Where's the frame
July 6, 2021 10:44 AM
Sinta Tantra is a New York-born British artist of Balinese descent who spent her childhood between the United States, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom, where she attended Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy Schools. In her works, Sinta Tantra often explores the correlations of surrounding architectures and geographical location for the site-specific murals in the public realm. The geometric harmonies within her artworks are often emphasised and accentuated by the thoughtful choices of colors, and scales for each color — which she explained in detail. Sinta shared some valuable insights into her experiences with where’s the frame? Including her upbringing, her ways to unwind, and her love for food.
You were born in New York and you grew up in Indonesia and London - where you attended the Slade and the RA. How was living in so many different places with such different cultures and histories influenced your artistic perspective?
Sinta Tantra: So I was born in New York, but yes, you’re right, I was born to Indonesian parents. Not only Indonesian parents, but Balinese parents, and then when I was 5 or 6 we moved to London, and I’ve stayed here ever since and went to art school here – and I think, growing up, you always feel like a bit of an outsider. But I think mixed in with that, being Balinese, and Indonesian, and a female, living in a kind of a... I guess white middle-class environment, and then also going to art school, in London, which was even more dominant white middle-class.. I think, you always heard about that kind of outsider phase – the outsider-insider phase.
I’ve never felt quite right at home in any of the places that we’ve mentioned. Neither in Indonesia nor in London, and so I think having this like insider-outsider phase is actually quite beneficial as an artist, because you’re able to, sort of, be a part of the community, or the environment, yet have another view of it? So I think that’s kind of enabled me to – or parts of me to plug these things in my career, or in my practice, where you’re able to experience things as part of a majority, but also see it as a part of minority as well.
I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s a part of myself and my life, and I guess one can take it as a disadvantage, and perhaps find it difficult to celebrate, or find it as a barrier, but I think, I’ve managed to find a way in which to identify those barriers, and somehow use them to the positive. I think sometimes in life, that’s what makes people more interesting, and that’s what kind of makes life worth living. It’s kind of getting through the hoops, and the difficulties, and how these challenges in life make you the person you are, but I think part of it is coming to terms with the alignments in which you’re sort of born into and the environment that you could create afterward.
As much as the circles and polygons of your paintings/murals are crucial in your art, your color palette is also very representative, mostly combining pastel and bright colors. What does it signify to you?
Sinta Tantra: So, I’ve always been quite interested in colors, and color combinations; and what colors might signify and symbolise. So that’s one of the main reasons why I like abstracts, for the fact that it goes beyond narratives, and perception, of a story or a dialogue. You know, you’re enjoying the color in the same way that you might enjoy the color of the sky, or something. So there’s a formal aspect to it, but in terms of what these colors symbolise to myself, it can be open to interpretation because some colors could be seen quite differently to other people; and me personally, I was always quite interested, even as a child, in kind of combining colors.
I remember doing a painting that was pink and blue, and having this duality of pink – which was always seen as the color of girls when I was growing up; and blue – being a color for boys. So, what happens if those kinds of color combinations merge, and what happens if you create the color pink and make it very big, at a monumental scale? Because the idea of size is quite important. Size is often seen as like, the bigger it is, the more masculine and monumental something is, and the more it has permanence I guess, and I was interested in what happened if you took the color pink and made it monumental? Does that change your perception of the association for the color being feminine or weak? I’m also quite aware that, like in other cultures, pink isn’t seen sort of as feminine, like in Korea, I think they see it as a neutral color. Also, in Victorian England – in Victorian times, pink was actually for boys, and blue was for girls'. It’s the idea of how we layer our own identities onto these colors. So I’m interested in colors in terms of the stories they tell, but also in what they say about us; That was my interest in combining in a basic format, kind of feminine and masculine colors together.
You mentioned that your works centralises around the postcolonial context of your background, can you elaborate in what way the concept is reflected?
Sinta Tantra: If we go back to the idea of colors, there are certain color palettes which I use quite frequently in my work; and some of those colors, they’re kind of Chinese blue, like a kind of wedgewood blue color, and then a kind of green, and these kinds of very saturated colors.
If you look at English houses, from the 18th century onwards, there was always a taste in fashion, for things that are exotic, and that kind of exoticism came from the things that they have imported from the Far East or the Orient. So for example, a china is a Chinese object, and they imported it, so you get these products from the colonies’ and when you bring them to the UK, it becomes quite a high-class decorative – it becomes high taste. In the same way, colors, when they were introduced into the UK in that period, deep colors came from this high taste culture that was very incredibly inspired by Orientalism. So for example, there’s wedgewood blue, and sometimes we get that kind of oval room blue; and that was inspired by the blue from China that they get. So that’s one example. I guess that was kind of also an interest in Victorian times, and when we look at Victorian times we think of it as quite black and white – also because of photographs; but I’m actually quite interested in, I guess, their interest in the Orient and how the colonialism, which was very brutal and horrible, kind of filtered through arts, and how the arts made those end products that’s kind of quite tasteful. So this idea of how color can be, how specific colors I use in my palette, referenced Victorian times and how that taste actually stemmed from, a kind of Orientalism, or kind of exoticism, which came from either trades, but mostly from colonising the East.
So anyway, the colors, they’re neither like, a pop-pop, like, say, I don’t know, Bridget Riley? I think some of the colors are kind of English heritage combined with pop tropical. I mean that’s how I would describe them; Often like English heritage colors mixed with pop tropical colors of like, maybe Bali.
Can you tell us more about your recent public art ‘Temple Flora’? How do you want the public to engage with the art?
Sinta Tantra: The recent work in Hainan was a floor painting for the museum. So this piece was located in Hainan, which is a tropical island of mainland China – so already, it’s quite unique in its location. Actually, they built it like an artificial island, whose shape was actually similar to Dubai. It’s like a shape of a flower, and it’s very off the shore. So it’s an interesting location for a start, and I guess, I wanted to play with the architecture of the island, but also the architecture of the museum. So each individual, each kind of semi-island within here has a different purpose, and I think this is the museum part of the island. So it’s a very epic place, and the whole project was very epic in scale. So, It’s a museum, but they have several buildings which are more like expo centers, several buildings probably more for corporate events or conferences, they have concerts, they have everything here, it’s going to be part of the holiday destination as well.
I think this particular building is the art museum, and they have several art museums where they’ll have different exhibitions on each building. So one of these buildings is in the shape of this flower petal. I guess I wanted to play with, not only the architecture of the island that they’ve created but also the architecture of this building. This work is painted directly onto the floor, with this kind of printed vinyl stickers, directly laid onto the floor. Again, I guess I wanted to create a piece that was interactive and fun, and possibly played with the architecture; and the kind of monumental scale of the island and its kind of a playful element, so I wanted to create something playful at the entrance, so it’s kind of a different type of art that you experience when you go into the museum.
Quite often in the museum, you can’t really touch things so the artwork isn’t quite interactive but I quite like creating an artwork where you could step on, jump on, and be fully immersed inside the painting itself. So this was inspired by the shape of the petal, but also I guess the idea of Hainan being on the equator, quite similar to Bali, a bit further north but they have the same kind of tropical climate. So the idea of making it quite exotic through saturated colors, which I have done, but also, playing with these prints that are dated from Victorian times. These prints were taken from a book called “Temple of Flora”, and inside there are exotic color prints and flowers. Again I guess it references a post-colonial history, or colonial history because these were the flowers, or birds, which English people back then would have never seen before, and I guess it’s just interesting how colonialism and Victorian exploration – how all of these brutalities, or how they’re sort of going to different lands and claiming it their own, you know doing it in the name of research, or religion; But then it sort of all filtered, and you’re kind of the end-result of something very decorative, very beautiful, and I guess high-taste, where people of a certain class would want to own.
So I guess including these prints, this piece highlights kind of the idea of exoticism, island, and exploration, and maybe kind of seeing similarities in flora and fauna, and the tropical weather between Hainan and Bali. Yeah, I think when you think of islands, quite often they have unique biodiversities, and unique kinds of flora and fauna because they’re isolated. I guess that’s reflected in the plants and animals that live there, and I think that’s what I wanted to kind of… even though in reality these islands are artificial, I sort of wanted to have fun references to nature; but also, you know, the tension between arts and nature.
