OTW: Solo Exhibition of Tromarama*

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”
― Carl Sandburg

There is an unofficial thesis which says that an artist is the epitome of an idiosyncrasy. This premise will be easy to justify if we take notice of how Febie Babyrose, Herbert Hans and Ruddy Hatumena work. These three artists are the members of Tromarama group, which has become a phenomenon in the Indonesian art world recently. In just a short time they have become a group that needs to be reckoned with, not only in Indonesia, but also globally. This has been shown by their solo exhibition at Mori Art Museum in Japan in 2010.

They are known as a video-artist group, yet their work methods can be said to be different than other video artists. Genealogically, film came before video as a method of producing moving images. One essential difference that distinguishes video with its relative is in how it creates and stores its images: if video directly transforms audio and visual materials in the form of data – analogue or digital – film stores its images in the form of celluloid tapes, of which every part can be seen sequentially with the naked eye.

“However, Video differs from its two closest relatives, film and television, in one essential point: it directly translates the audio-visual material into analogue or digital code. Thereby, recording and storage takes place synchronously. Video is a means of preservation that retains the recorded material in a state of permanent availability and manipulability. In contrast, traditional film is a sequence of individual images visible on the celluloid to the naked eye, and only the mechanical movement of the length of film during projection produces movement.”

Tromarama’s video art works are actually more akin to the logic of film – animation to be exact – since they create visual materials manually through various visual methods, such as making woodcut images one after another; making collage from thousands of buttons, or arranging moving images from dozens of embroideries.

Video art itself has greatly contributed to the influence of the development of art discourse. One contribution is that it has freed artists from the task of creating ‘objects’: “Perhaps the biggest development has been that artists are finally relieved of the task of making ‘objects’, and can now conceive their ideas in a way that becomes experiential.”  . The assumption that video is a medium that eliminates the artists’ task in creating ‘objects’ puts Tromarama in a unique position as a video art group. Even though the end results of Tromarama’s works are video, the process of making the object is an important part. In fact, these objects are often displayed along their video works.

Stop-motion animation has become the technical core of Tromarama’s works. The special logic of movies that creates dimensional motion and time through rotation of tens to millions of images on celluloid tapes, more or less has become the technical ‘philosophy’ that underlies how to move the images they create. What then becomes their biggest strength is the method used to create ‘celluloid tapes’ Tromarama style. Although they are labelled as video-artists, if we trace their working process, it is not an exaggeration to say that they are cross-medium artists. Various techniques and materials have been explored, from woodcut, embroidery, drawing, batik, collage, and the use of found objects arranged into certain images. The manual-labour required was quite tough, belying the apparently simple and light end result, especially considering that the three members of the group tend to adopt a cheerful attitude and often are witty in their works.

One interesting thing that they mentioned in a conversation was a funny fact that in the beginning of their work they actually avoided too much use of digital processes due to lack of facilities. Limitation of digital equipment owned, forced all three to work harder, relying on manual-labour. That decision became an advantage, because public see this aspect as their strength.

In terms of idea, Tromarama’s works actually often depart from ideas that are quite reflective and contemplative. However, in line with their friendly, cheerful and fun demeanour; the visual aspects in their works tend to have light and carefree atmospheres: a quality that corresponds to their publicly known medium identity, which is video. In art praxis, video is considered as an agent of democratization in imagery production – anyone can do it. But that assumption is not always true, since video art also requires skill to master, it also needs unique and interesting ideas / concepts to produce a powerful video work. In addition to the fact that it uses a familiar technology to the non-art public, video art becomes a medium that is free from canonical modernist tradition parameter:
“One of the most significant ways video art has accomplished this potential, has been to democratize the production of the images, by virtue of being medium free from canonical traditions and without a critical establishment. Because anyone can could pick up a camera and make this form of art, video held the potential for cultural critique and, from the beginning was understood as a technology for production of anti-establishment imagery… ”

Even though positioned in a quite problematic area related to video medium classification, but in fact, the character of Tromarama’s works are congruent with the character of video as a subversive medium to the canonical parameter in modern art. This means that even Tromarama’s work method may not be congruent with most video artist, it does not impede Tromarama’s placing as video artists. After all, video art does not assert its limit strictly.

