ICHWAN NOOR SOLO EXHIBITION ( ENGLISH VERSION )
Calling him “the maker” is not to commit an exaggeration. Ichwan Noor is not just a creator/artist. In his Yogyakarta studio, where he works with a number of assistants and workers, Ichwan Noor helps other artists to “make” three-dimensional pieces. He receives many visits, not only from some of Indonesia's foremost artists, but also artists from the South-East Asia region, all seeking his assistance to make three-dimensional works.
In the development of contemporary art, three-dimensional forms--e.g. sculptures, installations, reliefs, constructions, ready-made molds--are popular languages of expression (idioms). However, they are not the exclusive purview of artists who commonly work with three-dimensional forms. Artists with painting or graphics backgrounds--those who usually work with two-dimensional forms--often have impulses to utilize these languages of form. The increasing role of “idea” within contemporary art (as opposed to the development of idioms in an expressive way), has lead to a new tradition, that is: to “make” works with the help of artisans/craftsmen.
Parallel to this tendency is the emergence of workshops--ceramics studios, sculpture studios, as well as metal casting workshops, product development studios and even garage-style workshops. They are all available for usage by contemporary artists seeking to create artworks. There are many such workshops in Bandung and Yogyakarta.
However, almost all of these studios limit themselves to technical services. The (soliciting) artists must provide a clear blue print for the studios to work from, in their production processes. This condition is not very ideal, because making a particular (art)work is not the same as making a designed product; the latter already having idioms that are solid/concrete and are clearly understood by both planner and maker. Meanwhile, the realization of an artwork is open to various developmental opportunities devoid of any specifically-planned language. As such, blue prints are not effective instruments. Instead, an intensive discussion between artist and maker is needed to unearth the possibilities of developing a (suitable) three-dimensional language.
Amongst all workshops in Bandung and Yogyakarta, only Ichwan Noor's workshop offers such developmental opportunities. Ichwan is known as a maker who does not just make pieces as ordered. More often than not, he involves himself in discussions with artists soliciting his assistance. He provides information on possible three-dimensional forms, as well as giving advice on its applications. Ichwan understands how artists who are more accustomed to working with two-dimensional pieces may not recognize the rich variety of potential materials available to them, or that they may not have a clear image of such formative possibilities that can be used to communicate an expression.
Ichwan Noor is an artist with a sculpture background. As an artist, he is proficient in various techniques needed to make three-dimensional art works, even large-scale works. He is also familiar with techniques for casting various metals and fiber-resin. He can expertly calculate structures, and is familiar with a variety of forms, from biomorphic forms to constructive forms. His abilities have earned him the title of “the maker” from other artists.
However, “the maker" must not only be connected to Ichwan's activities in helping other artists create their three-dimensional pieces. It is only befitting for Ichwan Noor to be recognized as "a maker". He once said that, for him the most interesting part of a creative endeavor is the "making" process. Those creative ideas developing in his mind cannot be separated from the ideas of making his art pieces. Meanwhile, in the (art-) making process, diverse ideas serve to cement his expressions. "I think, the most important part of ‘creating’ is the work put into it," he said. This belief reflects his background; he is a sculptor.
It is a tradition in the world of sculpture art that the creative process is related not only to “creation” but also related to the world of ideas. Sculpting can never avoid the aspect of “making”, that is: to realize an idea into a concrete object, through shaping/forming, building/constructing, calculating such constructions and cultivating the (relevant) materials. This is similar to an architect who cannot avoid constructive (construction-related) calculations and the collective knowledge in building and construction. Thus, other than having the ability to contemplate and create, a sculptor must also possess "workshop" abilities: the intelligence needed to solve construction-related problems, the ability to recognize the various tools and implements, the mastery of various techniques for making and creating.
However, not all sculptors follow this tradition. A large number of sculptors tend to choose, or specialize in, a specific sculpting technique, such as building plastic forms using clay, woodcarving, or constructing forms using welding techniques. This tendency [to specialize in a particular technique] is more or less influenced by a common image that workshop-based endeavors are not artistic endeavors. This image is related to common perception believing that the foremost principle of art is contemplation. Painting, an endeavor that can quickly record feeling and contemplation--with minimal technical hindrance once the artist has mastered the intricacies of idiomatic languages--is believed to be the prime reflection of artistic endeavor.
