Ada Apa Dengan Tengkorak
Solo Exhibition By Bayu Utomo Radjikin
10 February - 8 March 2015
ADA APA DENGAN TENGKORAK AND THE SUBLIME OF DEATH
by Nurhanim Khairuddin
Throughout the history of art, from ancient to modern to postmodern times, and over the course human cultural life, from traditional to pop to sub-culture, skull has been used as an image with varied, and sometimes contradictory, meanings and implications: permanence and temporality, rebellion and obedience, victory and defeat, hope and despair, elegance and vulgarity. But for many among us, a skull has always reminded us of the inevitability of death. It is an expression of our mortality, of the transitoriness of our life, of our vulnerability and frailty. It always prompts us to realise the transience of our earthly existence, urging us to reflect upon not only the certainty and proximity of death but also the process of death and dying itself.
Skull is indeed a supreme universal memento mori, notwithstanding the fact that certain cultural traditions treat it differently and even in contrast to its typical associations with death and mortality. For instance, in spite of its usually fierce and gruesome appearance, the presence of skulls in Tibetan Buddhist art paints a more optimistic scenario – they represent the process of reincarnation, expressing the endless repeating cycle of birth, life and death. For indigenous peoples in East Malaysia, during the heyday of head-hunting practices, skulls of slain enemies were kept as war trophies, even turned into household ornaments, and became a source of pride and admiration.
It is true that in this new series of paintings Bayu manages to elevate skulls to serve as objects of beauty. Despite its macabre nature, simple structure and dark symbolism, a skull has a tremendous visual and aesthetic allure of its own. Though imbued with funereal gloominess and ghastly creepiness, it is full of sensual lushness. It looks unassuming, yet laden with sublime subtleties. In Bayu’s paintings here, the sense of sublime essentially lies in the tension created between the formalistic beauty of the painted skulls and the connotation of death associated with skull imagery. It is this notion of sublime beauty in death that confronts the viewers with such rhetorical force, instigating them to view skulls not as objects related merely to human mortality but as icons or signifiers loaded with other insinuations as well.
But what truly inspires Bayu to employ the subject of skull in this series, as mentioned by him, is not only the continuing interest in and popularity of skull among contemporary artists but, most significantly, the new kind of signification, or ‘symbolic exchange’, carried by skull imagery in today’s art. For him, this phenomenon culminated in Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God. This piece, a real human skull recreated in platinum and adorned with diamonds, was sold for a very large amount of money. What really amazes him is not just the astonishing yet enigmatic aesthetics of this skull but the fact that it has become a sublime object of desire.
Perhaps for Bayu, For the Love of God heralds a new era in art whereby fascination with and desire for the superfluous and excess have spurred the making of spectacular art as well as its commercial exchange and consumption. The notions of death and dying, symbolised by skull, have lost their metaphysical basis and entered into the discourse of capitalism. Through this work, Hirst proposes that death is not to be feared but ‘collected’ as a trophy for art collection. Death has now come to function as a symbol of immortality for both the creator and the collector. Moreover, reflection of death is no longer an exercise of self-effacement for spiritual growth but an act of self-aggrandisement. In the final analysis, For the Love of God underscores a victory of the beauty of art over death, and the triumph of the power of capital over art.
In many of his previous realist figurative paintings, the theme of masculinity plays a central role. From his award winning sculptural work Lang Kachang to the series Infinity Series, portraits of men, mostly of himself, were frequently used in the compositions. In this recent series, masculinity is represented by the phallic shape of horns. In the animal kingdom, horns are used as both ornaments and weapons – beautiful yet deadly. Thus, a horn is a metaphor signifying strength, power and virility. Horns adorning headdresses, like battle helmets and kings’ crowns, also indicate status, supremacy, dignity, even divinity (in the case of kings).
When a man dies, his flesh and body organs decay, except for his bones and skull (for animal, its hooves and horns as well). Although images of skulls and horns remind us of the vanity of earthly existence and glory, their continuing presence can provoke us to think about behaving virtuously in our present life. It is simply because our actions when alive reverberate forever into the future, long after our physical death. Thus the Malay saying, “Harimau mati meninggalkan belang, gajah mati meninggalkan gading, manusia mati meninggalkan nama.” – A tiger dies leaving its stripes, an elephant dies leaving its tusk, a person dies leaving his/her name.
- Bayu Utomo Radjikin