Leonard Suryajaya, Installation view of Bathe Me When I Die
Ambivalence. This word comes to mind when viewing Leonard Suryajaya’s exhibition Bathe Me When I Die. Surayjaya’s work is a clashing of cultures, cleanliness and comfort. Navigating the complicated relationships among his photographs and videos is made easier by learning about the equally complicated relationship the artist has with himself. Growing up with Buddhist parents, attending a Christian school, spending much of his youth with a Muslim “other mother,” Suryajaya’s video and photography share an ongoing grappling with his sense of self and belonging.
Leonard Suryajaya, Still from Chocolate Beard, 2014, video
In his online bio, Suryajaya pulls in another piece of the puzzle that is identity. He writes that as he came to understand his homosexuality, his feelings of alienation deepened further. The pieces on display at ROY accomplish something unexpected. For viewers entering the exhibit, the first thing they see is an unsettling video, titled Chocolate Beard. In this piece, a seemingly unaffected, expressionless bearded man lies nude on what looks like an operating table in the center of a set-up for a photo shoot. The artist enters, wearing a trucker hat reading “BOY.” What happens next is not exactly an interaction between the two men as much as it is one man manipulating the other. The artist does this by smearing and licking the chocolate that has been coated on the beard of the subject. Another video, titled Rupa, features the same two men in similar roles. The unaffected bearded subject sits nearly motionless in the center of a kiddie pool. The artist returns and proceeds to alternate shaving, worshipping, and bathing his partner in a mixture of milk and confetti, as though he were decorating a birthday cake. Suryajaya clarifies that the milk bath is actually used to cleanse in traditional Indonesian therapy. He says, “The gesture of bathing the figure is also used in some Buddhist [ceremonies] where the devout comes to bathe the figure as a gesture of self inner cleansing. The confetti is a celebration. It is considering how festive, performative, and staged rituals can be.”
Leonard Suryajaya, (With Sister, Aunts, Uncles and Cousin) Mom as Bodhisattva, 2015, archival pigment print
As provocative and literally messy as the video pieces are, the accompanying photographs are equally provocative but contrasting in their clean, posed content. One photograph features the artist’s mother, sister, aunts, an uncle, and a cousin as a Hindu goddess. In her many arms she holds various modern objects, such as a television remote and Ibuprofen. The objects are symmetrical on each side of her body. The goddess in the portrait is a being who has reached enlightenment. This piece is especially personal for Suryajaya. He says, “In a place where she [his mother] will always be lower than my dad and men, I try to say otherwise.”
Suryajaya is successful in his exhibition’s ability to stir within viewers the ambivalence he feels himself. He says, “In making work and in thinking about my relationship with the viewer, I strive to create visual experiences for the viewer to respond to. I find that the most effective use of art (especially in dealing with hard themes of oppression, violence and injustice) is when I can invite the viewer to reconsider their placement in these questionings. Therefore it is my ambition to extend the experience of [disorientation] to the viewer.” The videos arouse discomfort and inspire a curiosity for clear answers, both of which are reflected in the artist’s experiences growing up in a culture that clashed with his identity. The photographs juxtapose varying religions and races as well as food imagery and tools. “Food is a signifier of abundance and transverse; however, it is also very specific and carries loaded meanings in its visual placement,” Suryajaya says. He uses the example of beef in one of the photos, as it is not consumed in some religions. As a whole, Bathe Me When I Die works as a collage, piecing together the divergent elements of Suryajaya’s history. The exhibit is reminiscent of designs featured in high fashion magazines; the ensembles we may not see ourselves wearing to dinner, but nevertheless admire the savviness and creativity of the designer. A similar sentiment can be felt for Bathe Me When I Die. Not all viewers will be open to the ideas and questions Suryajaya is exploring and the art he has created to present them; however, the boldness and ingenuity of his work is undeniable.