenges so far are about: Am I going to do it, in a way to achieve something good? Or else what valuable contribution can I give with my background? I never push myself to enter or to be invited depending on how good the performance event is. I will always reflect on myself first before I go. First, I must be comfortable with what the events require me to contribute. If I don’t see myself fit for the event, I will withdraw.
AAA: You are also involved in the ruangrupa artists’ initiative. Can you tell us what your role is there and what you would like to achieve?
RA: Since 2000, I’ve been with ruangrupa (www.ruangrupa.org). I was involved in several projects, and from 2003-07 I worked as their programme/project officer, and now I’m the artistic director of the ruangrupa arts laboratory, which deals with many art projects that have a long duration of research and collaboration with other artists and collaborators who come from different backgrounds or disciplines.
I would like to achieve, or as ruangrupa, we would like to achieve a good value of working and learning about art and its development within several experiences and collaborations as well as keeping strong networks with other fields. Perhaps I have always considered that art can be an entry point to everywhere, if you are willing to initiate projects and persist with the quality.
AAA: Have you ever experienced low points of frustration that made you want to quit being an artist? If so, how did you deal with that?
RA: Yes of course. To work, to study and to live in city like Jakarta or a country like Indonesia gives me a certain value to understanding life and work and how to socialize. Indeed a situation like Indonesia and a city like Jakarta has always encouraged me, to always do something and keep my work going through several processes. In Jakarta most people have come from many different islands with their ‘dreams’ to live and work in Jakarta. Their mentality, their attitudes, their ‘mother culture’ and behaviour generates many issues in life here, as well as for urban people like me. I have experienced many things about tolerance, and how to tolerate certain things that has made me stronger, by not only thinking or talking about clichés of things that have happened. It’s made me more positive to work, as well as socialize more.
Although in some of the lowest scenarios I have considered myself as Jakarta’s most wasted artist (laughs). In Jakarta we have to work really hard to survive. I mean, not only making artworks to be my benefit or income, but to survive within making artworks and to work on several jobs or any income I could make – that’s really wasted time, wasted energy. If I were born rich and famous (laughs), that would be a different issue.
I consider myself lucky to have many friends who have supported me so far, and that’s how I ‘survive’ within my works. At certain low-points of my working life, I must first deal within myself, like self-introspection and keep track of what makes me feel low at certain points of the creative process, at which point I need to change an issue or medium or concept or else I just step back and take some time with myself to work on something else and most importantly, that I must deal with everyday life’s situations. For me it’s more difficult to face my neighbours and family to talk about my works of art than to talk to a famous curator or a gallery owner or even an art collector.