So I think if you look at this island, it is obviously man-made, but yes, it’s kind of trying to be natural, by having the organic shape of a flower, but it shows the tension between arts and nature, and kind of how… and beauty I guess, because quite often when we think of beauty we think of beauty within nature. But quite often, we only like the surface of that beauty, so the surface of this beautiful flower, but we don’t really want to appreciate the ecology, or what this flower needs to exist in the world. You know, we don’t like the brutality of animals, or kind of how wild they are, so I guess it plays with those ideas.
WTF: Yeah the actual island shape is very similar to orchid!
Sinta Tantra: Yeah! This one’s an orchid, and this one’s a bird of paradise plant, but I mean they’re so beautiful, but they seem quite, I don’t know, poisonous as well? Because sometimes, colorful things in nature are quite poisonous. So it’s kind of antithesis between beauty, art, having something high taste; but also kind of an excess of that could be quite poisonous. All the dangers of it. Again like the color pink, you know if you pick the concept of a flower, what happens when you make it really really big? Does it still become beautiful, or does it become a bit scary or foreboding in some ways?
Do you ever feel like people expect your work to be culturally or even politically engaged?
Sinta Tantra: Not particularly, I think the majority of the time people liked my work because it’s not politising. Because on the surface, it could be quite decorative, but I think underneath that, I kind of talked about colors – the relationship between colors and colonialism, and I think within that there’s probably stronger links to that history, and why I make the works that I do. I think with abstract work, the beauty of it is you could kind of inform, and I could give you my point of view; But quite often, especially when it’s in the public realm, I think if people find it confusing, or they’re not quite sure what they’re seeing but they like it, I don’t think I mind either. So it really depends on the location, on how the story is told, but I think compared to other works, my work on the surface isn’t controversial. Sometimes it could be too colorful, like some people might find it too colorful and too pink, um, yeah but it’s part of a process.
Can you tell us something that people would be surprised to know about you?
Sinta Tantra: I don’t know, like I’m really into Yoga, and cooking? And I guess I’ve always been interested in… I know it’s kind of very fashionable at the moment, to talk about self-care, but I think I’ve always sort of been into it.
I think that kind of comes from being Balinese, and having this mentality of like arts and life are sort of combined into one thing, and you know for the Balinese, placing offerings every day is very important. The Balinese understands the life balance between good and evil, yin and yang if you want to call it, is very important, so I think the Balinese when it comes to spirituality and religion, are very animistic. But also I think it’s this awareness I’ve learned since I was young to kind of accept the good and bad, understanding that it is a journey of life. So, I don’t know, I think people know that I’m Balinese, but they probably see the kind of, tourist version of Bali; but perhaps realised that actually behind that, there’s the kind of great spirituality and ways of thinking, which form its own philosophy in how you live your life, and what you feel, you know moral and good.
WTF: Yeah especially during this Covid time, I know London is in quite a strict lockdown, so I guess, you know self-care, and all of that is very much needed, just to kind of tone down.
Sinta Tantra: Yeah, it’s very much needed! I mean I used to, before Covid, do Hot Yoga at 7 o’clock in the morning, and then start the day at 9, and then you know work. I think that really gave me a lot of focus. So yeah I think people probably know sort of like, the things that I made, and the things that I put on Instagram or the website; But actually I’m probably one of those artists that are kind of on the cusp of Gen Z and Millennial. I’m sort of, on Instagram for example, I’m kind of absurd, but just enough to keep it going. I think privacy itself is quite important, and I feel that in years to come, probably not even that long, we’re gonna realize that Instagram was really bad for us, bad for our brain, and mental health.
So that’s my feeling on Instagram, I do think, initially, it was wonderful being able to show images, but I think, I have a feeling that people are just getting a bit bored of it, because of the sort of saturated images all the time, and actually where inspiration could come from. Maybe it’s not like images, but the words or the actions that people do in real life which are more important.
