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2.1 Aesthetics: Variables of Adaptation
In order to analyze the aesthetic quality of the performances, I will first argue that wayang is a memory theatre and that the way aesthetic norms are re-interpreted can be understood by using two concepts: intermediality and variables of adaptation. As Marvin Carlson notes (2003), all theatre is a theatre of memory in that it participates in the recycling of actors, stories and objects (a process he calls ghosting). However, my concern here is to understand what happens to wayang as a memory theatre when new media are interwoven with its traditional aesthetics.
How then do new technologies and aesthetics affect the way wayang functions as a memory theatre? In order to answer this question, I will refer to these hybrid performances as intermedial wayang. In an article in Performance Research (Escobar 2013), I proposed the notion of intermedial tradeoff in order to explain how intermediality works in wayang. In what follows I expand upon some ideas from this publication. Simply put, the intermedial tradeoff refers to the ways in which certain elements are necessarily substituted for others when intermedial work is created which draws from a living performance tradition.
By saying that an intermedial tradeoff takes place I don't aim to reduce the complexity of wayang kontemporer to the narrative of a transaction, but rather to point to an essential quality of this process: some elements fade out of view as newer elements become part of wayang. However, this is not all there is to this process of transformation and not everything fits within the notion of a tradeoff. Therefore, I will also look at the way in which certain aesthetic conventions of traditional wayang continue to exist in intermedial performances, albeit in a modified form. My next proposed concept, the variables of adaptation, will address this issue.
Joseph Roach once described the performer as "an eccentric but meticulous curator of cultural memory" (Roach 1996: 78). Although originally formulated in a different context, this description is especially fitting for the dalang. Sitting cross-legged and smoking clove cigarettes in front of a cotton screen, the typical dalang has the sole responsibility for a performance that lasts about eight hours. Although he will remain seated in the same position throughout the night – enclosed by a large wooden chest, a screen, and two banana trunks – the dalang has immense resources at his disposal.
He has innumerable puppets, songs and stories to choose from in the solitary construction of his curatorial project. Hundreds of puppets stand ready for his use, either arranged on top of the wooden chest to his left or spread on the floor to his right. His assistant is always close at hand, should he need any extra puppet at any given moment. In his cross-legged position, his right foot will be holding a metallic mallet called keprak, with which he will hit the wooden chest to his left in a rhythmical pattern that will instruct the gamelan musicians sitting behind him on which musical piece to play, and when to stop and begin their accompaniment. With his hands, he will manipulate all the puppets; a task for which he alone is responsible. He will also give voice to every character, narrate the stories and sing suluk songs.
The traditional performance is largely unscripted, but in a classic show (wayang purwa) the dalang will draw the stories from the Mahabharata (and, more rarely, from the Ramayana). The stories will never be merely repeated; they will be recreated for the particular context of any given performance. These stories have been transmitted orally from generation to generation, and each performance is a dialogue with the past, a confrontation with the inherited depository of stories, songs and techniques that constitutes the tradition. As Jan Mrázek notes:
The relation of Indian epics to wayang performances could be perhaps compared to the relation between a water-buffalo and a puppet: for the puppet to come to life, the animal had to be killed, skinned, the skin prepared, carved into a particular shape, colored, and so on. To suggest that people watch Indian epics when they watch wayang is like suggesting that the people watch water buffaloes (Mrázek 2005: 320).
A wayang show, more than many other performances, is always a theatre of memory, where the dalang – controller and curator – meticulously reinvents the past with his hands, his voice and his imagination. Wayang is always an exercise in the re-elaboration of cultural memory, where tradition is modified and re-crafted for the present. However, some artists in recent decades have also developed more radical re-elaborations of wayang by introducing new ideas, aesthetics and technologies to this memory theatre. They use tools and techniques so fundamentally different that wayang is not wayang anymore; or, at least not only wayang anymore, but a combination of wayang and something else. It becomes an intermedial wayang, a performance in a space of 'in-between-ness'.
