Amidst the ongoing pandemic in Indonesia, artists Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina deepen their relations with fear by utilizing gravitation and eleven artifacts collected over the last six years.
Dutch East Indies Trading Company Coin, 1745
After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, the Europeans, in their search for spices, cut out the middleman and went to the source, the Far East. The Portuguese and Spanish spice trade in the tropical islands of Nusantara (now Indonesia) had to compete with the British and the Dutch. Eventually the ambitions of the V.O.C. (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or the Dutch East India Trading Company, a multinational corporation headquartered in Amsterdam) to control land and sea and exploit slaves from the eastern islands outgrew this system. An alliance was established—the result of the hypocrisy of the Eastern rulers and the cunning of the Western capitalists, conflict broke out in the family, and greed without end left an indelible mark on the Indonesian archipelago while ushering in a golden age for the Netherlands. Out of the need for valuable raw materials from exotic islands to fuel European industrialization, blood-soaked treaties were signed, releasing ghosts to roam for generations. One such ghost of colonialism that haunts our generation is an acute collective sense of inferiority. This inferiority is like the evil spirits dwelling in old coins the size of European eyeballs, whose gaze cannot be interpreted as remorse or guilt, but whose influence has shaken the souls of colonized peoples and filled them with fundamental doubts. Doubts that caused our biological cousin, the ape, to fail to be human. Colonialism creates a domino effect of cultural failures whose manifestations are close to the surface; our exploitative mentality and the violence that is never far away. Behind this small coin, those straight-faced, pale-skinned people also brought religion, mined for oil and gold, and pursued capitalist glory. A new social class formed.
Colonized peoples confronted the power of foreign monopoly as resistance began to emerge through insubordination and even violence, culminating in an intensity equal to Krakatoa’s violent eruption.
A Talismanic Ant Encased in Resin
Humans are the only species on this planet to see beauty in the death of another species. This little black ant is rendered helpless; it is kidnapped, separated from its colony, and preserved in a warm resinous liquid. Its final breath is immortalized in tiny bubbles like notification bubbles announcing its death. Ants are a species second only to Homo Sapiens in their success in colonizing the Earth. They are endlessly numerous and organize an amazing colony structure, spectacular and effective in defending the colony from outside disturbances. A guard ant won’t hesitate to decapitate intruding ants or kidnap eggs to become slaves. In addition to being accomplished colonizers, ants have also mastered warfare. Their collective instincts are integrated into the ‘collective mind’ which operates without a single commando, without insubordination, but with a terrifying total biological obedience. Ants are dominated by the female sex. The main task of the male is simply to fertilize the queen. The queen is no absolute monarch, but rather exists for the sake of reproduction, for the next generation of the colony. Deaths are as common to ants as gusts of wind or birds chirping. The average age of worker ants is only a few months, a stark contrast to humans and their obsession with immortal health. Ants are equipped with a deadly biological instrument: their bite. The bites of some species of ants feel like a burn or a bullet, even to a much larger human. Although humans aren’t equipped with deadly biological instruments, the human mind intoxicated with colonial logic is in fact the most dangerous weapon of destruction, one that can make the human body’s tissue toxic to other species. The high cost of evolution is embedded in our crania; we, the cowardly creatures wracked with fear yet able to cooperate brilliantly in order to dominate others.
Human evolution is deeply influenced by our relationship with stones. From prehistoric times to the first moon landing, humans have always collected and coveted stones. Will a stone one day bring about the final apocalypse? Or has it brought it already? Some people believe this tektite is a magic talisman that can confer power. I myself am more inclined to believe that this jet-black stone reveals the future of this species that first emerged the African savanna. The prophecy embedded in the stone is that it is not actually a meteor that will destroy the Earth once and for all, but a cowardly species capable of making weapons of mass destruction no less lethal than a meteor strike. To behold this paradoxical, destructive creature, simply rub the black tektite until it shines. There you will see reflected in it the smiling face of the destructive species, Homo Sapiens.
Arrowhead, 700-1400 AD, Sriwijaya Kingdom, Sumatra
At first, hunter-gatherer peoples used spears to hunt or fight because they enabled their users to have an impact on other bodies without having to come into direct contact with them. Does the increased distance between perpetrator and victim erase the guilt of taking another’s life? In the course of developing their technology and civilization, they mixed iron ore to make sharp poisoned arrows which fell from the sky like rain before plunging into flesh. Harnessing the forces of tension and gravity, the assailants hoped to further distance themselves from their targets, like modern states do with their new gods—weapons of mass destruction.
Fossil of a Wild Beast’s Claws
The wildest animal won’t attack without a motive. They require a clear reason to kill— hunger, encroachment on their territory, or sexual competition. The rest of the time, they seem more content to sunbathe or sleep. My pet cat appears to thoroughly enjoy mutilating wretched grasshoppers until the contents of their stomachs are exposed. Is she intentionally engaging in torture? When the grasshopper is swapped out for paper, my cat treats it in much the same way. We don’t know what its thinking, but the same ‘torture’ occurs. Although its basic needs for food have been met, the instinct to dominate other creatures is still there. During violent occurrences at demonstrations, displays of aggression towards other humans suddenly erupt. I believe we’re a species lacking a biological deterrent against violence.
Though our bodies may be conditioned by social norms and encased in the uniforms of various institutions, in our deepest instincts we found animal desires to act out our dominance, physical or otherwise.
