Farid Stevy Asta
Kendra Gallery, seminyak Bali 23 oct – 21 nov 2010
Curated by Rain Rosidi
In Medias Res: In the Midst of Global Cacophony
In the beginning was the mental image. Then, humans created signs—symbols, icons, letters—to communicate ideas
and languages that originally could only be sounded and spoken. The invention of alphabets and writing changed traditions of
oral communication into cultures of writing. Human civilization was born by letters, because only with them could humans make
Throughout human history, letters and writing have been one of the most dominant and significant forms of symbolic
representation. It would never have been possible for philosophy, religion, rationality, literature or linguistics to come into being
and progress without the birth of letters and writing, which are prerequisites of modern languages. These days, the greatest
form of language is in letters, as writing—from words and sentences, rhymes and poetry and song lyrics to holy verses—in
books, magazines, on television, billboards, mobile phones, computers, t-shirts, even underwear. Our modern world is overrun by
innumerable letters, regular or scattered, tangible or threaded into our thoughts.
These days, letters are increasingly institutionalized by verbal language. The culture of writing has changed them into
mere tools, bound by the conventions of communication and language. Interestingly, for centuries, the formalization of language
has turned letters into signs, increasingly tied to the two-dimensional field—at first, that of stone / plaques, then paper/ books,
and now, virtual screens whose substance is immaterial, as they are only composed of light and electronic digits. We are often
unaware that letters of the alphabet are also basically visual objects—traces of personal imagination and human fantasy—whose
conventions are arbitrary.
An artist from Brooklyn, New York, Ebon Heath, has an intriguing visual and conceptual obsession with letters, writing,
words and language, as more than just verbal idioms. From 1994 to the present, Heath has been pouring that creative obsession of
his into a series of Stereo.type projects. Heath’s artworks basically constitute explorations of letters and words in physical shapes
that ‘could not possibly exist’ in codes of language and conventions of writing in a two-dimensional field. Resembling a kind of
‘visual poetry’, we might categorize Heath’s series of works as ‘sculpture’, installation, or to put them simply: three-dimensional
What is most moving about Heath’s projects, to me, is his way of imagining certain letters and writing as objects that
possess their own modes of existence, free of their nature as the formal and rigid elements that shape language. In his works,
Heath brings forth words and characters and writing that resemble mobiles, which writhe like ballet dancers, pile up like a throng
of ants, scatter like fragments of a floating puzzle, or float like the shards of an exploding and hovering celestial body. Heath’s
works do not turn writing into a new, illegible object; rather they make it legible in a different way. However, in encountering the
interwoven structure of those letters, which accentuates their visual rhythms, we do not have to read them one by one to get their
meaning. The sensation of their visual appearance and composition already speaks for itself.
I imagine that Heath’s creative process requires not only the skill and sensitivity to ‘interpret’, because in transforming
writing into an object he rarely just sets aside the meaningful aspects of the writing he is working on. Furthermore, he also works
the ‘meaning’ of the writing to encourage the birth of its form as a ‘pure’ visual object. His working process not only involves an
ability to arrange a ‘musicalization’, but also a ‘choreography’, which eventually makes the writings appear as objects that are
dynamic, and solid, yet also illusory.
In the domain of art history, artworks that made visual use of texts were pioneered by the artists of the avant-garde Dada
movement in the 1920s. At that time, in response to the decadence of the post-World War I sociopolitical situation, the Dada artists
in Europe sarcastically and critically rejected the concept of modernity dominated by a blinding rationality. Driven by artists across
disciplines—theater, music, visual art and literature—Dada experimented a lot with language, and firmly rejected the concept
of distinct separations between the musical, literal and visual aspects of writing. Instead, these artists advocated a revival of the
‘primitive’ and absurd relationship between language and reality.