I use the word "intermedial" following Chiel Kattenbelt and Freda Chapple's definition of intermediality as the reflexive inclusion of different media within a performance (2006: 11). Thus, in intermedial wayang, memory and imagination converge more evidently than they do in conventional wayang. Intermediality necessarily becomes an experiment in forgetting, since many things are left out as they are replaced by other tools and aesthetic conventions. Intermedial theory allows us to take a closer look at the materiality of this exchange by focusing on the aspects of different media that remain, and how they resensibilize each other.
Instead of describing the changes in wayang as the inclusion of media, an alternative analytic strategy would have been to consider these changes as variations in style and content. However, this approach would fail to account for what I think is an essential quality of the re-elaboration of tradition in wayang kontemporer. Speaking in terms of style would imply that the works retain a certain artistic unity. I suggest that this unity, found in traditional shows, is dismantled through the inclusion of music, images, objects, stories and languages that don't correspond to it. These elements are not surreptitiously subsumed into the aesthetic unity of wayang, but their inclusion as different elements is clearly marked out and made explicit. New elements stand side by side with the conventional ones, they are not fused together. The resulting performances are more like a patchwork quilt than they are like a woven fabric. The media included retain their own logic and aesthetic coherence. If I can offer a comparison with western contemporary works of theatre that combine different media and artifacts, I would say they have more in common with the performances of Stelarc than they have with Julie Taymor's The Lion King.
One reason these performances are the way they are is that the creators of wayang kontemporer were often trained in other artistic media, such as painting, theatre and electronic music. Toward the end of this section, I will offer a more comprehensive overview of the interdisciplinary collaborations that gave rise to many of the performances I describe in this dissertation.
The notion of the intermedial tradeoff allows us to identify the elements which particular wayang performances lose and those which they gain, exploring how wayang - both traditional and contemporary - is constructed at the crux of remembering, inventing and forgetting, as it is brought into a dialogue with other media – other ways of remembering and forgetting. Artists who are interested in reinterpreting aesthetic rules find a rich soil for experimentation in the combination of wayang and other media. The inclusions, interactions and conflicts between these media allow them to tackle issues regarding heritage preservation, the impacts of globalization on Java and the future of cultural memory.
Performance frameworks
Many of these performances are not scripted plays, but rather a set of rules created by the dalang for a series of similar performances that will bear the same name. In order to avoid confusion I will speak about a specific (recorded) performance as a performance instance and I will refer to the aggregate of these instances as a performance framework.
The videos, as I have discussed, are a limited rendition of what are often long creative processes, where constant interrogation and improvisation generate not one but several versions of a similar performance. In the case of wayang, the performances themselves are the result of a combination of different creative processes, which we could refer to as rehearsal and improvisation. Improvisation is very important in Java. Rehearsal is seen as a ‘foreign' strategy imported into wayang. In her book Improvisation of The Javanese Script, Judith Bosnak looks at the development of several improvisational and rehearsal structures for the case of kethoprak:
It is the pleasure of shaping the action on stage that keeps the actors on their toes. Given the fact that their information states differ, their knowledge of the developments on stage is limited. This calls for a flexible and creative attitude towards the available mnemonic and structuring devices and towards the other participants of the staging process. The outcome of each performance remains a surprise (Bosnak 2005: 71).
Similar dynamics could be identified within wayang kontemporer. As explained above, I propose to call each individual performance (or recording), a performance instance and to recognize that it belongs to a performance framework. A performance framework is the set of ideas which define that which would constitute a performance of Catur Kuncoro's Wayang Hip Hop or Slamet Gundono's Wayang Tanah. Each performance framework is a mixture of improvisation and predefined scripts.