A Stone Implement of Homo Erectus, 1.25 Million Years Ago
The lion possesses an elegant mane; the male orangutans of Kalimantan grow tissue on their cheeks as adults, enlarging their faces and making them appear increasingly fierce. The display of raw power is necessary as a factor of natural selection to provoke fear in outsiders or threatening creatures. The phenomenon of panic buying at the beginning of the current pandemic revealed that modern humanity’s fear is provoked by invisible forces. Anxiety emerges out of our distrust of other humans and the loss of faith in the collective system past and present generations have created. Is fear’s imagination a form of evolutionary natural justice?
The cognitive development of humanity’s ancestors was influenced by unique relations between biology and rocks. The bottom of the evolutionary pool is full of hard rock, as hard as our skulls, superior though they are to those of ancient humans. In the evolution of the cranium, we can witness a significant change of form. The bony protrusion above the eyes recedes, as does the jawline, and the eyes, once dark and obscured, become increasingly visible as hair vanishes from the surface of the skin. In the last 200,000 years the shape of the human cranium has experienced a drastic feminization that has also made a broader range of expressions possible and increased our ability to hide emotion. Has our human nature also softened? Although the shape of the human face has progressively softened, our aggressivity remains on par with that of the other great apes.
A Shard of the Wall Protecting the Indonesian Parliament
(Collected during a student protest in front of the Indonesian parliament on September 5, 2019)
The paradox evident in our fear of looking different and our simultaneous strident efforts to differentiate ourselves based on skin color, sexual orientation, and social class is materialized in the walls and discriminatory rules that mark out minority groups and those considered different. Apes will accept members of their own species who have Down syndrome or polio. In big cities, enormous quantities of money are poured into nurturing suspicion. Permanent walls are erected around houses and communities are fortified, while the people within them increasingly suffer from depression and loneliness. On a national scale, border walls are built that resemble giant dragons straddling the Earth. Fear has evolved from an ingrained drive that encourages caution when encountering the unfamiliar aroma of another body to an institution that empowers the xenophobia planted in the cranium with increasing rigidity. Is the petrified cement of this parapet that divides and estranges humans, gouged out in a fit of anger, a testament to a futile effort to oppose an evolutionary dictum?
A Rounded Stone Used by Homo Erectus to Kill its Prey
The acceleration of the cognitive revolution, accompanied by the evolution of aesthetics within the cranium of Homo Erectus, is thought to have encouraged them to channel a variety of expressions into forms we might now be inclined to call “art.” Stone instruments, evidence of human occupation, scattered from Neanderthal Valley, Europe, to the ancient rivers of Java in the Indonesian archipelago are our closest “comrades” in the struggle to survive. Did our ancestors mold and shape stones, or was it precisely the opposite? Let us pay our respects to stones because they’ve increased the size of our brains. It seems that with a brain volume of 1400 cc, modern humans are too sophisticated to become extinct. Although their brains were smaller, the creatures who made these stones were able to alter the shape of irregular stones to become almost perfectly symmetrical by rubbing them against a wet hard stone surface, thus making them easier to clasp and throw. Great Homo Erectus roamed the Earth for two million years, finally going extinct with the birth of modern humanity. Is natural selection mistaken in designating Homo Sapiens as infinitely superior? Or is there a more moralistic way to annihilate humanity?
A Paving Stone Thrown by a Member of a Right-Wing Organization and Conspiracy Theorist, While Intimidating Pro-Democracy Protesters in Jakarta, September 2016
The human characteristic that impels us to continue to fight based on inherited fear of others, such that a group of individuals will choose to attack before being attacked, is very troubling. In the hot years of the Cold War, accompanied by the increasingly strong winds of support for the Communist ideology in the Republic of Indonesia, history chose its own path. Euphoria ended in sorrow and unmatched destruction. More than 500,000 Communists and their sympathizers were savagely killed. Ever since Communists were accused of trying to stage a coup in 1965, Communist ideology has become the scapegoat for every government failure, and Communism has been constitutionally forbidden since 1966. There have been no reparations from the perpetrators (civilians, militia, the Indonesian army) for these vile crimes against humanity. Wounds are imprinted like keloid scars, a black page in Indonesia’s history that remains taboo to this day. The accusation of Communist! is a weapon that is used to discredit political foes and protect the interests of the powerful and the narcissism of populist politicians. Persecution continues in the interest of maintaining the status quo, and this accusation is used as a trump card by those who are drunk on nationalism as a result of perverse propaganda and a hideous truth that cannot be revealed.
Note for the reader: To be honest, I have found myself frustrated, lacking motivation to start working on this piece of writing. I feel trapped, not only by the ongoing burden of uncertainty caused by the terrible handling of this pandemic, but also by the unfolding events of this week. This week in Jakarta, the police captured 1,365 young demonstrators who were protesting against controversial new laws mandating further curbing workers’ rights and environmentall protections in the middle of what is already an incredibly corrupt system and a catastrophic environmental state. I’m sorry if the emotional state I’ve been in while writing this piece casts a shadow over the text.
This is an Indonesian plesetan (wordplay) punning on a popular and romantic sobriquet for the Indonesian archipelago (untaian batu zamrud di khatulistiwa ora “string of pearls along the equator”). Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina revise this sobriquet to become Jambret di Kapitalistiwa— “the bag-snatchers of capitalism” where the bag-snatchers refer to the Indonesian economic and political oligarchy who pillage their own people and ravage the country they romanticize with such nationalistic fervor.