Beyond Identity

FX Harsono

Nexus Arts
11 min readSep 4, 2015


FX Harsono, Writing in the Rain, 2011, single channel video, 6:02 min. Courtesy of the artist.

Beyond Identity

Opening 6pm, Thursday 10 September, 2015
10 September — 2 October, 2014
Tuesday — Friday, 9am — 5pm

Artist: FX Harsono
Curator: Rayleen Forester


Rayleen Forester, Curator

FX Harsono: Beyond Identity is an exhibition of seminal works from the oeuvre of this internationally renowned artist. A practicing artist for over forty years, Harsono’s work has informed international audiences of major social and political unrest within the global community.

Nexus Gallery will present two seminal works reconfigured for this special presentation as part of the 2015 OzAsia Festival. Produced in the last decade yet still hauntingly resonant today, Harsono’s Writing in the Rain and Pilgrimage to History will be presented for the first time in Adelaide. Focusing on the individual and accumulated experience of losing one’s identity, these two works speak to the harrowing history of two countries, China and Indonesia, and its influence on the artist.

FX Harsono, Pilgrimage to History 2013, single channel video, 13:40 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

The sociological notion of identity is the conception and manifestation of a person’s own self-identity, social presentation and more broadly, uniqueness. Culture and individualism are also inextricably linked to the way we describe identity. However, history has consistently readapted this urge to hypothesise our identity through its political acts on society. It is in this melee between the self, accumulated self and socio-political environment that Harsono’s work holds great reference in contemporary art. His research-based approach to his practice sees him traveling to remote regions of familiar and foreign lands in pursuit of historical remnants pertaining to the atrocities of previous governments and its effect on our inclined approach to identify via location.

These works retell personal and public stories in which identity is diminished through the unwarranted impact of one’s environment. Harsono boldly enquires what are the fundamental elements of ones identity and how do we measure this in relation to culture, individualism, politics and environment. As Australia grapples with its international identity as a multicultural country through tougher restrictions in border protection and idealistic nationalism, Beyond Identity, poses new and important questions about how we recognise ourselves beyond the limitations of where we are ‘placed’.

Tracing histories

Sally Oey

Every image of the past that is not recognized
by the present as one of its own concerns
threatens to disappear irretrievably.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, 1940

Around forty years ago, renowned artist FX Harsono entered the Indonesian art scene and has played a crucial role in its development ever since. Being among the first generation of artists pioneering contemporary art practice, he was a founding member of the emerging movement Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement). This movement introduced installation art, ready mades and a conceptual approach to art production in the mid 1970s.[1]

From his formative years, Harsono has picked up political topics, rarely not crossing the line between activism and art practice. However, the art pieces shown at Nexus Gallery now belong to a body of work that indicates an intriguing shift of focus: questions of identity, history and memory mingle with the artist’s ongoing struggle to seek the ‘truth’ in the face of unspeakable atrocities of the past.

FX Harsono, Pilgrimage to History 2013, single channel video, 13:40 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

During Suharto’s New Order Harsono was among the few artists who offered resistance to the repressive regime and openly supported democratic movements. Yet, tremendous events have unexpectedly made him question his place in society, not only as an artist, but also as an Indonesian of Chinese origin, also known as Tionghoa. In particular, the violent acts mainly against the Tionghoa during the collapse of the regime in May 1998, shockingly revealed the minority’s — and his own — pariah status in Indonesia;[2] a place many Chinese Indonesians had called home for a long time.

Turning away from straightforward political art practice, the artist started “to perceive himself as a historical and biographical creature”[3] and began to examine remnants of his past, which came to him in the form of a vague memory: Oh Hong Boen, his first name that had to be changed by law to an ‘Indonesian’ sounding name in an act of assimilation in the 1960s. In the words of the Indonesian curator Hendro Wiyanto:

That was his own name, given to him once, a long time ago. The name was there to show who he was. One day, however, the name was like a trace that must be erased and even forgotten. […] Words disappear, but the text remains.[4]

It is his former name that Harsono keeps rewriting in his video performance Writing in the Rain (2011) trying to find meaning in a gesture that he once learned as a little boy in school. Recognising the impossibility of this action, the artist created a melancholic meditation on something that was lost or taken from him and only left a trace in his memories. Still, one can feel the artist’s enduring character as he patiently continues to write, guiding the Chinese brush in black ink over and over again, knowing that these are actually the only Chinese characters the artist is able to write and read, the sole elements of a culture that remained with him. The ambivalent nature of this work is revealed once the viewer recognizes that the more layers of names are added — or rather the more persistently Harsono poses the question what meaning a name might bear — the less it is actually possible to see his face, the main carrier of self-identification. In the end, the sight is blurry and the characters have transformed into a black pond flowing over the ground.