For example, Mirwan Suwarso's Jabang Tetuko was rehearsed following the model of western musical theatre, with no room for improvisation. It is therefore constituted entirely by predefined scenes. Raden Saleh by Ananato Wicaksono (Nanang Kancil) and Ledjar Soebroto is mostly based on a script by Ardian Kresna. However, it includes a comic scene of variable duration (one of the times I saw it, the comic scene was 45 minutes long, another it was 7 minutes long). Therefore, Raden Saleh is a combination of both strategies.
variables of adaptation
When the intermedial tradeoffs occur, not everything that is traditional disappears, as many conventional aesthetic mechanisms linger even in the most innovative performances. The aesthetic rules of traditional wayang (the pakem) can be adapted in many ways. In order to account for these multiple possibilities, I have suggested the image of a circle that can be extended and reshaped. The original circle constitutes the pakem, the new shapes that emerge from the adaptation can be thought of as the result of variables that push the boundaries of the pakem. I identify the main variables as music, space, story, materials and language. The diagrams for each of the performances are available from the panel on the right. For a more detailed explanation of the diagrams, see the introduction to this dissertation.
Although these variables can be interpreted as semiotic categories, my interest here is to understand them from the point of view of the artists, that is, as creative variables. I suggest that these variables are the main practical considerations that the dalang face when confronted with the creative challenge of devising new work. In other words, these variables are the building blocks for the creative experimentation that constitutes the process of devising kontemporer performances. I derive this conclusion from my conversations with the dalang and from my own experiences. Therefore, in the sections that constitute this chapter, I describe the creative process of tinkering with the possibilities of these variables. Each section starts with an anecdote of my own, often failed, attempts to learn how to use the different elements of wayang.
Intermedial Journeys
The sections in this chapter describe the aesthetic innovations of wayang kontemporer identified along the five variables of adaptation. But before launching into the different sections, I will sketch a history of intermedial adaptations in wayang by describing the aesthetic ambitions of key practitioners. In all cases, their work was influenced by two cultural forces: interdisciplinarity and globalization.
The intermedial aesthetics of these performances can be accounted by the fact that many innovators were trained in other disciplines or worked in close collaboration with artists from different disciplinary backgrounds. This factor is closely related to the second one, as many of these innovators have traveled abroad extensively. The globally attuned sensitivity of these artists, fueled by international travel and increasing exposure to other cultural forms in Internet-connected, post-Suharto Indonesia, accounts for the myriad cultural influences that can be identified in kontemporer performances.
Following Edwin Jurriens, I describe this combination as an example of cultural travel, a two-way process of cultural influence:
Syncretism or hybridity can be seen here as a comment on the local being the product of the global traffic of people and things, while the global obtains its shape only in local, historical contexts (Jurriens 2004: 175).
Global and local, these performances are shaped by the confluence of localized heritage and global influences. A short overview of the work of these artists will set the stage for the subsequent analysis of the music, space, language, stories and puppets used in kontemporer performances. One of the most important wayang innovators in the late 20th century was Ki Sigit Sukasman (1936-2009). He was a visual artist with a life-long fascination with wayang carving. His quest to redefine the morphology of the puppets ushered in a new era of visual creativity to the world of wayang. His international career began when he visited the World Fair in New York in 1964 and the Netherlands in 1965.
Shortly after, he settled in Germany for several years before returning to Indonesia in 1974 to take care of his ailing mother. Although his obsession with wayang carving had accompanied him since childhood, it was only then, in his late thirties, that he began to perform Wayang Ukur (Measured Wayang). He was known for his obsessive attention to every detail of the wayang performances, which would be polished over extensive rehearsal processes.
He was never the dalang himself; three dalang were responsible for puppet manipulation in his shows. He was thus a meta-dalang, controlling the controllers. Hardja Susilo compares his role in the performances to that of a theatre director (Susilo 2002: 179-188). In his performances, he used specially crafted puppets, a front stage and a great number of light fixtures with colored gels. He was a master in creating three-dimensional illusions on the wayang screen. By instructing some dalang to sit behind the screen and others to sit in front of it, he explored different registers of visuality, urging the dalang to delve in the nuances of shadow, colors and size afforded by the puppets.