What takes you to cloud 9?
Sinta Tantra: Probably food! (laughs) So it’s a very Asian thing, I really love eating well with my friends and family. So in my studio I have assistants, and I think it’s like a very important ritual to have a good lunch, get things to eat, and drink, and you know, sometimes practice Yoga together. But, it’s this idea of I guess again, looking after yourself, and I think eating is kind of wonderful, because of the nourishment for both the body and soul, and yeah, I kind of really missed restaurants though.
What do you miss the most about Indonesia whenever you’re in the UK?
Sinta Tantra: I guess the familiarity of it? It’s sort of interesting, see if I touched down in Indonesia, it feels like “Oh I’m coming home!”, and when I touched down in the UK, “Oh, I’m coming home too!”. So it’s this idea of being very familiar with something. I miss just the aspect of it I think. In terms of specifics, obviously my friends and family.
Also, I guess I quite like sometimes, that if you don’t have that many resources; So for example here, in the UK, there’s a lot of infrastructure for artists, although some people may complain about them, that it was not good enough -- which it might not be – but somewhere like in Indonesia, we have no infrastructure, no real arts council to help kind of develop, or how to fit your vision in terms of how art could be an important tool, both economically, and also I think Indonesia is very good at being creative. Indonesians are actually very creative, so I miss, sort of the entrepreneurship, or the kind of ingenuity that Indonesians sometimes have because they don’t have some product or things as we do here in the West. So sometimes there’s a kind of creative bout I think, for fixing problems. I think that’s what I miss, but I think that’s what I’ve learned through being Indonesian, and through working there as well.
What is the most exciting thing about our contemporary culture?
Sinta Tantra: With certain movements during Covid, like Black Lives Matter, and identity politics – which is very strong and of the moment, whether it’s sexuality like LGBTQ or institutional racism, or like the Asian hate crimes that are happening at the moment; I think what’s incredibly positive is the fact that people can speak about them. You know, their platform as well, people can join up their feelings and hopefully create changes for the better. I think also the power is like having knowledge on the Internet and having access to that knowledge. I think having this new generation of being able to access information as easily as possible, is incredibly empowering.
What’s incredibly empowering is the fact that you can now pick-and-choose, or curate, or put together your own identity and your own story; Whereas I think before, it’s very much tied down with history before, and the history that comes afterward. I mean one example would be like, I made the work that I do, and it doesn’t look like Indonesian, at all. Looks the opposite of Indonesian, or feminine sometimes, if it’s on a large scale, but I made work like that because it was a way of being accepted into the art world sometimes, so I think if I made a sort of decorative work, or a work that looks too Indonesian I think I would have been categorised as an artist who perhaps was quite, you know, Asian, and feminine, and passive. I guess I wanted to break those boundaries or create something that wasn’t... When you look at it, you didn’t think that I was Indonesian, because I didn’t think there is a definition of what it means exactly to be Indonesian, or a definition to be British.
So, looking back I think that’s why I make the work that I do, and then kind of get excited when I do look at younger artists, and they’re making works entirely different from what I’m doing. I guess part of it is because of, you know, it’s possible. I think when I was in art school, as a female Asian figure, it might have been difficult to do decorative work, for example; Because if you thought about the body, if I painted myself, then that would’ve been problematic because the Asian female, the way things are and the male gaze – which I didn’t want, because I’ve always considered my identity beyond that. So I think, I made the work that I kind of do because it was a way of de-linking myself to that kind of, I don’t know... what others expected my identity to be.
Yeah so I guess I’m excited mostly, that now, it’s becoming more open, and the power of having knowledge – whether that’s sometimes, false or true, I’m not sure (laugh); but the idea that you can access that, it’s probably very empowering for young people to create change because you don’t have, sort of, the pyramid system or institutions anymore.
All photos courtesy of the Studio Sinta Tantra and the artist.
where's the frame - ‘in conversation with’ is a weekly series featuring emerging vanguard artists. Stay tuned for more interviews, published every Friday.