Fendry Ekel Interviewed by Naima Morelli
This interview of Fendry Ekel by Naima Morelli was conducted by email on March 8, 2016 and initially published in the online magazine CoBo Social. It appears in BOSmagazine courtesy of the author and the artist.
Naima Morelli: Where do you trace the beginnings of your interest in art?
Fendry Ekel: My first encounter with art was in Jakarta when, as a young boy, I happened to enter the tiny painting studio and sleeping annex of a mysterious neighbour when he wasn’t at home. I was struck by the solitude and by this guy’s orderly and basic way of living. Also, the light coming through the window of the room, falling on the painting on the easel and the intense smell of oil medium made a strong impression on me. It seemed I was witnessing the essence of truth, a beauty. It was a sublime experience, very spiritual and physical at the same time. It was like entering a small chapel with nobody else around.
Being an artist for me is a choice. None of my family members is interested in art. Going back until my great grandparents, they all have a military background. My interest in art started when many years later I asked myself how I wanted to live my life. I wanted to study something that would allow me to follow a profession with no retirement, one that could encourage me to “see” the world, to penetrate national and geographical boundaries and that I could practice until the end of my life.
Because of my naivety and lack of information, I thought that art was something you could only learn from your parents, and your parents from the ancestors. With the small experience I had from when my grandma taught me as a kid how to draw on and cut fabric to make simple clothes, I initially went to an academy to study fashion. It was only at this academy that I was informed about fine art. Soon after, I started to focus exclusively on that.
N.M.: How did your migration as a teenager from Indonesia to Europe influence your worldview?
F.E.: The migration as a teenager shook my whole cultural and mental orientation. It confronted me with the idea that identity, one’s picture of oneself, is constructed and fragile. It made me realize that it is very easy to fool oneself if one wants to, because the whole system will support one to do so. I promised myself not to forget this concept and I started to develop ways of remembering things: remembering as a political act. I became more aware of the difference between being a citizen and a person, between being an individual and a human. From then on, nothing was taken for granted. Investigating my surroundings became my passion; every image is questionable.
N.M.: Did studying in the Netherlands affect your way of thinking of art history?
F.E.: The Netherlands is part of Europe, a continent with a great tradition of being aware of the importance of writing and creating history, including art history. Society is built by construction, destruction, reconstruction and restoration. People have to learn by documenting and conserving, therefore academia is an important foundation of society. By studying and spending many years living in this society, I was fortunately able to learn from close up. This first-hand experience allowed me to better understand the motivation and the mechanism of all of this.
N.M.: History and memory are central in your work. Do you have a structured method you follow to research the historical characters, issues and connections you refer to in your work – both visually and conceptually?
F.E.: History and memory are like brothers-in-law; they are connected by the human desire to understand life. I refuse to have or follow any particular method. Like in life, I prefer to trust my intuition, using my instincts in researching the matters you mentioned above. I realize that only in the process of making art is it possible to let mistakes happen with no consequences. Therefore it would be a big loss to me if I didn’t allow myself to do so.
N.M.: You are primarily a painter. What is your relationship with the craft of painting, versus the conceptual aspect of your work?
F.E.: Perhaps my early encounter with painting, as described in the answer to your first question above, would be one of the foundations of my relationship with the craft of painting. I also like the efficiency and the mobile character of painting as a medium.
Even if I knew what and how to paint, nevertheless there was a time when I was seriously confronted with the existential question of why I was painting. While still not knowing the answer to this question, early in my career I was primarily focusing on experimenting in the so-called new media and installation art. I enjoyed doing it so much as well. After a couple of years of this I finally discovered the great answer that allowed me to take up painting again: “Why not?!”
Visual and conceptual aspects go hand in hand in my work. For me, any great picture has a concept and vice versa.
N.M.: In the past you have referred to your entire oeuvre as a self-portrait. What did you mean by that?
