Otty Widasari: (The Ones Who) Looked at the Media

Curatorial essay by Manshur Zikri, Curator of Ones Who Looked at the Presence,
Otty Widasari’s solo exhibition at ARK Galerie, Yogyakarta, 10/09 – 15/10, 2015.

Painting and Cinema

There are three things I would like to begin this curatorial with, related to the attempts of setting the basis and frame in constructing values of perceiving the act of media-ing performed by Otty Widasari; I intended to underline the word “media-ing” for it is the word with its capability in describing the artist thoroughly.

The first is her simple answer to a question I once expressed, “Why always write in a daily journal?”, while nowadays she—like people in common—is familiar with no-hand-writing technology. The answer was plain and simple: “To not forgetting.” Is it not possible to take little notes in digital and wireless devices nowadays, which is even easier (for most of us)? So why is hand-writing still important for her?

The second thing, on many pages of her journal—she often shows me several pages in her excitement—Otty likes to draw faces of the people she is close with or those who are near her. She also likes to draw other things like human body, non-human-objects, or shapes and forms not referring to real objects except for dots, lines, and squares. But the scratches out of her pen or water paint—which as far as I know of are the two tools she often uses for her journal—of faces of people are dominant. I could recognize some of the faces she drew. She often asked me to guess whose faces she had drawn, giving a test to my visual dexterity on flashbacks of daily realities and experiences to be contextualized with the representation shown on her journal pages.

I previously guessed, based on the attention I had towards her habits, is it possible that relaxing daily activities while drawing people’ faces is her subconscious act in studying characteristics of the ones she know? I then recalled as we once discussed on the disciplines we each yearn for; Otty mentioned how she really wanted to obtain deeper understanding in anthropology. It is just several minutes ago that I realized, the act could not be possible without consciousness.

The third is the comment by a friend living in Amsterdam expressed on Otty’s paintings and sketches she made during her one month residency in Utrecht, The Netherlands, at the end of last year. Based on the comment by this friend of ours who is also a filmmaker, Otty has her own path: while people switch from celluloid to digital technology, seeking for new possibilities in perceiving the world of representation and reality of either still images or moving images—or we might just be trying to escape from the reality that even technology is not eternal—Otty chose to work with cinema (“cinema-ing” – as adapted from the original Indonesian text) by using the medium painting.

“Your paintings bring the dead back alive,” said that friend of ours. For me personally, it felt like Otty actually consciously recall the nature of media as it was in the early days of history; by inventing the shapes and untying the words through the act of scratching or brushing by hands.

In this very latest era, when human gain their capability in making and using various super sophisticated invention technology, which is able to represent—and thus reproduce—objects to their 100% real shape resemblance, the selection of “old-fashioned way” in framing reality and imagination, like (the act of) painting, I think is still relevant to be seen as an act of perceiving how media actually construct our reality and history until the present days.

Note that—and this is the reason why I call it media-ing—the intimacy between Otty and media does not merely by paintings and writings (although the two remain her prime). Film and video—she likes to skin out her smartphone digital technology lately—are two kinds of media technology which influence her understanding in reality and representation, especially in her activities dealing with visual. Pointing to such background, there is an aspect relating to the idea of cinema which is properly mentioned in this exhibition project.

Referring to the history of cinema theory, André Bazin had discussed the impact between painting and cinema (Bazin, 1967). Bazin was of course sits on the side of cinema in examining the differences of nature and medium of them both. The fundamentals he mainly highlighted were the possibilities if paintings—or fine arts—presented in film work. Hence Bazin stated his view on the difference of borderline as the visual boundary in paintings with that in a cinema/film. The “frame” borderline (as in paintings) is different from the “screen” borderline (as in cinema): the first in its centripetal energy—pulling inwards—while the second one in centrifugal energy—pulling outwards.

A frame bordering picture on a painting takes the world inside on its own; the painter’s interpretation or realm centred inside the frame, and the “connected situation” with the outer world outside the frame does not exist, although the visual we see could just be a representation of something in the universe. To Bazin, the world of representation in paintings is “a contemplative area opening solely onto the interior of the painting” (p. 166) and it “encloses a space that is oriented so to speak in a different direction” (p. 165). In the meantime, the outer edges of the screen is “the edges of a piece of masking that shows only a portion of reality” (pg. 166) and more appropriate to be seen as a transparent line enables the world of image inside connected without border to our universe. Supposing if there is a piece from a painting presented as an image on the screen, the piece has basically expanded and therefore “the space of the painting loses its orientation and its limits and is. presented to the imagination as without any boundaries” (pg. 166). This means that when we are facing the screen—in other words, facing a cinema; e.g., watching a film about painting—it is actually “the viewer…is actually looking at it through the instrumentality of an art form that profoundly changes its nature.” (p. 165).

