Cloth, paint on wood, yarn, in 5 parts
Undoubtedly the most important Samsul Arifin sculpture to come to auction, Kontes Para Pemikir (Contest of Thinkers) is one of the artist's ultimate installations, executed in 2009 and shown at the Jogja National Museum during the tenth Jogja Biennale. Majestic in scale, the work is composed of five sculptures that as a group present the viewer with a theatrical narrative. All of the pieces depict an erect blue pencil reminiscent of Staedler's No. 2, standing at more than three meters high. Although each is unique in detail they are all sharpened roughly until only about a quarter of the pencil is left while the entire length of the graphite core is exposed and jagged from their friction with the ineffective sharpener. Perched at the top of each pencil is Samsul Arifin's avatar, Goni, the kapok-stuffed doll with googly plastic eyes.
There is an earthy liveliness to the installation that is often absent from the resolute monumentalism common to the sculptures' scale, and the main element that underlines this is "Goni". A few of them are posing in the posture of Rodin's Thinker while the others merely sit in contemplation, heads bent down, and shoulders drooping. One even humorously has its detached head on its lap. Regardless of their posture, all are entangled by threads. Their positions are extremely precarious; not only does the pencil appear about to topple over, but the fragile exposed core threatens to break at any moment.
"Samsul is more known [for] his paintings [of] ...stationery tools such as pencils and erasers, with Goni... as [merely] a small detail in his works. [Actually], Goni is the main character of Samsul's works as a whole, and [is] presented in almost all of his works since he [began to actively participate] in various exhibitions [since 2005].
...Goni initially came up during the time when Samsul was doing his Final Project at ISI, even though Samsul had often done various explorations of three-dimensional object making before, particularly with cloth and yarn. He is a signifier of Samsul's discovery of subject –matter, an embodiment of symbolism that can be regarded as Samsul's own alter-ego... or an imaginary character that reflects Samsul's observation of himself and his life as well as what is happening in his surroundings. According to Samsul, Goni is meant [to be] a symbol of an innocent person, unprivileged, uncorrupted, simple and 'blank', as described by his minimalist form with wide, doe eyes, seemingly [always fascinated] and curious about the world outside. (Farah Wardhani, Goni's Journey: Episode 1, Gallery Semarang, July 26-August 9, 2008, exh. cat.)."
Contest of Thinkers undoubtedly offers social contemplation on the efficiency of the education system. The pencils' presence suggests their role as the tools of education (number 2 pencils were often used to fill in computerized forms in university admission examinations). However, instead of the signature "2B" label at the bottom black band, the sculpture had the initials IQ, EQ and SQ inscribed (IQ stands for Intelligence Quotient, EQ stands for Emotional Quotient while SQ stands for Social Intelligence Quotient). Having parents who worked as tailors and who struggled to give him an education, Samsul is well aware that academic achievement is not only a pre-requisite but also a determinant for success. Yet for a developing nation like Indonesia, secondary education is still a privilege and a luxury, and social and emotional intelligence can only be honed through experience and interaction among like-minded people. For the under-privileged working as craftsmen, no matter how hard they toiled, their hands only become tied and tangled. As Samsul expressed most eloquently, a solution cannot be achieved by merely changing the external elements; it is only by strengthening the core foundation of education and all that it entails can a nation really move forward.
Samsul's prowess for elegant suggestion manifests in the figures' and objects' relationship to each other as well as in their own staggering shapes. That these simple dolls, made out of the humble goni cloth, are able to convey emotion and evoke empathy through subtle nuances is a testament to Samsul's dexterity with his mediums and his profound intuition and understanding of human nature.
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