Agus Heru Setiawan, a young photography artist from Yogyakarta, showcases another side of death in his solo exhibition in Garis Artspace Jakarta by capturing the theme of Museum of Dead Trees curated by Angki Purbandono and Hermanto Soerjanto.
Museum of Dead Trees #2, (Unique edition + Artist’s proof), C-print on metalic paper – mounted on dbond, and press acrylic sheet, 2012, variable dimensions (8 panels)
Death does not necessarily means grievance, melancholy and fear. Death also implies beauty, respect and memories. Heru captures this in his solo exhibition in Garis Artspace Jakarta 4-14 May. Once visitors come to the exhibition room, visitors are greeted with beautiful bubbles reflecting rainbow. Shadows of dried, leafless and lifeless vegetation with their roots appear from the middle of the bubbles. The bubbles seem like wombs protecting embryos.
In line with the exhibition theme, Heru uses vegetative objects commonly found in the daily routines – such as rambutan and papaya seeds, celeries and chilies – all dead. Heru reminds the visitors on the importance of plants in human life. Human beings depend on their existence. Once the relationship between both is disrupted, mankind would face monstrous disasters. “Human forgets. They do not realize huge potentials provided by the plants. Modern human beings do not care about plants and treat them unfairly,” explains Heru.
Heru believes that in the past, the relationship between human beings and plants is harmonious, fair and with respect. This can be observed from the roles of plants especially flowers in various traditional or spiritual events. In Javanese philosophy, plants are often made into symbols. Men are suggested to behave like palms – all parts of their being bring benefits to other beings. “Another example is how rice bows down as it ripes – as it reflects modesty,” explains Heru.
Using plants as objects of photography is something Heru does quite often. In 2012, Heru showcases pictures of plant seeds in an exhibition titled Hyperfocal Distance in Bentara Budaya Yogyakarta. His love to plants and gardening are the reasons why he showcased these works of art.
For this exhibition, Heru combines vegetative objects with the concept of death. “I always wish a beautiful memorable death. Photography transforms pain, darkness and fear often associated with death into something beautiful. These plants proves that death can be beautiful through the camera lens,” explains Heru who was educated in the Faculty of Photography, Indonesian Art Institute (Institut Seni Indonesia/ISI) Yogyakarta in 2006.
Heru believes that any objects would look beautiful on camera. His view echoes William Henry Fox, founder of Calotype photography technique, with calos means beauty – implying that beauty is part of photography.
As a photographer, Heru understands that camera can capture images and immortalize them on paper to be enjoyed. Yet he believes that camera is the best medium to record events or items worth remembering.
“Photographs can evoke memories of certain events, returns missing things including death. Through this exhibition, I would like to present the art of photography as an anti-thesis of death itself,” he says.
Museum of dead trees (Waru, Hibiscus-tiliaceus),2012, digital print on acrylic sheet, neon box installation, 100 x 100 cm
By combining death and vegetation, Heru comes up with the theme Museum of Dead Trees. Museum refers not only to the exhibition venue. Similar to professional museums, it reflects research, collection, selection and presentation of artifacts with a curation process. He would like to adopt the same line of thought into the exhibition.
“Photography is the medium of communication. I play the part as a communication in which museums function as discussion forum to reconnect dead plants with visitors as representations of human civilization,” explains Heru, hoping that this ‘museum’ can serve as knowledge center as part of conservation and preservation efforts.
The process of creation starts in 2011 when he begins collecting dead plants to be photographs. In the beginning, he just gathered plants found in his own backyard, and then he expanded his search. “Every time I found dead plants with artistic values, I immediately take picture of them. I begin to search for the uncommon ones. Then I look for plant markets in Yogya,” he explains.
It took him more than a year to prepare this exhibition – from searching, collecting including finding supporting elements, taking pictures and framing them. He chooses transparent plastic bubbles as element supporting the aesthetics of his works.
“I have good childhood memories of toys, plastic or glue-based balloons. I was surprised to find them again nowadays. Those balloons symbolize wonderful memory,” explains Heru who is finishing his Master’s degree in Anthropology in Gadjah Mada University.
During the photo session, Heru uses a very simple technique. He arranges dead plants artistically under layers of plastic bubbles and he takes the picture with lighting from the back. “Light captures by this camera reveals rainbow-like color. The most difficult thing is to blow the plastic bubbles to cover these dead plants, because they are very thin and prone to erupt or get torn,” he explains.
Heru enjoys the creative process resulting in more than 40 pictures, especially when he meets and shares stories with owners or sellers of the dead plants. “Each plant has its own stories. Most of them laugh when I told them that I was looking for dead plants, but they helped anyway. When I showed them the end results, I enjoy their expression of surprise and enjoyment,” he explains.
Heru wishes that he would be able to set up his own ‘museum’ so he could realize his dreams of preserving the environment. “I wish I would find a venue to accommodate my wish. My goal is simple, I would like to remind us on the harmonious circle of life of human beings in connection with other living things,” he explains.