On the ground floor of the Art Gallery of NSW I saw one of the most moving pieces of sculpture I can remember visiting. It did not surpass the sublime La Pieta, Michaelangelo’s masterpiece of sorrow and loss, but its impact was every bit as forceful. In the dimmed light of the large room, a single exhibit comprising twenty evenly spaced figures in ranks spoke such volume that I was reminded how easily people become numbers, a head count. In the rank and file of the regimented clay and resin sculptures, I was initially reminded of the Terracotta Warriors of Chinese fame. But where each of the warriors found in Xian had a unique face, there is little variation in the clay sculptures despite the hand carved faces in this exhibit; the major difference is the molding of genitalia. Notably, the male sculptures flank the female in each of the outer columns.
Christanto Dadang created this exhibit, They Bear Witness, in response to his own experiences of human rights abuse and loss and it is undoubtedly the very personal nature of the message that gives it such power; the best art comes from immersion in the deepest of emotions.
It is not the nameless sameness of the clay figures that brings home the import of loss – it is the variability in the clothing they hold, stiffened with resin into the shape of the forms that once would have worn them, bereft of the body that should have been within. The sameness of each clay figure is broken by those clothes … persona, however superficial, is held in the arms of each. A few have the clothes of infants laid on top of those of the adults, making the total “body count” closer to twenty-five. These are the men, women, children dug up from mass graves, burned at the stake, gassed in the chambers, bombed into oblivion, starved through warfare. Dadang’s sculpture is the victims of Indonesian ethnic repression of people of Chinese descent from 1966-1998, but it could equally be the Jews of the Holocaust, the victims of the Bosnian genocide, of Kigali, of West Papua.
Dadang’s exhibit reminds us that the head count in any conflict and at any grave can so easily become the mental barrier between analytical assessment of the loss and the sheer horror that each and every “number” was an individual, a person with their own hopes and dreams, unique to them. These are the spirits of the deceased holding what once marked them as individuals when they still had flesh to fill their clothes.
I’d gone to see the Archibald finalists. And whilst I found some of the paintings interesting, even beautiful, it was my wanderings throughout the rest of the gallery that left me staring at the lines of Dadang’s artwork, consumed by the simultaneous scale of the exhibit with the simplicity of the message – they were numbers in a head count of genocide, but they were also people with names, now lost to time.
There’s a large piece of Christanto Dadang’s soul in They Bear Witness. It calls to you imploring you not to look away, but rather to recognize the dress, the print of the fabric, the tiny infant’s clothes on top. Impassive faces in clay unable to speak or express other than to show what they may have been found wearing at the depth of the mass grave.
I could walk around and give each sculpture in the exhibit a name. And whilst a rose by any other name may well smell as sweet, the rose itself would not respond to being called a daffodil. There is power in names and there is power in art. Christanto Dadang reminds us all that human rights abuse on a mass scale should not only be counted, but the individuals given due acknowledgement, even if we cannot identify who they are.