Ian Campbell writes about Heri Dono:
Heri Dono: installation, technology, presence and absence.




Heri Dono’s art is a multi faceted inquiry into the essence of the artist as ever-present creative force. His practice transcends the different disciplines as defined by western academic approaches. His subversive, innovative, and transformative zeal is unified in a single approach that is centred on cultural engagement. As an artist, he can combine self-expression and a collaborative spirit that fuses performative aspects of his work with gallery installations. One way to explore the issues of artistic and collective identity as engendered by Dono’s work is to examine his use of installation as a creative medium.

Installation can be defined as a presentation conceived for a specific interior that seeks to physically dominate the space. The intent of the artist is to allow the viewer to actively engage with the space and its contents, at times more strongly influenced than others (particularly in the use of sound and moving images). The aesthetic of the installation is often presented self consciously as a temporary occurrence. This points to the intimate connection between installation and performance art.

Key figures in the growth of installation in the postwar period strove to integrate other mediums in a total artwork. Joseph Beuys was notable for his avocation of an ideal social sculpture that contained political action as well as performance and sculpture. His notion worked against the idea of permanence to destroy the power of the modernist art object.
He was opposed to art based on autonomous gestures and believed any person could be creatively active. His vision was to would allow for an art that could totally permeate life.

Asian contemporary artists in the 70’s began to adopt these ideas. Asian contemporary art is uniquely conscious of these concepts. The universal cultural acceptance of art in cultures like that on Bali enables a closer approximation of these values to come to fruition. The culture of art has a major role in the culture, which renders it continuous with society. Art (particularly performance) makes the temples function and everyone can have a personal engagement with the artist’s role.

Historical mediums like wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) reinforce the notion of the value of multimedia presentation. This power to transform reality is also key in installation art. Often, the artist’s role is to determine the mood of the viewer by manipulating the gallery space. Also, there is a loose distinction between living folk arts and contemporary arts, partly because of the paternalistic perception of Asian artists as primitive held by the west.
In Asia, there is a constant need to keep growth and decay in balance. This flux is accentuated in much installation work where transience is built into the aesthetic.

Heri Dono is a multimedia artist. His childhood interests in drawing and painting lead him to the very specific desire to be an artist. After studying at the Indonesian Institute of Arts and exhibited paintings as well as participating in earth works installation. After his education he studied wayang kulit. Much of his influence comes from a will to engage with cultural matters in a humourous way that borders on the illogical. His imagery is based both on cartoons from the west and on traditional puppet designs. His interest in animation lead him at an early age to see cartoons as "’[an] animistic world where everything has soul, spirit and feelings. In this kind of world, communication has no barriers.’" He believes the value of cartoons lies in the "…opportunity to explore the illogical world of the mind." These sentiments are expressed continuously in his installation art in terms of their iconography and construction.

In order to communicate this vision of the illogical, Dono must constantly challenge his own inventiveness. Western writers describe him as a "low-tech magician". This description combines both of the sentiments that make his works so attractive: they are humble technically and mysterious in their "exotic" toylike charm. They are imbued with an adhoc, provisional appearance that undermines the threatening potential of technology. Dono perpetuates the prevailing mode of artists working with technology (Jean Tinguely among others) to make the works vulnerable and therefore palatable as art objects.

The piece entitled Gamelon Goro-Goro (fig 1) allows the viewer to become a witness to a series of interrelated processes. These multiple systems are made transparent to the viewer by the long sections of trailing wires and the tubs of water draining into each other. A connection is made between water and electricity reinforcing Dono’s urge to show "the spiritual energy of electricity". The animism of traditional rural cultures is brought into the world of science and technology.

While his paintings share a particularly visceral content that can be seen as political, the installation pieces are somewhat more spiritual. One particularly successful deviation from this is Fermentation of Mind (fig 2). In this work, a series of Fiberglas heads bob on mechanical cranks accompanied by tape-recorded chanting. "Fermentation of Mind signifies the importance of obedience in Indonesian culture… one reason for Indonesian governments since independence growing into totalitarian regimes."

These concerns extend the systems he is investigating in his work to the political realm. This is present in other works like Political Clowns (fig 4) where the disembodied heads rest on skeletal superstructures that reference the body. These analogs for people critique the use of naturalistic sculpture historically as reminder of important people. In contemporary art, like the Fermentation of Mind, art is more likely to be used to elevate a personal vision of humanity, perhaps even referring to the unamed and the powerless.