In the end, only a handful of sculptors with talent in engineering are left to uphold this workshop tradition. In the development of Indonesian art, eminent sculptor Nyoman Nuarta ably exemplifies this trait. He is known as a creator of large-scale sculptures, most of them as tall as buildings. He is noted for his discovery of a new technique in constructing large-scale sculptures (patented and acknowledged by the World Sculpture Society based in Washington, D.C.). This technique improves upon an older technique applied in the building of the Liberty statue in the US, two decades ago. Here, architectural traits can be used to compare. It is commonly understood that architecture is not limited to the question of engineering.
Ichwan Noor is one of those sculptors who continue this workshop tradition. His works presented here, in his solo exhibition at the Jakarta Art District (JAD), demonstrate his interest in engineering. Some of his works celebrate various workshop tools. Amongst them: a personification of the pulley (a chain contraption to lift heavy objects in a workshop), and a personification of a plane (a sharp instrument used to smooth out a wood's surface). About these works, Ichwan said: the advancement in production in all sectors is reflected in the development of the instruments as well as the invention of new equipments, to become the extension of human hands and thoughts. He also emphasized that this is also true for art.
His statements show Ichwan's conviction in the importance of “making” in an artist's creative process. All his works, including those exhibited here, show his thoughts on the position of work and the act of making in his creative process. As a lecturer at the Faculty of Art and Design, Indonesian Art Institute, Yogyakarta, he is used to discussing this issue. There is a philosophical meaning behind this statement, even when he is not entirely conscious of it.
This philosophical meaning points to the fundamental problem in art, as reflected in art's age-old question, "what is art?" One conclusion that has been derived from this question--one that is still influential until now--is that workshop-based endeavors, including hand work, are not considered as artistic endeavors. Unlike artistic endeavors that involve philosophical thought and contemplation, the former undertaking--identified as craftsmanship--is questioned for its doubtful level of thought.
This common understanding is “censured” by the philosopher Richard Sennett, who recently reexamined the understanding of the “making process” in the human civilization. In his book (The Craftsman, Allen Lane. London. 2008), Richard Sennett criticizes [people’s] perception of “craftsmanship”, which reflects this common understanding.
Richard Sennett is a second-wave (second-generation) Pragmatist. The first wave of Pragmatism emerged in the US around the end of 19th century, as a reaction to idealistic thoughts developing in Europe that was preoccupied with solving abstract problems and seeking universal truths. Pragmatism emerged with the intention to solve the problems and challenges faced in life. Pragmatism's first wave includes C.S. Pierce, William James and John Dewey. Pragmatism's second wave emerged after the 2nd World War. It continues to develop until the present time. In addition to Richard Sennett, other eminent second-generation Pragmatists are Hans Joas, Richard Rorty and Richard Bernstein.
Since their fundamental aim is to think about problems found in practical living, the (shared) agenda of both first and second wave Pragmatism is to continually question the systems of work and production emerging from the popular term, homo faber (man as maker). This Latin term marks the developments of human civilization, i.e. the time when humans invented the wheel and construction techniques. Such developments are now noted as an achievement of a civilization. Prior to these achievements, humans lived as nomads, they hunted and gathered food, and resided in caves.
Pragmatism of the first wave tended to view homo faber by way of socialism that developed in the 19th century. It developed in parallel with Karl Marx's thought on the history of materialism. Both developed with the belief that human's (economic) welfare centered itself in the material world--in the end, as certain defiance against capitalism by questioning who should actually command production in the material world.
Second-generation Pragmatism left this paradigm and much preferred to trace the various personal aspects in the making process. This second generation has codified a new paradigm, the intricacies of “the makers” and their capacity: craftsmanship. Here, we can see how Richard Sennett's thoughts regarding craftsman don’t necessarily connect directly with art-related thoughts. Sennett's thoughts have a wider range, that is, to re-examine homo faber. The question of art is related to this because the disservice done to the “act of making” is most starkly reflected in the art-craft dichotomy within the world of art itself.
In this new approach, Sennett arrives at a conviction that craftsmanship is not just a making process that involves hand work. He elaborates how craftsmanship also involves thought--reflected in various innovations as a series of development in the techniques involved in making, something Ichwan Noor believes also. There is a dialog between the concrete practice of making and the thinking process. Here “hand work” is an extension of “mind (head) work”, both of them working together and taking responsibility of various activities. As such, Sennett maintains that craftsmanship is not a skill achieved through repetitive work and handed down from generation to generation, a phenomenon usually related to the traditions of ethnic culture/civilization.
Sennett emphasizes that a good craftsman is aware of the close relationship between “hand work” and “head work”. In craftsmanship, there will always be problem-finding and problem-solving. Craftsmen use the finding and solving of problems as a way to open new territories in their work space.
