Indonesian President Suharto resigned on 21 May 1998 after months of protest and violence. It is estimated that over 1800 people died and many others were raped and otherwise injured. In his installation After Voices, Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto responded to this tumultuous time in his nation’s history, a traumatic period in which victory came at a terrible price.
In 1998 Kuswidananto joined the Yogyakarta-based experimental theatre group Teater Garasi. He is still a member and, in After Voices, Kuswidananto used animatronics, sound, video and sculpture to create a ghostly protest procession that had a distinctly theatrical edge.
In After Voices, Kuswidananto presented row upon row of worn shoes: the rank and file, missing in action. Occasionally their ghostly voices would crackle forth from suspended megaphones, while banners bearing hundreds of names (presumably those of the dead) uttered overhead.
These sneaker-shod disembodied soldiers of dissent were accompanied by two small platoons of spectral figures that had a slightly more physical presence. On one side of the room, riders that consisted of nothing more than empty heads shrouded in motorcycle helmets straddled invisible scooters reduced to nothing but handle-bars with flashing headlights. Appearing more bodiless than disembodied, these figures hovered in an orderly formation. The ranks of this makeshift rebel force were doubled by sharp shadows cast on the wall. Apparently marching parallel to them, a group of similar ghostly figures sported animatronic hands. These would move in a disconcerting fashion, just ever so slightly, until they were suddenly activated. Then, accompanied by the roar of a loud fan, they would enact a slow-motion rotating gesture of clapping or supplication.
In addition to banners covered with names, Kuswidananto hung from the ceiling dozens of brightly coloured flags and two massive white banners, which would unfurl when the fans started to reveal larger-than-life black and white photos of a man and woman poised to fire pistols.
Kuswidananto’s orderly symbolic march took place against a projected backdrop of real-life chaos. A pitched battle between the Indonesian military and various partisan forces was screened in colour against the back wall. People fighting on both sides of a struggle to depose an oppressive regime were shot in city streets. Elsewhere, a flat-screen TV played a black-and-white loop of what seemed to be a huge pool of blood on the floor. Over and over, a single figure would come in and mop up the mess.
Jompet Kuswidananto’s After Voices is a timely reminder that although we often feel powerless, impotent in the face of the seemingly intransigent will of political forces, the voices of citizens can make a difference if we can just muster the courage to make ourselves heard. But these victories are often bittersweet, purchased for the many with the blood of the few. There is no recompense without risk.