By Patricia Tobin
(561 words, 4-minute read)
Constellation of Violence consists of a very simple setup: a giant screen on stage, a historian, two artists and a group of individuals. These elements are combined, in varying degrees, to form a three-part artistic investigation on the Cold War in Indonesia in 1965. Indonesian artist Irwan Ahmett leads the performance, rife with thought-provoking images that lead to a compelling climax. Constellation of Violence is a fertile field for Irwan’s own revelations on his country’s brutal past.
The performance begins with a Japanese historian giving a slideshow presentation in Japanese on 20th century Indonesian history, from World War II to the fall of Suharto, while Tita Salina provides the live English translation. Backed by years of research and academic rigour, her calm and professional demeanour lends the show a certain authority. In addition, she helps to set the context for the preceding section, where Irwan launches his personal examination of Indonesia’s dark history. Irwan enters dressed in a suit, a red tie and a black peci (Indonesian headgear). He calls himself a “fake president”, leaning towards this borrowed authority to directly address a part of Indonesian history all “real president” have failed to do so – the “30th of September Movement” in 1965. This failed coup led to the rise of former President Suharto, and the largest mass murders in recent history.
Behind a podium, Irwan continues the slideshow presentation in Bahasa Indonesia, as Tita and the Japanese historian provide the respective live English and Japanese translations. The tone has shifted from the unembellished factual content to more fluid artistic expressions. There are dramatisations of the killings, documentary footage, clay model renditions and personal photography of historical sites. The plethora of vivid imagery is varied: the gunshot wounds of the six army generals from the “30th of September Movement” form a constellation – a direct reference to the title, showing how violence is etched in the stars. A compilation of riots and wars in 20th century are framed as Instagram stories, complete with hashtags and geo-tagged location, highlighting the destructible yet fleeting nature of violence. The images Irwan presents are seemingly never-ending, which make the many messages difficult to assess. In addition, the multiple live translations did take its toll at times, as there was a delayed reaction with jokes especially.
As a result, alongside the possible disconnect with the translations, Irwan’s striking visualisations blur into one another, and his motive gets muddied.
However, the driving force behind Constellation of Violence becomes clear with its climatic finish: a live production of the artwork entitled “Constellation of Violence”. Lights are dimmed and a group of people come on stage disappear behind the giant screen. Irwan instructs the audience to place their hands to the ears to hear the “sound of the constellation of violence”. This muffled sound is akin to radio static or like a cosmic background noise, the echoes of the Big Bang that bathe our cosmos. Gradually, a glow-in-the-dark splatter work begins to form on screen, accompanied by this celestial sound. The performance then ends, and Irwan leaves a stand on stage that reads the source of the splatter: blood. The aftermath of witnessing a live bloodied artwork in this context feels eerie, almost disturbing. The riveting conclusion aptly ties up Constellation of Violence’s core message: violent delights have violent ends, a brutal past can only result in a hauntingly dark and bloodied finish.
Constellation of Violence was presented on 17 February 2019 at KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre Large Studio, as part of the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (TPAM). ArtsEquator interviewed Irwan Ahmett, which can be found here. For more articles on TPAM 2019 presentations, please click here.
Patricia Tobin is a theatre reviewer from Singapore. She writes at havesomepatty.com.
About the author(s)
Patricia is a freelance critic from Singapore. She has been writing about theatre since 2014. She was part of ArtsEquator‘s Performance Criticism Training Program under Matthew Lyon and Lyn Gardner. She has chaired sessions at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and at Centre 42.