He would often include actors and dancers in the show, who would stand behind the screen or on a raised platform above it, in order to suggest a wide array of visual effects. Hardja Susilo describes Sukasman's work as “a fine art presentation by an individual artist” (Susilo 2002: 179), which attracted little popular acclaim. Although Sukasman's influence on the work of subsequent dalang has not been fully acknowledged in the literature, the kontemporer dalang of the 21st century will readily recognize in conversation their artistic debt to the influence of Sukasman. Some dalang have even continued to perform in the style of Wayang Ukur, though most observers despise these imitations, pointing out that the careful attention to detail that characterized Sukasman's shows is now absent.
To illustrate the ways in which his memory is kept alive, I will refer to an unfortunate performance that was offered in honor of Sukasman three years after he passed away and to the comments that were given by the spectators. In Java, wayang performances are often offered one thousand days after someone's death (peringatan seribu hari). In Sukasman's peringatan, which I attended in 2012, a performance inspired by Wayang Ukur was presented. However, the lights went off shortly after the performance began. An audience member said to me that this was the work of mbah Kasman (as Sukasman was affectionately known), who was sabotaging the show from the other world for failing to adhere to his exquisite perfectionism. This comment was not meant as a joke. People believe today that no one can live up to the expectations of the late genius.
The memory of Sukasman lingers in the minds and the works of dalang kontemporer, many of whom worked with him or saw his shows (which were also transmitted by the national television station TVRI). One of his most famous disciples is Heri Dono, probably the most famous Indonesian visual artist alive, whose paintings, installations and performance pieces are inspired by Sukasman's relentless tinkering with the meanings and shapes of wayang puppets. Wayang Legenda and PhARTy Semar, are his most famous wayang-based performance pieces. The latter is an installation-performance which was described by Tim Behrend (1999) as a commentary on politics, the art market and the millennium change. It uses the complex character of Semar as a starting point for a postmodern exploration of wayang: “The characters presented in wayang umbrage were wholly decontextualized in this presentation, but their familiar roles, types, and identities were relied upon to construct the theatrical platform on which the overall ritual import of the performance could then be erected” (Behrand 1999: 217).
Eko Nugroho is another world-traveling, Yogyakarta-based visual artist whose work spans installations, paintings, weaving, visual novels and graffiti. He is well known for his trademark characters: surreal cyborgs made from equal parts fruits, everyday objects, robots and hipsters, which can be found in comic books, T-shirts, and as a commissioned graffiti decorating a wall in the Salihara cultural center in South Jakarta. In 2008, he decided to turn his distinctive creations into wayang puppets and use them in performances. In collaboration with theatre writer Gunawan ‘Cindil' Maryanto and dalang Catur Kuncoro, he created Wayang Bocor, a series of performances based on Cindil's stories and Eko's characters. Once, in a conversation over soto (a noodle soup with beef), Eko explained to me that the name bocor (leak) describes the philosophy behind the collaboration. It is a permeable wayang, where everyone's ideas leak into the perspectives of others. It is an adaptation of wayang that explores the porosity of wayang conventions, leaking new waves of influence through its conventionally water-tight epidermis.
Tavip is another visual artist who has made his own version of wayang. After studying with Solonese puppet makers and earning a graduate degree in visual arts from ISI (Indonesian School of the Arts – Solo), he created translucent wayang puppets made of plastic, which led to a collaboration with his mentor Nano Riantiarno, a theatre-wayang hybrid trilogy titled Sie Jin Kwie (2010-2012). Interdisciplinary influences are not limited to the visual arts. Writers have also proved essential to some of the most interesting developments of wayang. Sujiwo Tejo, a household name in Indonesia, built a career as a journalist and a writer before becoming a dalang and a singer. His performances rely on a poetic use of the Indonesian language and on musical hybrids, based on gendèr melodies, jazz, folk and pop. Matthew Cohen describes his performances as a combination of “metaphysical speculation and political commentary with the surreal” (Cohen 2007: 359).
