Much of Grace Siregar’s exhibition at Grey Area is autobiographical. ‘Territories’ opens with a map and handwritten list detailing a series of locations – Sumatra, East Timor, the Netherlands and the UK – where the Indonesian born artist has lived. Less of an artwork, and more of a contextualisation for what follows, it signals an honest desire to communicate her experience to an audience unlikely to have more than a superficial knowledge of the region from which she hailed. Perhaps this is also reason that Siregar has provided such an insistent commentary (in her gallery hand out) in which she explains the works or her motivation for their making. Curiously though, in many cases I got the feeling that the gallery- goer is not in fact the intended audience for the work at all; instead, it seems as her message is directed elsewhere, to herself (cathartically) or to her own family. My Father After Drinking Tea is described as an ode to him and another, made upon having discovered her mother was seriously ill, is said to be an expression of her powerlessness at being so far from home in such a situation. Whilst the work is certainly confessional, in the way that the artist reveals her life and tells of her feelings, it seemed that we were being invited to act as witnesses to a communication, rather than as the intended receivers of that communication.
Despite the particularity of Siregar’s circumstance, and her distinctly personal approach, the gallery insists in its press release that the exhibition deals with “constructs of identity”. I’ll admit that I blanched at this: ‘identity’ is one of those words – like ‘memory’ – to which I’ve developed a bad case of over- familiarity. Since it was first used during the headier days of 80s identity politics, it has been used to tag such a number and variety of exhibitions and projects that its potency within a gallery context now seems to have become diminished and its meaning generic. Perhaps then it was inevitable that the least successful works in ‘Territories’ were those explicitly focusing upon this idea. The two pieces at the back of the gallery offer portraits (in video and photography) of adults and children from different sides of the Indonesian religious conflict. In one work entitled Meaning of Peace, Siregar films Muslim artists giving their own definitions: the actual words, translated into English on an accompanying sheet, offer such platitudes as “peace is something beautiful” (an opinion with which it’s surely hard to disagree?) and thus render a complex idea bland. More interesting is the moment before the people speak, or when they stop and the camera continues to roll: it is then that these talking heads reveal themselves most fully and most subtly. Some look nervously about, we see them swallow and smile; others stare resolutely into the lens; some seem to launch in confidently, whilst other look about them for inspiration. In such moments, they speak louder than mere words would allow.
For me, however, the most engaging work, and one which addressed the gallery audience, was Jakarta Pool Piece, a video projection showing five people (two women and three men) each fully dressed but submerged to waist or shoulders in a modest swimming pool. The six-square grid of its split screen allows us to see each depicted singly, whilst one slot shows all five together in the same pool. The video suggests that these people were required to remain in place for quite some time, and as a result the tiredness, boredom and cold clearly start to tell upon the participants. A woman hunkers down, trying to stay within the warmth of the pool; one of the men manages to remain almost entirely static, his stillness making a mirror of the water; he waits patiently whilst another continually bobs around, stretching and striking poses. Whilst we are informed that the video was made as the artist was waiting to hear about her UK visa and that the participants are all Siregar’s friends, this is much more than a simple illustration of the hiatus in her life: the recorded soundtrack of the Jakarta day slipping by, combined with the participants’ careful movement, translated the work into a slow and intense dance, which continued to sustain my attention during repeated viewings.
Joanne Lee is a Brighton-based artist and writer whose work explores a curiosity about everyday things. She is Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University.