Bazin’s explanation had shown how differences between “frame” and “screen” can be indicated from the aspects of the material’s “tangibility”, especially when they are presented to the audience. As we are able to touch the material inside the “frame”, what we are seeing on the “screen” is actually the untouchable light. This what driven Bazin then, stating that the painting captured by the camera—that the image seen on the screen—had actually experienced changes of its nature, form, and medium. “Tthe painting thus takes on the spatial properties of cinema and becomes part of that “picturable” world that lies beyond it on all sides.” (pg. 166).

Perhaps the dialectic reaction towards the theory provokes us to simple questions; how if a process relating to image (pictorial process) is reversed, from the realm of cinema to the realm of visual arts (or from film to painting)? If that is done, would the initiative then included a space oriented in a different direction, the space orienting to an entirely different way or aim from that of a moving image? Hence, what speculation could be brought up from the change, especially in the present days?

Ones Who Looked at the Presence

This exhibition project is part of Otty Widasari continuous art project she started at the residency in Utrecht, The Netherlands, last year. The artist developed and explored the relation between media, archive, documentation acts and the phenomenon of reproduction.

Otty did a deepen research on colonial archives showing how technology of recording and moving images present in the Dutch East Indies and how people reacted towards camera at the time. Otty told me her opinion once that however, camera shall always rouse a location, either as a rejection or acceptance by the subjects highlighted by the technology. At least the reaction towards camera can be seen by one’s acts or attitude while being near the technology.

The archives collected and became Otty’s main sources for her research are the moving images recorded by the colonial on seven locations; Balikpapan, Banjarmasin, Toraja, Jakarta (and Bandung), Central Java, Lamalera (The Lembata District), and Papua. The occurrences and situations in each location recorded had its own specific content.

The records in Balikpapan show the ambience around the port and coast near a bay and a hill, where an oil refinery located. The camera directed to the view where the vessels were coming, and we would see the Westerns—strongly assumed as the oil refinery employees at the time—doing their activities around the beach, like having their holidays in the middle of workdays. There are also subjects appearing as colour-skin people, looking like labourers.

The records of Banjarmasin had the ambience of town and market. A merchant (a drug charlatan?) offering sales. There are children playing around, and some of them responded to the camera, as if they are greeting us in ease. The record in Toraja is a corpse burial traditional ceremony, while the record from Lamalera show the local people activity of whale hunting—among the hunters was a gaff-man titled as “lamafa”.

The records in Jakarta—and Bandung though not so many—show the situation around Waterlooplein (now known as Lapangan Banteng) and the activity of people playing soccer. The records in Central Java had the activities and ambience of railway construction—at the time it was aimed for logistic distribution—and local people and colonial staff activities on teak exploitation. The railway shown was that crossing Magelang, Muntilan and Yogyakarta. These records of Jakarta and Central Java were made by J.C. Lamster (based on the text applied) and seemed as a report of infrastructure development progress to the colonial government of The Netherlands; the railway construction, for instance, had begun since the era of King Willem I.

Records from Papua had the story of life of the Asmat tribe community. This record had been constructed as the common documentaries we know, showing the situation within Indonesia post-independence period from the year 1948-1952 [?]. This record partly had documentation photos. In some of the scenes on the moving images, we could see the activities of the tribe community members riding boats, and one or two realized that the camera was on them.

Otty herself grew to become she is now with a character shaped by her numerous experiences exploring various locations. Otty frequently visited locations throughout Java in her teenage years. Apart from that, the stories she heard from her mother about the housing complex located in the area of oil refinery in Balikpapan—her childhood town and where she was born—and the stories in Ambarawa, became an affirmation factor to Otty’s strong personal experience in the areas. In Balikpapan, for instance, was her mother’s story about the lights from the houses in the oil refinery, forming to Wilhelmina’s crown at nights, shaping an imagination hardly detached from the artist’s romanticizing the location. Even in Jakarta, the colonial heritage sites are the locations he often visited with her father, the places where he used to play around as a child while living at Jl. Cilacap, Menteng, Central Jakarta. This background shows how several locations recorded in the moving image archive correlated with Otty’s personal experiences of moving from one place to another. The experience of the body toward the locations certainly influences Otty’s interpretation on the moving image archives.

The practice Otty did on the archives was by watching all the moving image records she had collected and interpreted the visuals she had seen on her laptop screen into many paintings, peeling out every single scene and processed them to new imaginations on paper.

Other interpretation was also done by re-recording the moving images from the archives of the seven locations. Otty made it by placing her laptop at the locations correlated with the locations and events in the past recorded in the archive, and then she turned the moving images on the seven locations on her laptop. While the computer was on and had the moving images archive shown, Otty recorded it by using her cellular phone video camera. The shot of the video camera was made by taking the shots moving further away or zooming out. Afterwards, at a different location but still related to the previous location, the video she had just made was played on the same laptop, and Otty recorded a new video by directing to the computer playing the first video; she also had it with zooming out technique. At the third location, it was the second video’s turn to be played on the computer to take the third video; this is how it goes to the next video until the moving image from the archive she used at the first place sink down in the video recording Otty made. This process was made repeatedly and in different locations, making Otty’s recording had layers of reality shown, dissolving the representations of the events in the past and in the present.

