The past and the present are often thought to be polar opposites. We typically think that we stand on the side of the present, looking back at the past as something that has concluded. Museums, as institutions that preserve objects of historical significance to specific fields, tend to embody this understanding.
However, what becomes gradually obvious even when observing a historical collection in chronological order is that history is an unbroken thread. Different periods in time lead and bleed into each other, with events influencing one another.
The NUS Museum attempts to break this dichotomous understanding of then and now with its latest exhibition, Always Moving: The Batik Art of Sarkasi Said.
Curated by Chang Yueh Siang, the exhibition presents Sarkasi’s practice from the 1990s to the present. Through a presentation of Sarkasi’s experimentations with the art form of batik through the years, the exhibition interrogates what it means to “preserve tradition”.
Installing the original 18 panels of Sarkasi Said’s View of Life:
The exhibition opens with two works in conversation: Marine Forest (2006) and Forest (2017). Both works are rich in the imagery of botanical landscapes. But the earlier of the two, Marine Forest, features the recognisable vibrant colours and repeated patterns of traditional Javanese batik. Intricate indigo web-like prints rendered through tie-dye interlock with vermillion and saffron prints that evoke mythical creatures such as the Naga. The overall effect recalls a lush landscape teeming with life.
The later Forest, however, uses a subdued palette of cool greys and abstract motifs to evoke forest foliage. Repeated vertical forms loosely recall the tall trees, thick cover and hanging vines of a dense forest. But without the association with the work’s title, the viewer might think they were looking at an abstract marbled digital print.
The pieces were selected to open the show despite the difference in their appearance. Both have strong, recognisable batik influence in terms of subject matter and technique.
Both are rich in the symbolism and visual vocabulary of traditional batik. Their influences are found in the natural world and Javanese myth and folklore.
Both were created using the resist-dyeing technique characteristic to batik.
Traditional batik resist dyeing uses wax to form boundaries that resist and control the bleeding of dye when it comes into contact with fabric.
Instead, wax is used to delineate a pattern, with coloured dye being applied to the negative space in between. These expansive works also explore the physical gesture of the repetitive dyeing process that lends a form of reflective contemplation to batik.
The two works establish the premise of the exhibition: that preserving tradition is not simply about safeguarding a thing of the past as it once was, but about ensuring its continuity in new contexts.
Sarkasi’s experimentations into batik explores new ways of re-situating tradition in the present day, and in doing so illuminates new possibilities for tradition to coexist with contemporaneity.
Always Moving: The Batik Art of Sarkasi Said is now on till Dec 31 at the Lee Kong Chian Temporary Gallery, NUS Museum, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am to 6pm.
Story first appeared on The Business Times.
HEADER PHOTO Berita Harian