The young artist began his career in video art and murals before his performance art talent was recognized. (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

Deni Darmawan’s Lonely Artistic Journey

JANUARY 20, 2015

The young artist began his career in video art and murals before his performance art talent was recognized. (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

Performance artist Deni “Deden” Darmawan faced himself in the mirror as passersby came and went. The member of the Ruang Rupa artistic collective then painted verse of his thoughts on the mirror during the Jakarta 32 Derajat [Jakarta 32 Degrees] Festival, which was held in Old Town during December. Words such as “family” and “yearning” stood out before he brushed it over with a tin of red paint. Though seemingly mundane, the act got under his audiences’ skin.

“I saw that the pictures they took were uploaded [to Instagram] with the hashtag #Jakarta32. It shows how they can relate to your actions,” Deden said. “One of my friends also read my mind when he noted that I missed [my family].” 

The 24-year-old’s “man in the mirror” performance is not his only work. Deden also defied gravity by balancing an old bench with his body and letting it weigh him down. The routine perhaps is a homage to his start in performance art in 2012, in which he laid down with a lit gas stove on his chest. 

“I didn’t realize that my friend turned it on until he turned it off. He then took a picture of me with a shocked expression on my face,” Deden recalled. 

“He uploaded the photo to Instagram, where the Free Magz magazine got wind of it and named it one of the best pics of 2012.” 

Starting out in the arts

Built with the sure hand of a veteran performance artist, it would be hard to notice that Jakarta 32 Derajat is Deden’s first major event. 

“I started off in Ruang Rupa in 2010, after Ryan “Popo” Riyadi, my graphic design lecturer at the Institute of Social and Political Sciences [IISIP] and a muralist with Ruang Rupa, asked me to volunteer for the 2010 edition of Jakarta 32 Derajat. I accepted, as he was quite famous in the field, particularly for ‘Demi Flyover Pohon Game Over’ [‘Game Over for the Trees at the Overpass’], a mural criticizing the cutting down of trees in the Antasari area to build an overpass,” the IISIP management communications major said. “I then volunteered for Ruang Rupa’s OK! Video event, before taking part in Ruang Rupa’s workshop in 2012.”

However, it wasn’t long until Deden learned he wasn’t cut out for murals. “I realized that drawing wasn’t my forte. But my friend Godet, who pulled the stunt with the gas stove, was the first to realize my potential in performance art,” he said. “I realized I can do so by sleeping among the unlikeliest places or surroundings to create contrast. Since then, I’ve been sleeping as performance art in the most unlikely places, among them other people’s shoulders, a zebra crossing and even a herd of cows set to be slaughtered for Idul Adha.” 

Sharpening his skills

Deden’s attracted notice from stalwarts in the field, among them Reza Asung, Ruang Rupa’s specialist in the field. “Asung slept in various locales to great acclaim and took photos of them, which were dedicated to me. Apparently he was inspired by my routine, which I found flattering and motivating,” he said. “Asung also introduced me to artist and curator Tisna Sanjaya during the 2013 Yogyakarta Biennale and performed during his routine. It marked the first time that I dealt with an audience.” 

“I use sleep as a motif in my performance art, as it contrasts with the hustle and bustle of Jakarta. It came from a sense of sense of disillusionment with its people, particularly how they’re out of touch with others and even themselves,” Deden said. “So I guess its a form of protest.”

Using performance art to observe signs of the times

Prior to his successful debut in Jakarta 32 Drajat, Deni’s effort in public performance art, “Mandi” [“Bathing”] misfired. The work, which took on the theme of regeneration, was rejected by organizers of the Arte art festival as too vulgar. “Arte’s organizers said minors might see [‘Mandi’], though I was still wearing underwear. I guess the rejection’s a good example of the Indonesian public’s prudishness” he said “A body can have aesthetic or artistic value, not always a sexual connotation to it. But I doubt that their outlook can change anytime soon, as the mores and rules in Indonesia are too tight.”  

On the other hand, his participation in Ruang Rupa’s low-key “Gerobak Bioskop” [“Cinema Cart”] project showed Deden how art can affect the public. 

“[‘Gerobak Bioskop’] entails me and a friend going to various neighborhoods to play old movies, mostly comedies starring the late Benyamin Sueb and the Dono Warkop Trio, on a laptop projector mounted on a cart or supermarket trolley. The films show how Jakarta used to be, while its mobile platform remind many people, including myself, of drive in movies,” he said. “The films remind the viewers about how Jakarta used to be. The movies made back then also have a way of bringing communities together, before 21 Cineplex monopolized cinemas across Indonesia and fragmented the public by doing so.” 

Deriving inspiration from loneliness

While social observation and the use of physical objects might make up much of Deden’s art, much of his inspiration came from loneliness and loss. 

“I live alone now, as I successively lost my father in junior high school and my grandparents, who took care of me afterwards, in high school. My mom is still alive, but she lives in Bandung and I’m not close to her,” he said. “I learned to cope with their loss by writing verses on mirrors throughout my house, where I continue to live after their passing.” 

“I write on mirrors to avoid loneliness and as a form of psychotherapy. Sometimes I imagine them as a form of conversation and a way to convey my thoughts to my loved ones, particularly if I miss them and family life.” 

But Deden still found a silver lining in the dark cloud. 

“Though I’m lonely, I can use the space for artistic exploration, as there’s nobody to inhibit me. I can fill my life with performance art and make the most of opportunities that come my way,” 

Deden proved this in Jakarta 32 Derajat by writing verse, many of which express his yearning for his loved ones, on seven or eight mirrors of fragmented shapes and sizes, before painting them over with red paint.

“The mirrors are a metaphor for memory, and how some loom large over others,” he said. “Like memories, one keeps them for the record, let time wash over them and move on, which I did by shattering those mirrors.”

Deden’s participation in Jakarta 32 Derajat gave him many invaluable lessons for his art in the near future. 

“[Jakarta 32 Derajat] gave indispensable experiences in interacting with audiences and making the most of the space by using it according to its meaning, no matter how big or small it may be. In a way, the space is a canvas for our performance,” he said. “The experience also taught me how to make the most of time. But most of all, its a good way to deal with sadness and work it out of my system.”

For now, Deden has yet to speak on his next performance. However, he pointed out that he’s keen to explore problems, like garbage and floods, that continue to bedevil Jakarta. But wherever he might hold his performance art, it is worth looking forward to.