On her other video work, Otty reconstructed the moving images archive by “blowing up” several scenes through editing. In this video, Otty chose and sorted the moving images archive of scenes showing subjects turning their heads, seeing, or realizing the presence of a camera. The faces of these subjects were then made as focus by zooming in technique.

Through the three methods explained earlier, the experiment Otty made in her project, either on paintings or video works, had become an act uncovering the intersection folds between location, presence, and the function of material/body/medium, and also social gesture. By painting, Otty seems like having “pause” to create energy of reflective break through different medium, and in this case, it is possible that the medium of painting releases the idea of pause from the authority of apparatus cyborgian of camera and screening device. While on her video works—in this exhibition, the moving images from the video will then projected onto papers rather than merely screen—it is as if Otty reduces the values attached to the material of the moving images archive and changes it to an artwork with different orientation: undermining the access limit against the past and transforms it to a newly authentic material accessible in the present. This method gives fissure to new interpretation revealing the mystery relating “the presence of technology”, “the presence of the body”, “location”, “reactions of subjects”, “social gesture”, “past” and “present”.

Seeing Those Who See and Do Not See the Camera

The polemic as the matter explained in this exhibition is concerning the material of moving image archive. The two words we need to underline are “representation” and “reproduction”. The fact is, the records Otty collected are actually the reproduction of the original records owned by the Western. Whilst in the past the original records were made by celluloid technology, now Otty can actually own and watch her reproduction in the form of digital material (video).

This situation indicates the artist’s—and of most of our—matter of accessibility towards archives as sources of knowledge. In the colonial era, the practice of colonization did not only dig out the natural resources for it also scraped out the knowledge about media and left not even a little part of it to the colonized communities. The diverse of life activities was recorded and brought back to their own countries, having them kept in the archive rooms, thousands of kilometres away from where they originated. As we now want to see the materials to be learned about or have study on, we have a very limited access. The digital technology has indeed opened the access in present days, but the archives we are able to see are still in presentation of reproduction that has lost its auratic strength. It does not merely lie on the distance for it also goes to the system of science mastery; hence we are distant from the past, in a distance from our own history.

Otty tries to discuss about this limitation in her Ones Who Looked at the Presence paintings. In some of her paintings displayed in this exhibition, the artist captured faces and body gestures from the subjects recorded by the colonial camera and identified them by applying the sentence “the ones who looked at the camera” and “the ones who did not look at the camera”. The pattern we then find is that only a few local subjects (colonized people) looking at the camera in gesture impressing their understanding of the technology function. It is different when the subjects were the Westerns; they consciously responded to the camera as a media able to “immortalize” moments. This had been shown, as an instance, through the faces and body expressions of the subjects painted by Otty: the local people looked at the camera with flat gaze or awkward pose towards the camera—or we can even feel the impression of disturbance on the subjects—while the Westerns looked at the camera in cheerful gesture or ready to be captured pose, like lifting up their hats or waving their hands. The argumentation on these attitude differences is that camera technology is basically produced by Western modernity and thus is its true culture; camera is the representation of modernity. Nevertheless, in this context, modernity shall not be merely seen through the aspect of the appearance and mastery of technology; it also relates to the measurable structures of life, mental, attitude and consciousness constructed by the system.

Paintings, in the context of Otty solo exhibition at Ark Galerie, along with her sublime capability producing auratic strength, hold the role of returning the humanity side drowned by the Western modernity invulnerable. The act of painting had become Otty’s way implementing media-literacy act and analyzing mass media mechanism—the digital recordings produced from the original archive reproduction had however became part of mass media discourse. The aesthetic in arts genuinely sends the opportunity in breaking our limits as we are dealing with media control. In the same manner as in film, Otty’s consciousness on paintings is driven by the desire in understanding medium, for perceiving medium is the basic to understand the mechanism of media production system.

As an answer to the question I wrote in the last part of this essay’s first sub-title, the idea and method Otty constructed and discuss in the project Ones Who Looked at the Presence can be seen as an effort to win back the treasure stolen by colonialism system—here I refer to the access and freedom over knowledge and history—and place it precisely in the context of contemporary art. Therefore painting is no longer imprisoned in withered perspectives. As a present-time human, Otty is making “anthropological recording” over the past events. “The strength of frame” and “space” in painting become legitimation to make Otty’s paintings, based on the visual she had seen and studied from the moving images, not only as visual repetition from the moving images material (in other words, not as reproduction), but as an entirely new form, as a new representation, with different orientation: making it to universal knowledge material, free and purely originated from the hands of a human born in the native land.


Bazin, A. (1967). “Painting and Cinema”, in A. Bazin, & H. Gray (Ed.), What Is Cinema? (H. Gray, Trans., Vol. I, pp. 164-169). London, England: University of California Press, Ltd.

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