Shelters was exhibited at Contemporary Worlds: Indonesia, June 21, to October 27 2019 at National Gallery of Australia.
Albert Yonathan Setyawan’s monumental ceramic floor installation Shelters 2018–19 comprises 1800 terracotta components meticulously arranged in a 5.5-metre square grid. Each individual form is painstakingly slipcast from a handcrafted plaster mould in one of five architectural shapes. Despite the humble nature of their material, the structures are elegantly proportioned and restrained in their simplicity. Arranged in a regular repeating pattern, their precise silhouettes create a variegated ‘skyline’ with rhythms of form and space.
The configuration references the Diamond World or Kongokai mandala, a fundamental tool in Japanese esoteric Buddhist practice, which functions as an aid to meditation and a portal or medium for spiritual awareness and understanding. Instead of the five Wisdom Buddhas that comprise the individual components of the Diamond World mandala, Setyawan’s five architectural forms each reference the upper part of a religious structure: mosque, church, temple, stupa and ziggurat. In Shelters the artist invites the viewer to conceptually enter the three- dimensional ceramic mandala and consider the various spiritual practices and beliefs embodied in its architectural components. They recall the mixture of diverse faiths, cultures and ethnicities that surrounded Setyawan growing up in Indonesia and the occasional conflicts he witnessed that resulted from the collision of religion and politics. The artist considers that the:
artmaking process [is] a way to meditate and contemplate on certain issues. In this work, it is about trying to find balance and harmony in life. The work will be composed of shapes that will remind people of ... temples and shrines associated with their religious practices and faiths. All the miniatures of religious architecture sit next to each other, composed in a pattern that represents order, like the landscape of a city composed of many different houses and buildings.
Setyawan primarily works with ceramics, a medium he prefers for its ubiquitous presence in daily life and social, cultural and historical associations. The repetition inherent in each installation allows him to become immersed in ‘art labour’, in which the process of production rather than invention is paramount. This induces a meditative state, described by the artist as a ‘mantra for daily life’. The repeated patterns in the installations recall not only mantras or chants recited to gain spiritual awareness, but also the sequences inherent in nature. More than arrangements of decorative elements, Setyawan’s ‘exalted aggregations’ instill a meditative focus in the viewer and call on our interpretation of, and desire to map, the order of the universe.
Text by Carol Cains from National Gallery of Australia