The Jakarta Post
Play of light: A visitor points to one of the paper lanterns suspended in 'Memories of Fireflies', an installation by Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho exhibited at the "Children's Biennale 2019: Embracing Wonder" at the National Gallery Singapore. (Courtesy of National Gallery Singapore/-)
Like moths drawn to a flame, a group of visitors – mostly children – entered a darkened hall where six cylindrical paper lanterns hung, arranged in a labyrinthian path, illuminating the room in a multitude of colors.
The children stepped eagerly under one of the bigger lanterns and together, they started turning the wheel on a central pole. Suddenly, the lantern started whirling in a rainbow-like blur.
At another lantern, three children tried stepping on the pads underneath and their faces lit up with a look of wonder when the lantern changed color.
"We don't know each other, we just met in this hall," said one of the parents waiting nearby, watching her son as he played with his newfound friends.
The lantern installation, titled Kenangan Kunang-Kunang (Memories of Fireflies), is the work of Indonesian contemporary artist Eko Nugroho. Eko is renowned for conveying politically charged messages through different forms and materials in solo projects and in collaborations, including with famous designers and labels, like Louis Vuitton.
Memories of Fireflies is one of two works Eko created in response to a commission from the National Gallery Singapore for the “Gallery Children’s Biennale 2019: Embracing Wonder” showcase, which runs until Dec. 29.
Now in its second edition, the biennale features 11 interactive and multi-dimensional works of 13 Singaporean and Southeast Asian artists.
Using lanterns as his canvas, Eko has given light to everyday scenes using his signature style of patterns, colors and characters to illustrate the values of peace, love and caring for one another.
The gallery’s audience development and engagement director, Suenne Megan Tan, said some children wondered why the characters on the lanterns all wore half-masks.
“It’s [a question] we posed to Eko, and he explained that he actually does not want the human differences to come through (the artwork), because ultimately there are more similarities than differences,” said Tan.
“I think he uses this in a way to equalize, to draw attention to the values, not physical appearances, not the color of the skin, but what is common among us. It’s really about embracing and accepting,” she added.
Diverse, but same: The lanterns in Eko Nugroho's 'Memories of Fireflies' depicts people wearing masks that cover the lower half of their faces, to emphasize that people share more similarities than differences. (JP/Stevie Emilia)
Eko began developing his lantern series in 2015 to explore visual narratives inspired by the traditional images depicted on damar kurung, decorative paper lanterns that are often used in the East Java city of Gresik during the Ramadan fasting month, and on wayang beber, shadow puppetry that tells stories using painted scrolls.
Eko's Memories invites visitors to enter and explore a landscape of lighted images on the politics of Indonesian democracy, while revealing messages on the lanterns, like “Kebersamaan Indah Meskipun Menyakitkan” (togetherness is beautiful although it hurts).
Eko said the colorful lanterns represented both the vastness and chaos of democracy, while the symbols on each lantern represented his images of a democratic Indonesia. The chromatic installation also expresses diversity and interpretations of equality and freedom, including anarchy, chaos, dynamism and suffering drawn from an excess of diversity.
He is constantly developing his lantern series, which has been shown at many galleries and exhibitions, and the version at the biennale is almost a complete version.
“[Through this work] I also tried to recall the fireflies that were part of my childhood, while encouraging today’s children to look back, find way to feel and understand nature and the need to protect and preserve it,” Eko told The Jakarta Post by email from Yogyakarta, his hometown.
The 42-year-old artist recalled that when he was small, he used to roam far from his kampung to the outskirts which was once covered with rice fields.
He forgot the time on many occasions and rode around on his bike until it grew late, and was scolded when he got home. But he said the experience made him see and feel something new.
“At that time, one of the favorite things for children to do was to play with fireflies,” said Eko, who had just returned from a group exhibition in Canberra, Australia.
“This is what we miss in this era. I miss seeing children [play like that] these days,” he said. “These beautiful memories are probably something that children today do not do much anymore, creating something from their surroundings for fun.”
He pointed to gadgets as contributing to this situation, dominating people’s lives, including children, but firmly believes that it is up to people to control their use.
“Simply put, it’s just like candy. It's sweet and fun but eating them constantly has a side effect,” he said.
It was this concern that motivated him to start the Eko Nugroho Art Class four years ago, which provides a space for children to play and explore their creativity through art.
“I believe creativity will form a strong base for these children when they grow up, an important key for them to find solutions to life's problems later in their lives,” he said.
This message of hope is also seen in his second piece at the biennale, an impressive wall mural titled Tightly Hugging Care, Love, Peace. Featuring coral, leaves and vines, it reflects a visual landscape of love and care full of hopes and dreams.
Eko imagines that a world full of care, love and peace resembles a heartfelt embrace, and through this visual landscape, he gives expression to his hope that people will live in harmony and be good to one another. “Love is never static, but spreads and reaches out, growing and transforming.”