From his examination, Sennett discovers that craftsmen usually have a very specific approach to critical thinking. This has allowed them to become perfectionists, and has led them to possess a strong commitment to their work. A good craftsman will always have a (healthy) obsession to present his best possible work. They will always try to complete the job as best they can for the sake of the job itself, and not for other reasons. To this end, they will also have the resilience needed to work continually and consistently. Through his research, Sennett discovers that, for craftsmen, the need to complete a job in the best possible way is a very human desire indeed.
With this kind of perception, Sennett expresses that craftsmen are not just people who create products. Craftsmen are great artists, eminent scientists, foremost doctors, cutting-edge designers, superlative computer experts, even noteworthy musicians. They have astounding skills and abilities to think in specific ways.
Sennett also criticizes the first generation of Pragmatists, who placed an emphasis on social demands in order to understand the making process. He criticizes materialism that made first-wave Pragmaticists emphasize on how a craftsman's work should be utilized. As such, they often neglected the intricacies of craftsmanship as related to the personal dimension of a craftsman.
Sennett records that following the 2nd World War, craftsmen were put under suspicion. It was based on a particular belief that craftsmen invented the nuclear bomb that threatened life on earth. Propelled by this conviction, a number of philosophers--including Pragmatists--felt that craftsmen must be monitored. Their works must receive public acknowledgment before going into production and distributed to the public. This happened even though, according to Sennett, the nuclear bomb was not the craftsmen’s fault. The blame must be squarely laid on the shoulders of the ‘powerful’, who had exploited craftsmen’s work for war purposes (the nuclear bomb was developed by a team within the Allied forces, led by Robert Oppenheimer).
Sennett criticizes how this control convention is still in place even now. Sennett’s question revolves around how the sum of craftsmen’s work, as a sign of human superiority, is placed under the control of people who do not understand the intricacies of craftsmen’s work and who are thus unable to fathom a way to utilize this edge. According to Sennett, post-war politicians--authorities representing the public--were lay-people preoccupied with calculations of the economic value of craftsmanship, which led to the exploitation of craftsmen by industries. Now, craftsmen’s skills are developed and exploited for the production of consumptive consumer goods.
According to Sennett, craftsmen are currently facing a conflict because of these powers. On the one hand, they wish to follow an internal desire to complete a task/job as best they can--for the sake of the job itself. On the other hand, they must also take into account various conditions and work systems required to fulfill production needs. As such, Sennett argues that industrial-made products cannot (properly) demonstrate craftsmanship.
In a dramatic way, Sennett expounds how craftsmen can never feel at home. They move from one power to another, and as such, they can never fulfill their work properly. Common conventions and understanding about craftsmanship have trapped them. For this reason, they are never free to show their actual works.
The aim of Sennett’s exposition is for us to: understand craftsmanship, and give freedom to craftsmen. He reminds us that since the very beginning, Pragmatism has seen how socially-beneficial production requires freedom. He quotes John Dewey who finds similarity between technological inventions/discoveries and the creation of artworks. Both are results of work that involves play behavior in humans (homo ludens), free from any ulterior purpose or condition. This freedom cannot be found in the current state of craftsmanship, because craftsmen are still fettered by wrongly-understood conventions and comprehension. In the world of art, where freedom is almost absolute, craftsmanship is still looked down upon.
Although cutting in his remarks, Sennett’s observations on craftsmanship are not all doom and gloom. In his book, he is able to show a number of realities that demonstrate how craftsmanship--including those within the development of computer technology--can overcome stifling conditions. Sennett’s optimism can be paralleled with the most recent developments of contemporary art that shows the emergence of a new tendency to pursue workshop-based endeavors and craftsmanship. This indicator--yet to be observed with more depth--reaffirms the traits and tendencies found within the works of Ichwan Noor.
The emergence of contemporary art can be seen as the “liberation of art media” from “the constrictive process” of modern art that came before it. This liberation has given rise to previously-unknown new media. Some of the earliest emerging media include installations, videos, the body (in performance art), photographs, computers (in digital art), books (in book art), and ready-mades (objects).
This particular liberation has provided contemporary art development with diverse possibilities--a condition dubbed as “anything goes”. However, it has also led to a crisis in how people read languages of expression and comprehend idioms. As a comparison, modern art recognizes one “modern art language”, that is: the language of forms, based on formalism. In the development of contemporary art, there is no particular “contemporary language”, because all sorts of expressive media tend to conceive their own languages. In addition, the possibilities provided by these new media cannot always be described as language. We must also note that language, in any field, has its own systems and conditions (created through a long process), which guarantees uniformity when used in communication and comprehension.
