Being an outsider has defined Boedi Widjaja’s life and his practice. Born in 1975 in Surakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese immigrant parents at the height of the Sinophobic policies of President Suharto’s New Order, he arrived in Singapore as a child, fleeing the ethnic tensions of his native Java. He was trained as an architect in Australia, spent his young adulthood in graphic design, and turned to art only in his thirties. His approach is at once autobiographical and oblique: the effects of displacement – its trauma, anxieties and melancholy – are channelled through materially- oriented explorations of the immigrant’s estrangement and experience, works that often feature an intensely corporeal, processual dimension as well. As Widjaja observes, his chief ‘method’ is the use of the techniques and tools of drawing, but ‘outcomes range from two-dimensional objects to installations to live art.’
Path. 1, The White City (2012) was staged at the Substation, Singapore’s oldest independent arts space, in 2012. The work, which took the form of live art sessions and an ongoing exhibition of the resulting visual objects, was triggered by fundamental changes in the artist’s life. Widjaja took on Singapore citizenship that year, during a particularly fraught juncture in the country’s history when an emotionally-charged national conversation on the rights of immigrants was taking place. Audience members were invited to draw together with the artist, throwing rubber balls coated with graphite powder at the paper-lined walls of the gallery; meanwhile, dodging flying projectiles, the artist recorded the viewer’s movements in linear marks on the same surfaces. This communal act of drawing enabled conversations between artist and audience on an individual level, utilising the abstract as an expression of inarticulate, un-articulable disquietude and apprehension.
Drawing Cage (2013) emerged from the artist’s failed attempt to draw a portrait of avant-garde composer John Cage. In the series, the act of drawing is used to complicate historical and socio-cultural gulfs. Widjaja travelled to his grandfather’s hometown in Xiamen, China, where he documented the city’s terrain with a camera, using these photographs as raw material. Pigment was applied to the images using a Chinese ink brush – an instrument freighted with millennia of significance, but rendered void of meaning in the context of the uninitiated making arbitrary marks. Tracings of stones sourced from the Yellow River were then imprinted on these compositions, reinforcing the notion of hollowness through the (ultimately meaningless) gesture of random cultural appropriation.
Originally published in the Autumn & Winter 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia, in association with EFG International