Dono says of installation, "…I think the meaning is not only in the exhibition, but also in the process, because they employ people to participate in making the piece. This process would allow the artist and the non-artist to communicate and bond socially." Much of his installation work is made with the assistance of a grass roots collection of people working in appliance repair shops. The unique economic environment of Indonesia ensures that there is a constant demand for repairing devices like TV’s and radios that people in the west would normally just throw out. The meaning that accompanies the resurrection cast off technology is important to understanding the social implications of these works. By being part of a human system of labour he establishes the presence of both the artist and the technologist. Their work is less likely to be subsumed by the monolithic and authoritative power of commodified electronics. This helps to illustrate the simplicity that diffuses any threatening power in the use of these materials. Dono’s work retains the handmade quality of the handicraft while presenting a vision that is more complicated than a mere tourist item. In the viewers mind a disconnect forms between preconceived notions of the traditional and the contemporary.

Dono seeks to remind people in the industrialized world of old technology and to accept differing levels of technology just as he accepts different levels of society. In reference to his piece Animal Journey (figure 3) he says, "Everyday in Yogya, I use a bicycle, and I go everywhere with it. This makes me think of people, especially the people in Harima [Japan], because Harima is a ‘technopolis,’ a new city. I wanted to remind them that the bicycle is still important." This illustrates how his found materials derive from personal engagement with his local experience. The symbols of the bicycle or the Gamelon are less fetishistic gestures of an exotic culture than an attempt at exporting a common experience to another culture and seeing how people respond.

The implications of Dono’s work as it is perceived in different cultures shows how technology can be demystified by other cultures that are perceived as older, and less intent on using it for evil purposes. This shows the contemporary artist’s constant need to undermine the sinister implications of technology, replacing them with ones that are vulnerable and even mocking. Similarly, Dono’s art is invested with the prescribed meanings of the "primitive" because of his style of presentation. Dono’s initial invitations to exhibit his work abroad came from museums of ethnology where he performed his shadow puppetry. The shift to make art from technological materials may in part come from the need to be taken seriously as a contemporary artist.

Dono’s main motif in the use of technology in his art seems to be philosophical as well as practical. Installation brings to the fore the collision of performance with the gallery venue as it is still appreciated in the western model (and still permeates the presentation of contemporary art). This division lies between presence and absence.
Installation is assumed to be the result of a process, the encapsulation of a time based project in a physical space. The persistent use of machines is tied to Dono’s evocation of a cartoon landscape. The implication of automated pieces like Gamelon Goro-Goro or Fermentation of the Minds is that this landscape could travel without him.

Generally this is uncharacteristic of a performer who jealously guards his talents and his image as his only product. Dono’s multi-media proclivities enable a sense of freedom that allows the use of technology without it’s anti-humanist allusions. This presence is felt, regardless of his location. By infusing the works with the animistic it simultaneously severs it from the autonomous gesture of performance and forces an independence from the artist.

It is important that Dono responds to his culture both locally and globally. He can take the otherworldly illogic of cartoons and fuse it with the medium of gallery bound installation and machine art. This truly postmodern approach to creating comes from a sincere fascination with invention, with telling stories and performing that is intrinsic to traditional arts like puppetry. His identity is not in flux, but his mediums of expression are, providing him with a large pool of toys from which to amuse himself and make others think. One gets the feeling Dono is constantly creating, making sure his form of innovation replicates itself across mediums and across borders. It doesn’t matter which medium he chooses, the result will be highlighted by cultural engagement. This is his job.


Gamelan Goro-Goro, 2001, Sound installation: water vats, gongs, hubcaps, and electric equipment. AWAS! Recent Art from Indonesia (webcatalog).

Fermentation of Mind, 1994. Installation, mixed media. XXIII Bienal Internacional de São Paulo (web catalog),

Animal Journey, 1997, Flash Art, Volume 33, Summer 2000, p 95.

Figure 4.
Political Clowns, Flash Art, Volume 33, Summer 2000, p 96.

Wright, Astri, "Heri Dono, Indonesia: A Rebel’sPlayground," 12 Asean Artists, 2000, pp. 86-95.

Lutfy, Carol, "Low Tech Magician," Artnews, October 1997, pp. 149-9.

Supangkat, Jim, "Breaking Through Twisted Logic," Arts Asia Pacific, Issue 32, Oct-Dec 2001,

Obrist , Hans Ulrich, "Heri Dono: the Ever Increasing Colonization of Time", Flash Art, Volume 33, Summer 2000

Obrist , Hans Ulrich, "Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews Heri Dono, 1999", Chinese-Art.com, ©1999

Polansky, Larry, "Interview with Heri Dono", ©1997