FX Harsono, Writing in the Rain 2011, single channel video, 6:02 minutes, edition of 5. Courtesy of the artist.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Harsono and curator Rayleen Forester chose the title of the exhibition to be Beyond Identity that challenges the idea of identity as fixed, essential and singular. Especially when understood from a discursive perspective, identification or the constitution of relations, is a “process never completed”[5], as Stuart Hall states, and is often under the tension of contradictions.

The traces the artist discovered within his own memories led him to start researching the history of the Tionghoa in Indonesia. Pilgrimage to History (2013) is an on-going art project that consists of a video performance and textile pieces. In this work the artist develops the notion of names further, going deeper into a hidden past that holds untold stories of sorrow and violence, of post colonial Indonesia and of Harsono’s very own family, shifting back and forth between domains of the socio-political and the personal.

FX Harsono, Pilgrimage to History 2013, single channel video, 13:40 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

The video performance shows Harsono’s visits to mass graves of Chinese Indonesians that he has tracked down over the years in several cities on East Java[6], as they are nearly forgotten in public awareness. The video screens a rather simple act: The artist covers the front sides of the graves with a long white cloth and traces the names of the victims with red pastel, repeating this action at every site. The results of this performance are then displayed.

Inherited from his father, who was once a photographer, the artist’s starting point to this specific dark chapter in the history of the Tionghoa came to him by a photo album. The collected photos were taken by his father during a mission that excavated and reburied bodies of the victims of the mass murders that happened between 1947–1949 in Blitar, East Java.[7] Back then, during the Indonesian war for independence, the Tionghoa were suspected to collaborate with the Dutch. These incriminations resulted in robbery and mass killings of hundreds of uninvolved Chinese Indonesians by perpetrators that are not known and have never been sentenced.

Looking at all these names, standing symbolically as silent witnesses, the textile works can be seen as a call for commemoration for each single victim. But again, this endeavour also seems saturated with contradictions. While the victims are listed by their names only, one cannot draw any individuality from them. The artist didn’t know these people nor can he even read most of their names since they are written in Chinese characters. These victims are not reachable or tangible; Harsono’s interaction with them is a shift to placeless and timeless figures, to the unknown, as the specific circumstances of their deaths are still unresolved. The viewer might also note that the artist’s act of tracing the surface of the graves causes the names to appear ex negativo: By rubbing paste on the edges of the names, it’s only the background, that turns red, the names themselves remain uncoloured. Maybe it is then only by their missing that they can be grasped, generating a peculiar presence that is determined by their actual absence.

Beyond that, these works mark another important shift within Harsono’s artistic practice. Besides the methodological turn in terms of the artist as a researcher[8], Pilgrimage to History pushes the limits of representation because of its production method.

image of Saint Veronica sourced online.

The tale of Saint Veronica is an important legend in relation to the legitimation of religious art and the discourse of image making in general.[9] As the story goes, Saint Veronica received a piece of cloth that had touched Jesus’ face during the Stations of the Cross. It was then magically imprinted with the true face of the Son of God and a powerful relict. The name Veronica itself was later on interpreted as a combination of the Latin word vera and the Greek word icon, literally meaning truthful image.[10] Harsono has not made any reference to this particular story and he would also negate the notion of sacredness for his works. Far more interesting is the fact, that by using the technique of mechanical tracing the artist created an index, a physical proof or ‘true’ record of the mass grave, maybe in order to dispel any doubts about its existence. Nonetheless, he has started to not only recover intricate layers of the historical, but also to create a space that holds relations to the Real, the Symbolic as well as to the Imaginative.[11]

The artist’s demand for ‘truth’ can be interpreted as a call for acknowledgement of those crimes and, in a wider context of the Tionghoa, as a search for a resolved place in history.[12] More specifically, the displayed works provide a narrative, a way to counter the silence, which is of great importance in overcoming trauma, as historian and political scientist Klaus H. Schreiner writes:

Untold trauma remains in the painful latency of memory. There it will develop its disruptive, paralysing, and debilitating effect. […] Trauma retold will become (hi)story and therefore treatable, resolvable and thus can be forgotten.[13]

Looking at Harsono’s works we can question how to come to terms with the past for much continues undiscovered and therefore cannot be retold. Yet, what seems to be left out is the artist’s own way of engaging with this question, which is the creation of a personal ritual: the search for and the visits to the mass graves, followed by imprinting the cloths. The artist himself calls it a performative act to pay respect to the ones that are gone.[14] Beyond that, it is also a transformative act, turning the grave into an artwork or memorial.

Though Harsono underlines that Pilgrimage to History is and should not be about himself or his ego, every pilgrimage holds out a promise to the pilgrim, to find the desired connection to what is unreachable to us. In this sense, the artist’s quest is located on the margins of the Self, blurred by a painful loss that seems to be irreversible — but even so remains defiant to retrace it over and over again, however fragile this relation may be.

[1] For an overview and analysis of Harsono’s artistic practice from 1972 until 2009, see Langgeng Art Foundation (ed.), Re:Petition/Position, 2010.
[2] Jemma Purdey, Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia: 1996–99, Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2006.
[3] Hendro Wiyanto, Truth, Beauty and FX Harsono’s Quest, in what we have here perceived as truth we shall some day encounter as beauty, Galeri Canna, 2013, p. 13. Among many others, I am particularly grateful to Hendro Wiyanto who discussed Harsono’s art practice with me in several long and very fruitful conversations.
[4] Hendro Wiyanto, Erased Time, Disappearing Traces, in The Erased Time, Langgeng Gallery, 2009, p. 16.
[5] Stuart Hall, Introduction: Who needs Identity?, in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds.), Questions of Cultural Identity, Sage, 1996, p. 2.
[6] These cities are Blitar, Tulungagung, Yogyakarta, Muntilan, and Kediri.
[7] The organisation CHTH (Chung Hua Tsung Hui) initiated this mission in 1951. For more information about the organisation’s role, see Wiyanto 2009, p. 14.
[8] The Indonesian curator Agung Hujatnikajennong suggests this methological turn, as the artist uses historical research methods such as interviewing witnesses and academics, working with archives and reading scholarly literature (Agung Hujatnikajennong, Things happen when we remember: History and Memory in FX Harsono’s Art, Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, 2014).
[9] There are several legends that deal with the topic of images not made by human hands. The best known ones are the Abgar Mandylion from Edessa and the Holy Shroud of Turin (Herbert L. Kessler and Gerhard Wolf (eds.), The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation, Nuova Alfa Editoriale, 1998).
[10] The name Veronica is the Latin transliteration from the Greek word Pherenike, meaning ‘she who brings victory’. Since the 12th century, the name has also been understood as the Latin and Greek combination as mentioned above (Albert Urban (ed.), Lexikon der Heiligen und Namenstage, Herder, 2010).
[11] The Real, Symbolic, and Imaginative are basic concepts in Jacques Lacan’s writings. Hendro Wiyanto first brought up the notion of the ‘Real’ in Harsono’s works from this particular psychoanalyst perspective.
[12] Based on Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s definition of the narrative, Shoshana Felman characterizes the relation of history and narrative this way: “If narrative is basically a verbal act that functions as a historiographical report, history is, parallelly but conversely, the establishment of the facts of the past through their narrativization.” (Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony. Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Routledge, 1992, p. 93). In Harsono’s case, narrative and history are also closely connected with each other, though constructed and questioned at the same time, especially in terms of a possible single ‘truth’.
[13] Klaus H. Schreiner, Lubang Buaya: Histories of Trauma and Sites of Memory, in Mary S. Zurbuchen (ed.), Beginning to Remember. The Past in the Indonesian Present, Singapore University Press, 2005, p. 271. In this essay Schreiner actually focusses on the topic of trauma in relation to the mass killings of alleged members and associates of the Indonesian Communist Party in Indonesia in 1965–1967.
[14] In conversation with the artist, July 2013, Yogyakarta.