It is no coincidence that Ebon Heath is also much inspired by the works of the Dadaists. In his creative process for Stereo.
type, Heath has freely taken inspiration from various structures, of both industrial and organic objects, which are not directly
related to his chosen texts: ranging from fish nets, animal spines, dolls, kites, feathers, parachutes to haute-couture clothes. His
sources of inspiration are texts that cross various cultures, from Brooklyn, Andalusia, Berlin, Marrakech, London, and Trinidad
to Indonesia. In creating his work, Heath takes full advantage of the diverse texts he finds in literature, music, and the media, or
‘mantras’ of his own creation. In transforming texts into three-dimensional objects, he takes into account the numbers, types of
characters and scale of the object, to bring out new meanings and impressions. His passion for music has led him to make many
works out of rap, hip-hop and jazz song lyrics, from Jay Electronica to Ella Fitzgerald.
In addition to displaying a work based on the work of George David Weiss, Heath is also specially presenting a work based
on the adaptation of a most illustrious existential poem by Chairil Anwar, Aku (1945), in the present exhibition in Indonesia. In
this work, Heath has transformed the array of stanzas of the poem into dangling, elongated flower petals. The text they contain is
presented in two versions: Indonesian and English. Upon observing this work, I sense an interesting tension, between the characters
and meaning of the poem, Aku, which, to quote the commentary of Asrul Sani: “… is filled with the spirit of a brave, courageous,
and challenging soul,” and the visualization of the flower petals, which are actually flirtatious, elegant, and flamboyant. There,
we may not find Chairil’s character as a bohemian and tough-hearted author. Perhaps this is what Roland Barthes meant by his
dictum of the ‘Death of the Author.’ Or, because I am quite familiar with Chairil’s poetry, in savoring Heath’s work I am reminded of
the post-structuralist words of Julia Kristeva on ‘intertextuality’, which describe any text as the weaving and blending of a variety
of texts. Kristeva points out two kinds of axes in the reading of a text, horizontal and vertical. The horizontal axis connects an
author (artist) to his or her reader, while the vertical one is the tie between one text and other texts. As the creator of this work,
Heath occupies both positions simultaneously: as reader and as author who puts himself in both axes.
Aside from artistic sensations, Heath’s works also highlight the meticulous and thorough aspects of his design work. He
selects materials based on the aspects of durability and flexibility. Heath’s educational background in the field of graphic design
enables him to create a system of grids and detailed structures for his three-dimensional works. Heath, moreover, mentions that
his artworks are always trying to solve a problem, for example, associated with the physicality of human body language and the
typographic forms of a given language. By creating texts in three-dimensional form, he is also proposing a new way of reading
text. If letters or writing in the two-dimensional field have limitations because they can only be read from one side, the works of
Health precisely allow the reader to look at them from various sides and perspectives. This mode makes possible the formation of
new meanings out of a way of reading texts that is also new. All of this he intends to serve as a system of communication that is
born of the process of shaping or forming, not just ‘writing’.
Lately, Heath has also created an interesting interaction between his typographic objects and the physicality of the human
body, which finally resulted in new series of Stereo.types in the form of jewelry and ‘wearable art’ based on Arabic script that he
made out of leather. For his courage in creating new forms from this process of linking various types of letters and cultures, it would
not be an exaggeration if we were to call Heath’s works representations of the global conditions of these times, when cultural
and social relationships through letters and writings are occurring with increasing intensity, blended in our daily life, unlimited
by stretches of geographic and physical distance. About the motif that sets his Stereo.types he has also said: “… All the audio and
verbal noise, from music we plug our ears with to the din of countless conversations, screams and whispers. With new media of
texting, online, and transmitted technology there is even invisible noise silent to the eye surrounding us all. It is this cozy womb of
information, data, or chorus of cacophony that my mobiles hope to represent as well as reveal: making the invisible visible.” As
a continuous art project, Stereo.types explores the balance between personal imagination, which stubbornly perseveres, and the
global urban environment, crammed with the noise of word and language pollution.
(Translated from the Indonesian by Sherry Kasman Entus)