"A painting could communicate; it could also tease, or narrate." – I Nyoman Masriadi.
Indonesian artist I Nyoman Masriadi was born in Bali in 1973. He pursued his art training in Yogyakarta – a city renowned for being a cultural and academic centre in Indonesia. Instead of delving into Balinese traditions and culture as a source of inspiration like the typical Balinese artist, Masriadi carved a niche for himself by creating a style that is completely his own. He converses in a visual language that is concise, witty, humorous and effective. His paintings' clean, simple forms and compositions belie their sophistication and intricacies. Behind the comic relief is a subtext of provocative and contemporaneously relevant social commentaries, born from his keen and intelligent observation of society and life. It is this unique perspective, delivered with a style and conviction that conform only to Masriadi's own rules, that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. With these qualities, Masriadi brings a formidable and inimitable contribution to the landscape of Asian Contemporary Art.
Masriadi marked the late 1990s as his official entry into the art world. It was then that he found his identity after years of academic exercise dissecting cubism. He crated stylized, black or brown figures with defined, bulging muscles and flattened, rotund forms. As he continues to explore this theme in the past decade, his characters never veer away from their essence. At present they are as black, strong and masculine as they ever were. However, they have also morphed into sleeker figures that are larger than life, dominating entire canvases in compositions that are striking in their simplicity and thus casting its sardonic message in more pronounced light. Combined, they form a powerful iconic style that makes Masriadi's paintings unique and instantly recognisable.
The present Lot, Sorry Hero, Saya Lupa, literally translates into Sorry Hero, I Forgot, and depicts the intimate, gossip-like exchange between comic world's two famous superheroes, Batman and Superman. Earlier examples of this subject matter, Batman (1996) and Neon Hero (2007) feature the caped crusader as a lone protagonist. By juxtaposing the superhero with another in the present work, the artist gives both characters a more dynamic role. The Batman in Masriadi's present narrative is not merely a symbol but also an active participant who communicates directly with the viewer.
The presence of text in the artist's works, whether it is emblazoned on the painting surface or scribbled on the reverse, heightens this interactive atmosphere and holds a vital clue to deciphering the work's true story. In this painting, the text is placed in dialogue bubbles that are reminiscent of comic strips and divulges the following conversation:
Batman: Aku tidak mengerti, setiap kuselamatkan dia tak pernah bilang trimakasih.
(I don't understand, each time I save him he never says thank you.)
Superman: Orang gila itu maksudmu? Jangan dipikirkan biar saja, kita liat nanti ok.
(That crazy man, you mean? Don't think about it, leave it alone, we shall see later, ok).
In a witty twist, Masriadi provides the third person's response hidden literally behind the scene. The retort is scribbled on the canvas' verso as the actual title, Sorry Hero, Saya Lupa (Sorry Hero, I Forgot), thus creating the impression that whoever spoke those words might be hiding behind the wooden partition. In its comic absurdity, the scene instantly provokes a reaction from the viewer: an amused chuckle, dismay or even a question.
More than anything, Masriadi utilised the power of language, whether visual or textual, implicit or explicit, in its full force. A quick glance immediately identifies the two protagonists as the most recognisable superheroes in popular culture. Yet as extraordinary, powerful and invincible as they are, Batman and Superman are depicted at their most ordinary (and private) moment. There is certainly hilarity in seeing the heroes answer the call of nature in bathroom cubicles that are too small for their superb physique. With their pants down, surrounded by cigarette butts and toilet paper that are strewn haphazardly on the floor, they don't look nearly as dignified as their usual image: speeding in the Batmobil or flying across the sky, saving the day. Far from evoking admiration or awe, the scene pokes fun at the heroes and even ridicules them. The next question then is: who is the artist trying to undermine?
Masriadi often revisits relations between the artist and the art world, particularly the designated roles among museums, galleries, dealers, curators, collectors, artists' collectives, academics and art critics. In earlier works, such as Reunion (2001), he discussed the delicate balance of roles and hierarchy as he saw them; between young and senior artists or among the various types of art such as paintings, installations, video art or performance art. He has always been preoccupied with the question of where the power lies. Is it with the creator of the art or with the critics who wield the pen? This is the complex structure that Masriadi attempts to distance himself from yet is always drawn back into.
During interviews, Masriadi revealed that he envisioned his critics as omnipotent forces who hold the power to make or break an artist's career with what they write or say. In this sense, they can be perceived as heroes to the artists who receive their commendation. As this work reveals, Batman grumbles in a petty manner about someone who had forgotten to thank him while Superman's rejoinder is laced with a hint of threat ("we shall see later, ok"). From the title that is scribbled behind the canvas, the identity of the person they talked about could not be clearer: it is Masriadi himself.
With this ironic and self-deprecating sense of humour, Masriadi broaches one of the serious issues in today's dynamic art scene – that very little formal discourse has been written on Southeast Asian Art in general and on Contemporary Southeast Asian art in particular. For now, Art History has not caught up with the field's rapid ascendancy in the art market. Given the pace and momentum, it is understandable, but Sorry Hero, I Forgot could very well carry an important message: that both art and art discourse are essential and that neither one should be forgotten.
Placed in this context, Sorry Hero, I Forgot raises questions that are not only relevant in Indonesia, but also in the art world in general. Who ultimately molds the landscape of contemporary art? Even under the guise of a biting sense of humour, it is obvious that regardless of the answer, Masriadi refuses to play games and conforms to no rule. An important milestone in Masriadi's career, the present Lot personifies the artist's uncompromised dedication to his art. For him, painting is his ultimate passion, "something worth fighting for". He never loses sight of his unique identity even when his surroundings try to designate people into preconceived boxes. Through visual language and the comical element, Masriadi ultimately records society's failures, triumphs and progressions that will shape our civilization for decades to come.
 Seng Yu Jin & Wang Zineng, Masriadi: Black Is My Last Weapon, (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2008).
2 Interview with the artist, Yogyakarta, 28 April 2008
This Lot will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist
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