An Essay by Tan Siuli

Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi is a Bandung-based artist who is best known for his unique practice of using fungi in his artworks. His approach to art-making is informed by his c grounding in agriculture and agronomical studies (which he studied at Universitas Padjadjaran, Bandung), as well as aesthetics and printmaking (at the Fakultas Seni Rupa dan Desain, Institut Teknologi Bandung). The modalities of natural science and visual art intersect with and inform each other in Garibaldi’s works, even as their original forms of inspiration are transformed in these dynamic and conjunctive processes.

Common to both art and science is the act—some may say discipline—of observation. One tool of exploration and observation familiar to Garibaldi is the microscope. Under its lens, everyday objects give way to fantastical and mesmeric compositions—their banal surfaces transformed into dazzling details and minutiae. Many organisms, when viewed under the microscope, also appear as discrete, unanchored shapes in space, as if in a surrealistic floating world. A connection may be ventured between the visual imprint of these images on Garibaldi’s memory and his dreamlike floating landscapes—an inspired aesthetic translation of the original source material, which came from a scientific mode of observation.

It is also worth noting that many of Garibaldi’s organisms or floating world-islands are often connected to each other. This may well stem from the artist’s observation of fungus (Garibaldi is a professed mycology enthusiast), which presents itself under the microscope as a network of interwoven threads, incessantly branching out. This rhizomatic structure is alluded to in Garibaldi’s art, and also underpins much of his thought processes and approach to art-making.

The microscope also allowed Garibaldi to scrutinize the growth and movement of bacteria in Petri dishes. Garibaldi describes experiments where he released droplets of substrate into a Petri dish of bacteria, and observed the organisms flocking towards their source of sustenance. The patterns traced by the movement of bacteria in the Petri dish formed the basis of the typography for a language invented by the artist, which he calls “Terhah” (a word which means ‘ideas’ in his invented language).

Garibaldi considers the creation of Terhah his first ‘project’, whereby he sought to evolve a unique form of expression (language) through unconventional means. Drawing on his fascination with Esperanto and the idea of a ‘mother tongue’ as something highly intimate and personal, as well as the idea that language can encapsulate a culture’s psyche in the way that ideas are expressed, Garibaldi invited his peers to participate in the creation of Terhah by contributing made-up words which they felt would resonate with the concept of the idea being expressed. It is therefore fitting that the typography of this language was derived from living organisms, constantly evolving and shifting, as are language and cultures.

That the typographical foundations of Terhah took place in a Petri dish is also apt, for the Petri dish is a visual metaphor for a place where experimentation and creation can take place. The generation of new life and fertile new ideas occurs in a space bounded by its circular frame and scrutinized from a distance; these enclosed worlds are perhaps not dissimilar to the ‘frames’ of art and the frames around artworks, which serve as boundaries and parameters for the teeming ideas contained within, offered up for public analysis and consideration.

Bacteria and fungi hold great fascination for Garibaldi. They are associated with decay and decomposition, and yet from this process, new life springs forth. This paradox is aptly expressed in an artwork that Garibaldi submitted for the 2013 Bandung Contemporary Art Awards, titled Atoah epok: Ehoor Lamura (Like Art: Fungal Statement). The work comprised a mound of earth shaped like a human body, encased in a vitrine, suggesting a coffin. Blossoming on top of the human figure were bouquets of fungi. It was at once memento mori as well as a reminder of the cycles of life, with death and decay giving rise to new life and beauty. By linking fungus to art in his work’s title, Garibaldi draws out a parallel between this natural cycle and that of the art world and art history; the status quo, or what is here today, will eventually die off so that new forms can arise.

In the process of decomposing matter, fungi also spawn whole new ecologies which support the sustenance of new organisms. There is, for instance, a symbiotic relationship between fungi and termites. For his exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries, Garibaldi proposes to present an expansive otherworld which will bring together the various strands of investigation and art-making in his practice. The creation of this immersive environment builds on the artist’s interests in the networked and interconnected nature of ecologies, and the evocative power of fungi as symbols of death and decay, as well as life—in particular the mushroom, which is one of a few organisms that can live without sunlight, contrary to other life-forms and conventional assumptions about the sun’s life-giving energies. The environs of this prolific fungus present a paracosm of the artist’s making, an alternative world with its own unique (counter-) ecology and even language which resembles the world we know and yet runs counter to it, or perhaps, runs parallel to, but under it like a subconscious; the dark reaches in which the mushroom grows and blossoms is like the underground or unexplored substrate of the mind— fertile new terrain to mine.

Ideas, like bacterial and fungal growth, can spread rapidly and impact other fields. A graphic representation of mycelial growth is a powerful metaphor for this interconnectedness and expansiveness; the illustration of a network as a dynamic space of constant conjunctive processes, branching out and, on occasion, bearing fruit.

It is fitting that Garibaldi observes a parallel between the way mushrooms grow and his own practice, given how his approach to art-making is so expansive—ranging from more conventional modes of expression such as drawing and printmaking to the creation of new languages and ecosystems—as well as interdisciplinary, nourished by its cross-fertilization with other fields of study such as agronomy, mycology, and conversations with people and enthusiasts from all walks of life, including the humble mushroom farmers of Indonesia with whom Garibaldi worked for his first solo exhibition Regnum Fungi, and from whom he realized the close relationship between our daily lives and various types of fungi.

The maturing art ecology in Indonesia has also supported Garibaldi’s modes of working with the establishment of contemporary art spaces which present and encourage approaches to art-making beyond conventional ‘schools’ or disciplines and commercial agendas. The Bandung New Emergence series of exhibitions at Selasar Sunaryo, for instance, has consciously presented the works of ‘creators’ (encompassing architects, musicians and designers) rather than those solely by ‘visual artists’, thereby encouraging interaction between these various and varied creative communities, and positioning the Bandung art scene as a site where such encounters can take place. In Yogyakarta, a similar shift towards interdisciplinary research and co-creation may be observed: in 2013, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Cemeti Art House organized the exhibition Dobrak which invited artists and social science specialists to collaborate and co-create works.

If sustained, the rhizomatic nature of the developing art ecology in Indonesia could well yield fertile new ground, as exemplified in Syaiful Garibaldi’s wide-ranging explorations. Like the thread-like body of the fungus, which appears to have no beginning and no end, only an ever-expanding network of nodes and connections—the possibilities for a constantly evolving and enquiring art-making process, nourished by its interdisciplinary conjunctions and modalities—are infinite indeed.

Tan Siuli

Tan Siuli is Assistant Director (Programmes) and Curator at the Singapore Art Museum where she oversees the Indonesia and Education portfolios. Her past exhibitions and projects include FX Harsono: Testimonies; Classic Contemporary: Contemporary Southeast Asian Art from the Singapore Art Museum Collection; Chimera: Asian Contemporary Art from Private Collections; and the Singapore Biennale 2013.

*from e-catalogue: “Abiogenesis: Terhah Landscape”, Pearl Lam Gallery Singapore

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