F.E.: It was a kind of provocation, a Scheinbewegung (feint): discussing my oeuvre as a self-portrait has allowed me to hide and protect the investigation of my surroundings. The way one experiences the world shapes who one becomes. How I picture my surroundings, how I look at things and how I am curious about them becomes who I am. Everything else is just based on speculation and belief. Making a self-portrait is constructing a projection of oneself. A self-portrait is not something that already exists: it is a picture that has yet to be formed. It is seeing and being by doing.
N.M.: Today you are based between Berlin and Yogyakarta. Does being in one city or another influence your work and if so, how?
F.E.: As an artist I have a great need to be able to reflect on my own existence in order to feel it better and not become trapped by daily routines. Traveling is kind of filtering out of the unnecessary and a qualification of things. After having lived in different places and countries, for me living only in one particular place is a claustrophobic idea. Continuous physical movement is one of the ways in which I can create the mental distance necessary to see the pictures of reality in sharp focus and to believe that I am not dead yet, not brain-dead.
N.M.: Have you maintained a connection with Indonesia throughout the years, or was it something you had to recuperate?
F.E.: Departing from Java by plane, it takes a couple of hours before you leave Indonesia; long enough to see the country from above and think about it at the same time. This is what I did in 1987 on my first flight experience traveling to Europe and on this flight I also made a promise to myself: that I will always challenge myself to find ways to maintain my connection with places and people mentally as well as physically. It can be considered as an act of control over my own destiny, my “revenge” on what I felt I was not able to do at that particular moment. The Internet, Facebook, Photoshop, and Wikipedia are great human inventions of my lifetime. I feel blessed to be part of this era.
N.M.: Your exhibition 1987 has just ended at Galeri Nasional Indonesia in Jakarta. Can you tell us about the concept behind the show and the series of monumental paintings of ships?
FE..: The concept behind the show is that of a journey; the mental journey of man. To go on a journey one needs a strong memory, and by journeying one also trains one’s memory. The 1987 solo show includes a series of monumental paintings depicting models of sailing ships. These paintings are metaphorical displays of how memory is constructed and how its layers are formed – but first of all, they are about painting.
N.M.: Along with your art practice, you also work on developing organizational networks as co-founder of Office For Contemporary Art (OFCA) International in Yogyakarta. Do you see your “institutional” work as a continuation of your vision as an artist, or is it another thing entirely?
F.E.: To me, both “doing” art and experiencing art are social events. Contemporary art is not only about the process of making. It incorporates many other things. Art is a harbor for all aspects of life. My so-called “institutional” work is a platform where I can share or exchange my artistic experiences with others, especially with colleagues.
N.M.: What kind of legacy do you want to leave with your art?
F.E.: As an artist I have no interest in leaving a legacy. I find it a perverse idea to think about making one. Legacy is a narcissistic and cowardly idea to help one face death. Besides, I think I am too confused to do it. I make art in order to understand and to question at the same time. “Doing” art is a way of dealing with doubt in what we understand about our world.
N.M.: What are your next projects?
F.E.: After my Investigation Painting series and naval genre series, I am now focusing on my interest in still life, text, and mirrors.
Naima Morelli is an art writer and curator with a focus on contemporary art from the Asia Pacific region. She has written for ArtsHub, Art Monthly Australia, Art to Part of Culture and Escape Magazine, among others, and she is the author of Arte Contemporanea in Indonesia, un’ introduzione, a book focused on the development of contemporary art in Indonesia. As a curator, her practice revolves around creating meaningful connections between Europe, Asia and Australia.
Fendry Ekel (b. Jakarta, Indonesia) was trained at the Gerrit T. Rietveld Academy, the esteemed Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam, Netherlands and Cittadellarte, Fondazione Pistoletto, Italy. As an outcome of his solo exhibition in HVCCA in New York he was invited to participate in the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP), New York in 2011. Ekel has been dubbed a pictor doctus, who critically investigates the power of art, figuration and representation by appropriating images from our collective memory. His multi-layered, monumental paintings, created after existing photographic pictures, explore the relation between “man and memory.” Fendry Ekel has exhibited his work internationally and has had reoccurring solo shows in Amsterdam, Jakarta, Milan, Valencia, Mexico City, and New York. Ekel lives and works in Yogyakarta, Indonesia and Berlin, Germany.