Complex simplicity in the art of Yunizar

An encounter with the work of an Indonesian contemporary artist.

Whilst at Art 13, I came across a startling pair of canvases (pictured above) by an Indonesian artist, Yunizar. The way they had been exhibited on two parallel walls, made them line up like the pages of a book on approach to the booth of Gajah Gallery. They formed part of a larger series titled “Kisah,” which, translated from Bahasa, incidentally means story.

Each canvas was populated with cartoon-like drawings of human figures and animals, interspersed with single words and letters. The latter was much denser, with a roughly textured band of red pigment running across the top, surrounding a small sun. As my eyes passed over each canvas, they tried to “read” Yunizar’s intriguingly coded story. The seemingly simply rendered characters and scribbled letters signposted an almost primitive, uninhibited, and pure materialisation of expression; and I was reminded of the Lascaux cave paintings in South-western France.

The stark contrast of the pigments with painted surface alludes to a similar visual trope as printed word on paper; it reels the viewer in, for a closer look, until they reach a similar proximity to the paintings as a person reading a book.

Close-ups of the paintings. (Image Courtesy: Jasdeep Sandhu, Gajah Gallery)

A discussion with Yunizar’s gallerist and dealer, Jasdeep Sandhu revealed a more complex contextual web in which Yunizar’s work operates.  Sandhu explained that Yunizar’s generation of artists was a confrontation between the dominant tendency towards realistic painting and newer, progressive forms of art-making.  His experiences as a cultural and linguistic outsider in Java, where he migrated from his home in Sumatra, influenced the function of his work; communicating more directly with his audience through universally recognised symbols. This sensibility is quite similar to another artist I quite admire, Yinka Shonibare, who in a recent interview in TimeOut London highlighted how he found it “intoxicating” when viewers of his work felt less pressure to “know too much about art to actually engage with it”. 

I came across a third Yunizar canvas in this booth which was equally curious.

Yunizar, Left, Right, Up, Down, 2013, 200 x 250cm (Image Courtesy: Jasdeep Sandhu, Gajah Gallery)

It featured a male and female figure highlighted in chrome yellow, standing between two dark painted hemispheres. I couldn’t help but think of the story of Adam and Eve, or at the very least the way we often view the world in terms of personal and material priority. The possibilities for interpreting these canvases were manifold and undoubtedly enjoyable.

On asking about Yunizar’s presence and viability as a collectable artist, he smiled and explained the expanse of his collector base within the Asian region. Along with private collections and museums, Yunizar’s paintings can be encountered at the Singapore Art Museum and National University of Singapore Museum. These three canvases alone left a lasting impression on my mind and I look forward to seeing more of his work on an international scale.



Yunizar, Kisah, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 250 cm and Yunizar, Tentang Merah (about red), 2013, 200 x 250cm. (Images: Gajah Gallery)
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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis