Where's the frame
January 21, 2021 7:50 AM
It’s often said that value and appreciation in art are vested in subjectivity. It’s a matter of personal taste. Others argue it is about the ability to represent a specific spirit of the time, a zeitgeist if you will. The zeitgeist, however dissenting, is something that bonds people living during the same period of time. This is where Naufal Abshar fits in. This Indonesian born artist - who was trained at LASALLE Singapore and Goldsmiths London has been methodically capturing the zeitgeist. Especially when he discussed the universality of human experience in his latest series “Time Series” and the exhibition “Time Progression”. He questions and challenges the notion of time and how he, as an artist, could manipulate it. In this studio visit (while socially distancing, ofc!), we talk about his first-ever working series the “HAHA”, his latest exhibition, his accident in Bali, and his admiration towards Tracy Emin.
GI: How has your work evolved from LASALLE in Singapore, Goldsmiths in London, to now?
NA: When I was in LASALLE, I was developing the “HAHA series” - it’s been around 7 years since I developed that. I believe that artists have to evolve, people have to evolve. From then on, I always paint in a reflection of the things that are happening around me and around the world. But, now I'm trying to reflect more on what is happening inside myself and that is related to most people. Hence, the new series called the “Time series” is born - as a way to unpack what actually follows when it involves time. I want to illustrate the importance of time. That is why I experiment with lots of materials including vintage newspapers that have historical connotations to it, then I add my own personal reflection on it.
GI: So with the “HAHA series” you are more outward looking (e.g society expectations) while with the new series “Time series” you are more inward looking (e.g personal struggles)?
NA: Yeah totally, art needs to be honest too. You can’t be too pretentious. My art has become my own shadow, so where I go there’s where the art goes. So whatever is going in my head, I try to channel it in my art. The funny thing is, people ask me ‘oh then it’s only about you?’ Yeah, it’s true but I’m addressing the things that are general and the universality of being human. By the end of the day, if I discuss Indonesian politics not many people outside of Indonesia could understand what I’m trying to say. But if I reflect on human experiences, no matter your skin tone, religion, gender and race you most likely will experience it too. So it’s a combination of human experiences and time. Actually, I just read a book talking about how our lives are nothing but a dream. We are dreaming while our brains are working. You can only experience real life when you’re dead. Hence, it’s very interesting to talk about time not only because it’s for everyone, but most people take it for granted. So that’s why my current series is more about being calm on the one hand, anxiety on the other and the quest to keep evolving as a human being.
GI: It’s interesting to hear that you combine time and mental health issues. There are a lot of uncertainties in 2020 and 2021 with the pandemic and with life in general. So everyone must be battling something now.
NA: I think it has to do with social media and technology too. So if you live in the 50s, maybe news about COVID won’t be everywhere - you know what’s going on but it’s not a continuous stream of bad news every day. We’re too exposed to everything that’s going on in the world. If you think about the past, there were more hardships and problems that the society faced. With technology especially the internet, we feel constantly anxious about what’s coming next.
During the new year’s holiday, I took a break from social media - my life was quite peaceful! I had no worries in the world.
GI: But do you think as an artist, with social media you received more attention to yourself and to your work?
NA: Absolutely! For me, social media is like a double-edged sword. Somehow, I'm very devastated because of it - because I compare myself to other people. During the pandemic, I’ve been experiencing the benefit of social media. IRL art events just stopped. But with social media, I can do a lot of research for my work. I can produce and show my work, without any limitations and spaces. I can just connect with more people and I get the chance to meet and know more people. The only thing that matters is how I use it.
Social media is a platform for you and for you to push your own boundaries. You can do literally anything on there.
GI: This might be a tough question to answer, can you tell us more about your creative process?
NA: My creative process keeps changing. Before, my subject was about society and what’s happening around me. So I rely on my critical thinking and being critical on myself too. Since I can't travel or basically do anything else, my own problems have become my main source of inspiration. Actually, I just got hit by a motorcycle while riding a bike while I was vacationing in Bali. So I use that as my starting point in my creative process.
GI: Then is it fair to say that you take small snippets of your life and reflect it on your work?
NA: Yes! I guess it’s easy now to say that I have my own creative process but before it took very long to get my creative process going. Now, my problems are part of my creative process. A lot of artists do that too, for example, Tracey Emin. If you see her works it’s mostly about her reflecting on her own problems.
GI: Oh yes, you’re right. I saw her exhibition at the White Cube London where she took a selfie of her during her insomnia episodes. It was the ‘A Fortnight of Tears’ exhibition. She was very vulnerable to herself and the audience. For some people it might not be as easy, it’s like putting your dirty laundry on display. Especially for you as a male artist in Indonesia, that’s very patriarchal where men are not supposed to be fragile and have a lot of issues. There is still a stigma.
NA: Absolutely! I mean, physical problems you can see from the outside but not mental health. With mental health, I don't think there is no one-fits-all solution. In Indonesia, if you have mental issues, most people will say “oh just pray more” or “you should be more thankful”. No, it’s not about that, you have to understand what is going on with you. For my art, some of my audience asked why I decided to talk about mental issues. I think it's a real unspoken thing in Indonesia since there’s an unspoken rule that when you have a lot of stuff (materialistic stuff) you should be happy and not complain.
That’s why people looooveeee my current works more than my previous series. I think that there’s a sense of relatability, there’s a trend that people buy works that they relate to. Not so much about its aesthetic quality, but the meaning and the context behind the work.