Elizabeth Inandiak is a French activist, reporter and novelist who has been living intermittently in Indonesia since 1989. Four of those years were spent writing a novel based on the Javanese literary work titled Serat Centhini: "when reading Serat Centhini, it was as though I had found my soul mate to explore life with” (Inandiak interviewed by Sudarman, 2009). The Serat Centhini is a nineteenth century literary work written in verse which combines esoteric religious wisdom, vividly described erotic passages, and an almost encyclopedic compendium of Javanese art and ceremonies. Inandiak's novelized version of the literary work first appeared in French in 2002 under the title Les Chants de L'Ile a Dormir Debout - Le Livre de Centhini (Songs from an Island Beyond Belief – The Book of Centhini) and in Indonesian in 2008 as Centhini, Kekasih yang Tersembunyi (Centhini, The Hidden Lover).
Serat Centhini had a strong tradition of being recited, which fueled Inandiak's dream to adapt it for the stage. In 2007, she performed the first version together with dancer Ninik Didik Thowok, and in 2008, she developed a collaboration with dalang Slamet Gundono, titled Cebolang Minggat This performance is based on "Cebolang Minggat," one of the chapters of Serat Centhini, and will be discussed extensively throughout this dissertation (see the sections on Art, Youth and Spirituality in Chapter 4). Both Inandiak and Slamet Gundono act in the performance. Part literary recital, part wayang, part theatre, this performance has been hailed as Slamet's masterpiece.
The late Slamet Gundono was trained in theatre and his work drew “on a range of dramatic registers and the virtuosic talents of Gundono himself as actor, puppeteer, storyteller, and musician” (Cohen 2007: 358-9). His performances are not the only kontemporer shows that have been shaped by contemporary theatrical dramaturgies. Teater (theatre) has been a decisive influence for many of the dalang. Nanang Hape and Enthus Susmono also give credit to teater for increasing their histrionic skills. Furthermore, some of the kontemporer performances are the result of collaborations with theatre directors, most notably theatre Koma's Nano Riantiarno who, as mentioned above, developed a three part collaboration based on the Chinese epic Sie Jin Kwie.
Musical collaborations are also common in the kontemporer performances, and guest musicians include Jazz performers, Hollywood-based composers and hip hoppers from Yogyakarta. Many dalang are also virtuoso music players and composers, such as Slamet Gundono, Catur Kuncoro, Nanang Hape and Jlitheng Suparman. They have created their own synthesis of Javanese traditional music and other musical genres.
The overview has explored the work of several artists whose work has laid the stage for the innovations in music, space, language, story and puppets observed in wayang kontemporer. The following sections will analyze these dimensions in detail, classifying each of these variables of adaptation as conventional (those that maintain clearly defined wayang conventions), non-conventional (those that incorporate innovations clearly distinct from such conventions), and mixed (those which integrate a combination of the two). In the last category, conventional and new elements are still identifiable.
These categories are productive for analysis, but they are not without limitations. As Jeremy Wallach notes:
Totalizing syntheses of genres do not occur in Indonesia or anywhere else. The reality is that [...] “foreign,” “Indonesian, and “regional” genres coexist with various hybrids of those genres – hybrids that rarely, if ever, entirely subsume their constituent elements (Wallach 2008: 244).
The distinctions I propose are held throughout this chapter only to the extent they are useful. Although each section constitutes an attempt to identify patterns that group different performances together, whenever necessary, these sections also traverse the continuity among the categories with a higher degree of ontological granularity. The sections pay attention to instances that seem vague or contradictory. Without abandoning the categorization principles outlined above, these examples also allow for a nuanced analysis of specific cases that problematize strict categories.