2 artists in Bali explore their Indonesian identities

A collaborative affair with very different results

By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop

BALI, Indonesia

In the small studio-cum-home of Pintor and Astari, the distinctive work of the two artists fights for space. An oil painting of a family dressed in traditional batik costume, posing as though in a studio photograph, hangs next to a large square sheet of steel punctured by bullet holes with pieces of welded metal forming a super-imposed face on it. Elsewhere a small stainless steel replica of a Formula One race car faces a painted copper replica of an oversize Birkin bag with an Indonesian Wayang puppet perched on top and a can of Bintang beer (another Indonesian icon) encased on its side. Yet the close proximity of these diverse works reveals the subtle impact each artist has had in recent years on the other's work.

Sirait and Astari are a rising force on the Balinese art scene, which has often been dominated by international artists. In recent years, Sirait, 46, an Indonesian sculptor, has become known for his life-size stainless steel replicas of Formula One race cars that are executed with a high, polish gloss and covered with symbolic etchings and emotionally charged words like "love", "hate" and "paranoia", replacing the more familiar advertising names and logos. Sometimes sleek and beautiful, sometimes crushed and distorted, Sirait's race cars are his reflection on the ambiguity of beauty, a theme close to his heart since the bombings in Bali in 2002 that left more than 200 people dead.

Meanwhile, the oil painter Astari, 55, who goes by one name, has long been looking at the traditional perception of women's roles in today's society. She has recently made waves with her witty series of bronze sculptures of ironic Hermes and Louis Vuitton bags that lampoon today's consumerist society in Indonesia and its carving for luxury goods. One of her most recent sculptures, La Victime, (paint on silver-plated copper) created a birdcage from a representation of a Louis Vuitton-style bag with a tweedy bird balancing inside, the title itself an intended pun on the LV name.

The two artists keep their studios separate but work near each other and use the rooms in their home as the "cooking idea kitchen," Sirait explained. The closest they have collaborated was showing their work in their "His/Hers: Trapped in Heaven" exhibition in Beijing earlier this year. Sirait exhibited the latest artworks from his "Terror-Beauty" series, which is characterized by the use of steel sheets riddled with bullet holes fired by the artist with a handgun or rifle, a reference to the implicit violence of daily life. Astari showed works from her bag series, as well as her latest paintings inspired by the Olympic Games and the rapid economic development of Asia.

The flow of ideas between the two is evident in their work. "We work together with ideas and thoughts. She bounces off ideas and I will make some comments. It's a bit like two surgeons, who will say 'there' when one makes a mistake without having to explain to each other: They help each other, they have their own code," explained Sirait.

"But the most interesting thing for me is that we make our own decisions and sometimes we disagree," he said. "When I was first doing F1 series for a small show, Astari felt it was too much," - "not realistic enough," she interrupted - "but I felt the idea was so good I did it anyway."

Astari pointed out that they have very different approaches to work. She loves to talk about her work before she actually starts while he only talks about his afterward. She does a lot of drawings and sketches and sometimes uses Photoshop whereas he prefers to be surprised and reacts to his three-dimesional work as it develops.

"I like the fact that his work is different from mine," Astari said. "I think his latest work, the F1 series, has become easier to understand too, although some people don't understand some of the meanings behind the writing. But I'm intrigued by his use of statements in the work, his use of literature. I also use words, but mine are simpler than Pintor's."

The two Indonesian artists came from very different backgrounds. Sirait was born in Germany, but raised from the age of 5 in Jakarta; in the late '80s he studied liberal arts at the University of Nevada in Reno. Astari had a privileged childhood, following her father, a military attached, to New Delhi and Ragoon before attending a strict Catholic girls' school back in Jakarta in her teens. After a brief stint as a secretary, she worked as a fashion reporter and became a well-known fashion editor, before giving it up to start a family with her husband, who has since died.

The couple met in 1994, when Sirait, just back from the United States, showed his work to Astari, who at the time headed the arts council in Jakarta. Impressed, she chose him for the 9th Jakarta Biennale that year, which she was helping to curate, and a relationship slowly developed. in 1998, the couple decided to settle in Bali because they felt it would be more conducive to their work.

"Less distraction and traffic," Astari said.

While the artists' work expresses different concerns, they also have common threads and an Indonesia identity.

"I think we share an interest in cultural things together though the way we present it is completely different'" Sirait explained.

Astari has influenced his work by exposing him to more of Indonesia's cultural icons, taking him to the famous Kratons (palaces) in Solo and to batik markets - the sculptor now often incorporates traditional Sumatran designs and motifs etched on metal. Meanwhile, Sirait introduced his partner to contemporary sculpture and metalwork. "She was very working with so I took her to a scrap yard," he said. "She's like a city girl and I wanted to take her to the bad side of town" - she laughs - "and I taught her to weld."

Both Sirait and Astari believe it's important for each other of them to retain their artistic identities. "As two artists working, we have to find different ways of doing things," Sirait said. "It's also a way of two people having an identity in a relationship, if not, ideas would float around and we might fight over which idea was whose. It's a survival mechanism to have your own identity."

Astari added: "But we're not in competition and we want the best for each other. So we really do critique each other."

The artists are preparing pieces for a group show in Yogyakarta later this year, and are also working on separate commissions: Astari for a hotel and Sirait for the new Indonesia Central Bank Museum.

@2013 pintorsirait.com