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24.02. -- 09.04.2023


Public art asserts that rather than functioning solely on an individual, isolated level, memory is codependent and co-constructive. People usually acquire ideas through the collective memory of their society. It is only as part of a group that one can recall, recognize and localize memories. This is exemplified by how communities create places and rituals to serve as permanent and perceptible markers of what is important to their cultures. Inherent to Díaz Morales’s visual language is a deep-seated questioning of the documentary genre’s ability to reproduce reality: a fluid transition between the perception and experience contra factuality opens the door to way of viewing the film that lets the audience take in its political message while also inspiring alternative readings of history.

In Smashing Monuments (2022), Díaz Morales follows five members of the Indonesian art collective ruangrupa as they engage in conversation with monuments around the city of Jakarta. The half-improvised and intimate dialogues reflect several of the values which are also at the core of the collective’s practice: nonkrong (hanging out), humor, improvisation, solidarity, friendship, and generosity are some of the elements driving the script. Witnessing these personal and often funny encounters, the audience learns not only of the five chosen monuments, but of Indonesia’s history, its struggle for independence from the Dutch, and the ruangrupa members’ personal stories having grown up as young citizens of the new republic.

The five stories, each depicting one protagonist’s individual meeting with one of the five monuments, depicts the ruangrupa members and their monumental conversation partners close-up, with minimalistic camerawork. The sequences are separated by a pan-out, showing first the monuments and then the cityscape from a bird’s eye perspective, along with sudden, loud music. Through these stylistic shifts, the audience is shaken from the narrative’s immersive effect, temporarily shaken back to reality, before being presented with a new story. In this sense, the film engenders a process of constant questioning and reconfiguring, analogous to the story’s main characters: the five monuments (the Dirgantara Monument, the Pemuda Membangun Statue, the Tugu Tani Statue, the Pembebasan Irian Barat Statue, and the Patung Salamat Detang) have all witness various phases of Indonesian history, and as the dialogues demonstrate, their meaning and value has shifted accordingly.

Smashing Monuments acts as a document of a moment in time, but also of past and future desires and illusions, poetically demonstrating the morphing effect of time on public symbols. More than anything, perhaps, it demonstrates the emotional effect of monuments on people as permanent parts of a city’s social landscape. This contrasts some influential theories of monumentalism. The Austrian writer Robert Musil once noted that “there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,” referring to how statues become invisible when it becomes part of the everyday. This tendency might be true in many cases, but as this film shows, this form of familiarity or “everydayness,” may also constitute a close, although not always conscious, bond like that with a neighbor. This could be said of any public sculpture, but those presented in this film are part of a cityscape which has gone through especially rapid changes, both architecturally and politically.

As monuments from the 1960s to and 1970s, the statues symbolize not just nationalism, but also the seemingly never-ending struggles to unite or stabilize the balance of power in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious state. This is especially clear considering the controversy surrounding the Patung Pahlawan (Heroes Monument), also known as Tugu Tani. The sculpture has the form of a young, armed peasant together with his mother who offers him a bowl of rice. It was erected to celebrate the struggled of the Indonesian nation. A plaque on the base reads “only a nation that can appreciate its heroes can become a great nation.” It was sculpted by two of the time’s most prominent Soviet sculptors, Matvey and Ossip Manizer, and was gifted by the USSR as a symbol of their friendship with Indonesia. Sukarno, the new nation’s first president, had travelled to Moscow and was very impressed by the statues he saw there. Himself an architect, he had a grand vision of the Indonesian capital to include boulevards and enormous statues to celebrate the greatness of the new nation.

Today, many of the official statues from that time are being protested for their communist heritage, especially by Islamic hard-liners who see them as blasphemous. Defenders of the statue, however, argue that it commemorates the Indonesian people’s struggle against colonialism. In Gesyada Siregar’s conversation with the Heroes monument, however, it is revealed that for her it is first of all a reminder of her deceased mother, as the statue must have witnessed her various stages of life from young student to old woman: “perhaps if you could go back in time … maybe you will let her know that she will be fine in the future?” Siregar asks it. This is one example of the constantly evolving symbolism of monuments, and their inherent ability to represent things beyond simple ideology.

From the present perspective, as the dialogues hint at, there is a tension between the visual language of the sculptures and the rising waters brought about by climate change. The style of Soviet realism that inspired these works grew out of an ideology which placed man over nature, encouraging rapid technological progress. Today, this exact way of thinking is threatening the sculptures, a tension most evident in the Digrantara Monument. The sculpture takes the formed of a man stretching towards the sky and was commissioned in the 1960s to honor the rapidly growing aviation industry on the archipelago – then a source of great pride. It seems to say “the sky is the limit” – or even that there is no limit to the greatness of Indonesia and its people. Today, however, due to rising sea levels, the Indonesian government has decided to build an entirely new capital in the middle of the jungle on the island of Borneo. What will happen to the monuments then? One can imagine – in the style of the film The day after Tomorrow – a submerged Jakarta, where all that remains visible above sea level are these sculptures on top of their tall plinths as symbols of a once great city which was lost to natural forces due to climate changes.

Sebastián Díaz Morales (b. 1975) is an Argentinian filmmaker based in Amsterdam. Diaz Morales’s conception of reality has been shaped by the living conditions and landscape of his birthplace, Comodoro Rivadivia, an industrial city located on the Atlantic coast in southern Argentina. His questioning of reality in film, whether concerning landscape, urbanism, or even the sociopolitical, has been marked from the very outset by a fundamental distrust of the belief in a single, unified reality. Díaz Morales has followed and been part of ruangrupa’s practice since the early 2000s. The film Smashing Monuments was produced with financial support of the Mondriaan Fonds, The Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Documenta 15, where it was shown in 2022.

With ruangrupa members: Indra Kusuma aka Ameng, Ade darmawan, Gesyada Siregar, Farid Rakun & Naga, Mirwan Andan.

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