All Tromarama’s idiosyncrasies and characteristics mentioned above are present in this solo exhibition. The choice of the exhibition’s title: OTW, widely used as an acronym for ‘on the way’, neatly summarises Tromarama’s stance in this exhibition. But the question that arises is: where are they going?

OTW does have reflective and contemplative content, which is arguably more profound than their previous works. Like an artist that becomes more mature both in experience and skill, Tromarama too, besides have expanded their views to the outside world, also deepens their contemplation by asking the essential question: what is the real purpose of human life? What is human’s hope for the future?

With OTW Tromarama stated that generally human always wants to be closer to their creator. The image of the creator is surely related with the meaning of perfection. In a conversation, Febie, Herbert and Ruddy said that one of the important keyword in this exhibition is the term “litany”, which means a series of prayers to God for use in church services. Tromarama believes that prayer is human approach in projecting their hopes for the future. If we put the most extreme form of hope in the vocabulary of human knowledge, then “perfection” is the most complete form of purpose.

Thus, god (with lowercase g) according to Tromarama is an image of perfection that symbolizes human’s progressive movements toward a completion. Therefore, “god” has a central position in this OTW exhibition, although it should be underlined, that god Tromarama refers here does not necessarily refer to God (with uppercase G) in institutional religious beliefs. God in Tromarama’s vocabulary is a conception of perfection. An idealization of human purposes at an ultimate point; it may include a career objectives, moral ideals and humanism, or an artistic purpose in work. The phrase, “to make something as a god” might be an appropriate analogy in describing the symbolism of god in that sense.

Observing the idea that is carried by Tromarama, we can track the tradition of art in the past which is close to spiritual and religious aspect. But in contemporary praxis, the references that have been done by artists are not merely connected to the existence of specific religion with its formal practice. Along with technology development and scientific enlightenment, spiritual aspects come in different forms. As stated by art critic Thierry de Duve, and quoted by Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel:

“…in contemporary secular societies, ‘entertainment has replaced religion… but religiousness is still there.’ Human are now experiencing religious feelings, such as devotion or awe, in secular public domains, including museums, rock concerts, sports arenas, and shopping malls.”

When working on the conception of perfection, Febie, Herbert and Ruddy find the anti-thesis of perfection itself. The fact that is not surprising for if you think further about it, the essence of life is born from the imperfection; a reality that provokes human being to form an ideal concept of perfection. The overlapping of these two conflicting conceptions is composed ideally by Tromarama, especially in their installation work titled “Privilege” and “God Has Many Names”

The work mentioned first is an interactive work in writing format formed with laser-cutting techniques, and consists of 45 paper modules.  Each module is a statement on god’s “imperfection”. Sentence like: “When god cries, When god sleeps, when god bleeds” continuously arranged in a dark room. Visitors can only read these sentences by shining the lights on the wall, creating multiple images shaped by the object and its shadow. Tromarama conveys that human in a certain point positions themselves as god. That is why each god’s (with lowercase g) activities in this work are human daily activities, which are far from perfect. Interactive aspect in this work, which presented in the flashlight, becomes a symbol of human effort in search of satisfaction and perfection. But when visitors read every sentence highlighted, they will find the truth that satisfaction and perfection are always hindered by human limitations.

In the work “God Has Many Names”, Tromarama presents a brief but problematic statement, which is a signage with “God Has Many Names” in relief. By reflecting on various religious conflicts, Tromarama believes that ideas about God (with uppercase G) vary. Heterogeneity, the true value of God many forms end to an endless conflict in the history of human civilization. Through this work Tromarama wants to make public aware that truth has many characters. It is useless if someone forces their personal true value thoroughly to everyone.

