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Banana trees and other bright green foliage run riot in an abandoned lot. In the distance, dull gray skyscrapers peer out from behind a patch of city jungle, half obscured from view by the tangled mess of greenery. A fertile patch of land has been reclaimed in the heart of the city.
This is one of the rare Jakarta scenes that Canadian-born artist Ken Pattern recently revisited for the first time in almost seven years.
Up until the late '90s the artist, who has made Indonesia his second home since 1989, was a man on a mission, racing to record the city's ramshackle and often idyllic kampong scenes in his tightly drawn, photo-like, black and white pictures before they disappeared for good. His work cataloged the economic and social upheaval that saw many of Jakarta's inner city housing districts leveled to make way for high-rise developments.
Pattern returned to the Setiabudi area in Central Jakarta last year to paint an area earmarked for development which had featured in his earlier work, only to discover to his glee that the jungle had grown back.
"When I drew this area in 1996, it was hot real estate ready to be developed and here we are some years later and it's gone backwards in some ways and yet it's also gone forwards, as people have taken over the land and are using it for what it should be used for -- to feed people!" he said.
Seeing himself as a documenter first and an artist second, Ken Pattern produced almost a hundred pen and ink and lithographs during the boom years of the 1990s, works which highlighted the stark contrasts in a city where extreme poverty and wealth are found side by side.
His Jakarta series is a sort of social commentary full of visual puns and subtle satire; a view of an urban heritage teetering on the brink of annihilation until the monetary crisis of 1998 brought the frenzied construction of glass and steel towers to a standstill.
By that time, Pattern felt that he had gone as far as he could with his Jakarta scenes and he turned to more symbolic, surrealistic perspectives, which pack more social and political punch.
He first used labyrinths to describe the impossible journey of the foreigner struggling to understand Indonesia. To even begin this trip, he says, you have to start understanding Javanese culture, a virtually impenetrable labyrinth of complexity to the outsider.
Just when you get to the stage where you think you might have figured it out, he says, you realize you've not got anywhere yet.
Influenced by Dede Eri Supria, a local artist renowned for his use of
the labyrinth to depict the alienation of modern man, Pattern incorporates
labyrinths in his paintings today to express another form of alienation
-- man's disconnection with his planet and the natural order.
In one of these pieces concrete labyrinthian housing blocks replace the green slopes of Puncak, a favorite mountain retreat for Jakartans.
"When all the development was going on, they couldn't build golf courses and housing developments fast enough; they were just stripping down the hillsides. It made me think the whole thing was turning into a monumental urban nightmare."
The absurdity of Western capitalism is another target for his satirical surrealistic art.
The Golf Between -- a pun on the gap between rich and poor and the spread of golf courses throughout the developing world -- shows a series of villages arranged in labyrinths which intersect a golf course. Originally named North-South Dialogue, the lithograph shows the artist's discomfort with the elitism of golfing and what he sees as the absurdity of selling the developing world an alien lifestyle replete with golf courses, fast food franchises and MTV.
"The Western model of so-called democracy and consumerism is thrown at them in a very unfair way I think. Everybody wants to buy into the MTV thought pattern," says Pattern with regret.
"It not just in Indonesia but all over the developing world, there's this increasing clash of cultures. It's almost as if we give the developing world McDonald's and golf courses as if that's going to help people."
At 62, Ken Pattern shows no signs of waning idealism and has no plans to retire and paint landscapes. However, he admits to enjoying them more now than in his youth and intends to include some new pieces in his forthcoming exhibition in Jakarta, a fundraising event for the Canadian Women's Association.
The exhibition will focus on his Jakarta lithographs but Pattern's recent work is heading down darker paths than those he has trod in the city's back streets and kampongs. At the CP Open Biennale in Jakarta last year, his contributions included trees strangled by concrete labyrinthian buildings and a stone maze engulfing a fragile oasis; an apocalyptic vision of the future where nature is wiped out by man's overindulgence.
When pressed on what he is trying to achieve with these images, the artist, who spent the early days of his career as an environmental activist, reveals that he has little hope for the future of the planet and believes that we may have "gone too far to turn the ship around".
"Almost everyday there are speeches and reports
about illegal logging in Sumatra, or destruction of the rain forests,
or the annihilation of various animal species. But no one's really doing
anything about it and they won't do anything about it until it's gone;
the need to acquire material wealth is stronger than our need to preserve
our heritage; we've come unglued; unhinged"
His latest surrealist work, Landscape Cityscape Escape, unlike most of his earlier pieces, goes even further by offering the audience no landscape to get their bearings by -- instead they are faced with one stony labyrinth superimposed on another. Some viewers feel disturbed by this lack of a reference point, which is surely the aim of the piece.
In what direction will his art go now? There's no way of knowing. Ken Pattern's output regularly swings from colorful landscapes to black and white cityscapes, from political satire to traditional pastoral scenes.
But his work is easily recognizable from its tight meticulous attention to detail, a process which takes months to complete. By the time he finishes one piece, the original idea has often morphed into a completely new set of ideas, but the idea can also come to an abrupt ending after one piece as if the art has a life of its own.
Economic realities also come into play and surrealist images of labyrinths do not have the same market appeal as recognizable scenes from everyday life.
"At the moment I'm being really idealistic on one hand but also a little pragmatic and doing other things I really enjoy.
If I was only doing one or the other it would probably drive me crazy," he says, comparing his harsh black and white Jakarta scenes and surrealistic labyrinths to the more colorful idyllic nature scenes.
Perhaps the Eastern concept of yin and yang is at work in his art. "It feels safer," he says "to have the two bounce off each other".
Ken Pattern's lithographs will be exhibited at the Canadian Women's Association Fundraising Art Exhibition in Hotel Gran Melia, Lobby Level I, Jl. H.R. Rasuna Said, South Jakarta, from April 30 to May 8. Opening hours 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Preview: 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., 29 April.
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