Early in the introduction of contemporary art (in the 70s-80s), such crisis was not of great concern. The need to oppose modern art principles caused contemporary art research to place more emphasis on the degree of its rebellion. “Bizarre” art works were even celebrated by critics of that time. However, after four decades of development, this “inter-regnum” brand of criticism finally fell out of favor. In this situation, the “anything goes” condition finally caused to a crisis in contemporary art criticism. In his attempt to describe this crisis in contemporary art, James Elkin wrote: “Art criticism is massively produced, and massively ignored.” (The State of Art Criticism. James Elkins, Michael Newman [ed.]. Routledge. London-NY. 2008. h.11).
The aforementioned crisis in art criticism obviously influenced the development of contemporary art. Artists have gained the license to do whatever, without running the risk of being criticized. However, this apparently lawless condition did not please every artist. “Good artists”--like “good craftsmen”--[must] anxiously feel that meaningful art works cannot come from opportunism and lawlessness. Parallel to Sennett’s view, a “good artists” have an internal desire to complete a work in the best way possible for the sake of work itself, and not for any other reasons. Ichwan Noor’s view on the importance of a “making process” in the creation of an artwork can be seen as a reflection of this anxiety.
In the face of such status quo, anxious artists began searching for (suitable) language, without the help of art critics, theorists, or even art historians. Since early 2000s, the sum of their efforts has become more apparent in the development of contemporary art, manifesting as a predilection to “piggyback” various fields/disciplines with established languages. These established languages can be clearly seen in the “making process” (as modus operandi) in various sectors outside of the art world. Video art, for instance, tends to adopt film-related idioms. Digital art borrows extensively from computer language. Contemporary sculpture and installation use production processes found in industrial sectors, as well as production processes of workshop-based endeavors. From a variety of modus operandi, the artists seem to have found an idiom, a hybridization of personal art language with mechanical language, construction language, design language, and even mathematical language.
This “piggybacking” on other fields/disciplines has allowed contemporary art works to use languages hinging upon diverse knowledge disciplines. These disciplines cannot be confined, because artists use various “making process” (industrial or non-industrial modus operandi) found in various sectors. However, this diversity does not lead to a crisis in how people perceive or read them, because the idioms used in their making process--languages found in production systems of industries, garage-style workshops, film languages, for instance--are languages already known by the public. In addition, the way these languages are cultivated and used reflects craftsmanship, if we go by Richard Sennett’s point of view.
It is not difficult to see the connection between Ichwan Noor’s position regarding work and the thoughts of Richard Sennett. Moreover, the meaning behind Ichwan’s works reflects Sennett’s thoughts. Ichwan’s works in this exhibition at JAD question the “making civilization” within the span of current human livelihood: are we still walking the path of this “making civilization”? Meanwhile, contemporary art mainstream tends to question “occulcentric civilization” and it tends to consider consumer goods as an unavoidable reality--here, the “ocular” is controlled by knowledge and capitalism.
A number of Ichwan’s works in this exhibition still show the figures (body or parts of a body), showing the tension of ‘human as maker’--homo faber. To express this tension, Ichwan does not present figures commonly seen in sculpture art. Some of them demonstrate a metamorphosis from [human] figures into forms of clothing--through soft construction, a technique introduced by sculptor Claes Oldenburg at the beginning of contemporary art development. In another of his works, he has pieced together parts of the body using construction.
These works exhibit a common disposition in Ichwan’s language of expression, that is, an idiom combining naturally-occuring biomorphic forms with industrially-inspired exact forms. In addition to human figures, Ichwan’s works also explore animals as a subject matter, such as horses and birds. In addition to construction, Ichwan has developed mechanical forms, machines for instance. Like most contemporary art works, Ichwan has also incorporated ready-mades in his works. As well as to emphasize his expressions on objects, the inclusion of these ready-made objects reflects a representational system in contemporary art that negates boundaries between reality and representation.
Within this particular frame of reference, Ichwan’s works can be seen as presenting a hybridization of humans and man-made products. Although intuitive, this expression shows that Ichwan have seen the same phenomena as those observed by Sennett, in relation to [our] current material culture. In his book, Sennett questions whether industrial products can still be called man-made, within the civilization of ‘man as maker’. Dramatically, he observes this condition as a Pandora’s box, a flood of products whose developments cannot be slowed down: monsters whose creators are no longer known to us.