GI: Really? That’s super interesting!
NA: Yes, I think people’s feelings need to be represented or reflected in any kind of form. Then if you see it, there’s always a tagline on my works, including “Keep Doing Right Things” or “Stay Calm” - for them it’s like a reminder.
A picture can paint thousands of words but one word can only represent that specific one word. If you combine those two, pictures and words it becomes very powerful. That’s why I love Tracey Emin’s work, a very powerful message throughout.
GI: Can you talk more about your “HAHA Series”? Is there any hidden theme and context that you explored? Does it have to do (sarcastically) with humour or happiness?
NA: “HAHA series” can be anything you want. It can be satirical, artificial, and even pure laughter. I got inspired by the capital cities that I used to live in - Singapore, London and New York City. People are very focused and tense. Especially in Singapore, where it is very fast-paced. Then what I think they need is humour, but then again humour is not universal. British humour, Singaporean humour, and American humor are not the same. But the end product is laughter. Laughter can come from many places too, it can come from mockery, pure joy, or even a fake laugh. There are a lot of layers. And when you text HAHA to your friend, are you really laughing? Not really right?
Laughter has become an emblem for conversations. There is a multitude of uses of “HAHA”. In my latest works, I've incorporated the “HAHA” as a pattern in shirts or suits.
GI: You used a lot of old editions of newspapers for your smaller works, that range from Indonesian newspaper Kompas, the NY Times, and a couple of Japanese and Dutch newspapers. Can you elaborate more on why you chose this particular fragile medium?
NA: There’s a huge effort in creating the works on vintage newspapers. First, I have to find it. There’s a value on the vintage newspaper, not monetarily but historically. For instance, the newspaper dated to 1949, it talks about the stuff that’s happening at that particular day and year. Back then, the newspaper is gold - it’s a source of information. Unlike now, where we have tons of sources like TV, Social media, and online magazines.
GI: 100%, back then in the 1970s people only resorted to newspapers, maybe some used radio but only a handful because it was expensive. It’s the only common source for information.
NA: That’s why I want to escalate the value of the newspaper. For some people now, it’s just a piece of paper that you would throw out or use as a food wrapper for here in Indonesia. But what will happen in the next 20 to 30 years from now? So that’s why I want my work to be some sort of a time capsule - where the medium is created in the 40s, 50s even 70s but the work on top of that was created in 2020 or 2021. People will experience 3 different decades, even centuries of perspectives. So as a medium, newspapers tell more stories than just a plain canvas. Artists have used that medium for generations, so it’s pretty common. With newspapers especially those vintage ones, I turned it as a primary aspect of the work then the drawings fell on top of it.
For me it’s like visiting Venice, it feels like you are in a time capsule everywhere - with the renaissance and Italian gothic architecture and murals. But you’re in the 21st century. So, I think that time is not a linear thing where you can’t jump back and forth - actually, you can if you look at things from a different perspective.
GI: You’re right.
NA: Then people ask me if the drawings that I made on top of the newspaper is related to the historical context of the medium? My answer would be no because what I want to achieve is the momentary condition that I'm in during the year of production, I play around with memories.
GI: What is most difficult to find in our current/ contemporary culture?
NA: I think for me it’s self - filterisation.
GI: What is self- filterisation?
NA: How you filter yourself. In contemporary culture, everything is very temporary - it comes by and goes so fast. How do I respond to the art world now? How do I respond to everything, so it’s up to me how to handle it and how to learn from it.
GI: When you talk about filters, does it have to do with what you’re projecting to other people and what you want for people to see you as? and that includes social media?
NA: Of course that too. People judge from what they see from the outside. On my Instagram, I focus on my art so I tend to showcase a lot of my works there. But I want to showcase positivity too, especially on how my art can influence and inspire people. Then the self- filterisation is for that too.
GI: What was the first piece of artwork that really mattered to you?
NA: There’s a work that I made when I broke up with my ex-girlfriend. For me, it’s like a diary but I ended up destroying the art. Then I question what IS the function of art? During my time in LASALLE and Goldsmiths, the professors emphasized a lot on concepts and critical theories. Why does it have to be like that? I really don’t know haha but I see my work as a reflection of how I feel and not about hazy theories.
GI: Do you collect anything on the side?
NA: I collect art too, especially from young artists! Natisa Jones, Abenk Alter, Irskiy, and many more. It’s a good learning curve for me as an artist - where I sometimes put myself as a collector and not as an artist. What do I look for as a collector? What matters for me as a collector? Why do they wanna collect that? And so on.
GI: What do you think of those who opposed being more commercial in the art world?
NA: A lot of people say that I’m too commercial. But with that, I think I can do more things. I really am not opposed to anything. That’s why I decided to have my own studio/gallery. I invite other artists to exhibit their works in my studio, I don’t feel uncomfortable about it as it is my way to support my own community. At the end of the day, I don't think it’s wrong.
I also believe in finding a balance in all of this, what I do to balance everything out is to read more books, travelling, applying for residencies and so on.
GI: If the pandemic is a song, what would it be?
NA: HAHAHAH. I think it’s Always in my head by Coldplay.
GI: What’s next for you this year? Are you working on anything special that you can reveal?
NA: I’m going to work on my series, especially the “Time series”. Especially on the importance of time. With the pandemic, people are house-bound so they learn new things, so maybe art can be another thing that they wish to explore. For me, I will keep on forging new relationships with people and with my art too.