Surpassing an interactive aspect in “Privilege” is a work titled “The Planner”, a work that takes advantage of public involvement, which shows an abstract configuration of colourful square papers on the wall. Visitor can choose a piece of paper to then draw or write their projections of future.  Having finished writing the idea, the paper is taped back to the wall with the written side facing out. Through this work we can peek into others’ minds that have many ideas about hope or even pessimisms about the future.  

As the three non-video works mentioned, the three videos that will be presented in OTW show similar anxiety from the three members of Tromarama in interpreting progression and hopes of perfection. In “Burn Out”, Febie, Herbert and Ruddy expressed that homogenization in people’s behaviour caused by rules that are agreed together often reduces human individualism and personalities, whereas in a certain proportion liberality of an individual can be an advantage in a common goal. This work shows the silhouette of human figures shaped from various colours and shapes, moves along to the beat of house music in aerobics movements. Gradually these figures of various patterns unify into one pattern, until their aerobics movements are almost invisible. Aerobics that requires synchronized movements of their participants is the right symbol for this issue.

As opposed to the video “Burn Out”, the work titled “On Progress” appears deeper and heavier. The work that shows a movement of pairs of shoes going up and down stairs does not bring the subject of shoe wearer. Tromarama said that sometimes the idea about progress eliminates human values. Projections of development carried by the government, or economic growth target for example, only shows number and figures, without realizing that the truth behind the numbers is a collection of people with their own complexities. The presence of stairs becomes another symbol that movements sometimes regress rather than progress. Quoting Ernest Hemmingway: “Never confuse movement with action,” human are often dissolves in motion without realizing that they might move toward a degraded reality.

Although visually the video work “The Lost One” appears simpler and more cheerful than “On Progress”, critical content that borne by this work is no less heavy. The work with its “main star” hundreds of maneki neko cats figurines reminds us to the work “Silent Dialectica” which was shown in 2011 in Asian Art Biennale #3 in Taiwan. If  in “Silent Dialectica” arms and other elements of thousand maneki neko passively presented in the form of installation art, then in “The Lost One”, a thousand of armless maneki neko cats look active, as if they are busy searching for their missing arms. Maneki neko in Chinese culture is known as an object that can attracts fortune by endlessly moving its arm to call fortune. Video journey of a thousand maneki neko in search of their arms showed as if mocking human effort to fulfil endless needs. This work is a reflection of people gets caught up in consumerism lifestyle and trap inside the logic of capitalism. This work shows how human are imprisoned by their own desires toward virtual adequacy and completeness.

Tromarama earnest effort to explore various techniques in producing objects and images turns out giving an emphatic effect. Febie Babyrose admitted that when she made animation material by batik, she could feel how heavy a workload of a batik craftsman was, and they may only receive meagre compensation. Manual-labour by its own becomes an important part for Tromarama, because their aspects of emphatic and critical capacities were built by this experience. This aspect becomes an idiosyncrasy for Tromarama, as many young artists – in their generation, prioritize conceptual aspect above techniques in their work.

OTW or “On the Way” can be a checkpoint in mapping Tromarama’s progressive movements toward the future. In a conversation with the three, each member expresses their concerns in a work’s social function when it is presented to the public. This realization, more or less marks their maturity in their work. Persistency in exploring technical aspects, also the tendency to always consider perfection, as well as their abilities to be more emphatic toward technical aspect in their work: have interwoven into its own capital. OTW which is shown today, will provoke public interest, what kind of progress they will be presented in the future?

Asmudjo Jono Irianto
Dinni Tresnadewi Nf

1 Martin, S. (2006). Video Art (p.6).  Koln: Taschen.
2 Elwes, C. (2005). Video Art, A Guided Tour.(p.ix). New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.
3 Perry, G., & Wood, P. (Eds). (2004). Themes in Contemporary Art (p.213).  London: Yale University Press.
4 Robertson, J., & McDaniel, C. (2010).  Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980. (p.297).  New York:  Oxford University Press.

*This essay was published in “OTW” catalogue as a part of Tromarama Solo Exhibition. Date of Publication: 2013