The Act of Writing: FX Harsono’s Investigations into History, Identity and the Self
by Jenna McKenzie
The recent Beyond Identity exhibition at Nexus Gallery in Adelaide brought together two haunting works by the internationally renowned Chinese Indonesian artist, FX Harsono: Writing in the Rain (2011) and Pilgrimage to History (2013). These works poignantly present places where history, acts of writing, identity, and the self intersect.
In Writing in the Rain, we are reminded of a seminal rite of passage – learning to write your name. We see the artist write his Chinese name over and over again, repeating an act that he learned in childhood before he had to adopt an Indonesian name.
When we learn to write our names, we learn that abstract symbols have meaning when arranged in a specific order. They form words that in turn represent things in the world. Names help us in our quest to identify and categorize, to delineate one thing from another.
Paint drips from the artist’s brush, breaching the fixity of the character’s borders. As the artist continues to write, the repeated form of his name becomes increasingly dense and difficult to see through – becoming at once an obstruction of and a barricade for the individual.
Rain starts to wash over the artist’s writing. He continues to paint, but in doing so hastens the erasure of his own name. The act of writing becomes futile in the face of the rain. An inky pool of water gathers at the artist’s feet, and the impossibility of writing in the rain becomes a gentle metaphor for the processes of forced cultural assimilation.
In Pilgrimage to History we are reminded of the role writing can take in a different rite of passage, that of memorialization. The artist enshrouds somber stone memorials in white cloth, taking rubbings of the names of murdered Chinese Indonesians in red pastel. In these rubbings the names appear ex negativo. Thus, these people – their names – only become present through their absence.
Once we have named, identified, and categorized, we can apply labels such as ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We can establish rivalries, rivalries can boil over into hostility, hostility can lead to atrocities. We can write ourselves and others in and out of history.
In Beyond Identity both of Harsono’s works subtly present the complexity inherent in writing, an act often involved in significant rites of passage but also so often a register of sites of struggle.