REACHING FOR THE STARS WITH FEET OF CLAY © Duncan Graham 2007
Few who've climbed to the top of the pile remember their origins. Once fame and fortune arrive it's farewell to their lowly past, according to East Java potter Ponimin.
"The grassroots people get crushed by the political and social system," he said. "Most aren't smart enough. They get tricked by those who are more ambitious.
"The poor also want to succeed, to have materialist goods, but they get trampled. The few who do reach the summit discover it's an illusion and what they hoped to find isn't there. They like to claim they're clever and strong, but in fact they're just victims of the social environment."
But how to express such ideas? Ponimin is an easy-going man who laughs a lot and talks more, particularly about art. You won't find him wearing a headband and shouting into a megaphone at a street protest – though his passions may be just as strong.
He doesn't have a good way with words, – particularly when trying to reach foreigners as he's discovered when lecturing overseas. His skills are in his hands where the language of clay crosses all barriers.
He was chosen as the only Indonesian artist to be represented at the third Asna Clay Triennial held by the Arts Council of Pakistan late last year. His work – according to local press reports – 'mesmerized' visitors and was the center of attraction, competing with sculptures and artifacts from nine other countries.
Reach of No Hope is the artist's title for his work, a large installation that needs plenty of space. It shows dozens of small plump figures clawing their way up ropes and ladders on a pyramid made of sticks.
It's a work that's gone through several changes. Earlier versions shown in Surabaya were titled Climbing on Empty Expectation Stairs.
The structure can be seen in many ways. The symbol of the pyramid is widely used in graphic representations of society – a few at the top and many at the bottom.
It also looks like a scaffold, an instrument of torture.
Those who get to the top crawl like flies across the ceiling, unable to go further. Others tumble to the floor. Some are shattered. It's a metaphor that transcends cultures. The extra quality is the expression on the faces of the figurines.
For the little people are cherubic, jolly wee terracotta urchins, nothing like the grotesque and greedy caricatures normally used to represent the avaricious and ambitious. This is no allegorical work, so the observer is bemused.
"I think their behavior is funny, that's why I make them look happy," he said. "I'm disgusted by the actions of our politicians and leaders since Reformation – but what can we do? We're powerless. As Javanese we tend to accept the situation. So maybe it's better just to laugh."
Ponimin's work has already been shown in Bangladesh and Japan, supported by the Indonesian government through the department of tourism. He hopes that next year it will be displayed in India.
Being an artist with a message is difficult in Indonesia where there are few arts grants. Ponimin, 40, originally from Jombang in East Java, studied at the school of fine arts in Yogya where he worked in most media but eventually settled with clay.
A grandfather had been a potter making kitchenware, but the old man died before young Ponimin could learn the techniques, so he came late to clay.
Jombang is in the heart of terracotta country. The mighty Majapahit Empire flourished 700 years ago in the fertile lowlands fed by the Brantas River. The land was so rich that life wasn't one long struggle to survive.
There was time to develop culture, fight wars, expand trade and create art. The dark riverbank clays were so easy to handle that the people used them to make bricks, tiles, pottery and figurines. Surviving examples give the best clues to how the people of that era lived.
Ponimin loves the local clays' plasticity and the way they hold their shape. They contain little grit. He doesn't have a wheel, preferring the coil system where cords of rolled clay are built into shape using the fingers to smooth and pinch.
"This allows for more creativity," he said. "A wheel makes for uniformity."
Although his studio in the hillltown of Batu looks like a production line with scores of black figures drying in the sun and waiting to be fired in an open oven, every piece is individual.
This is the work he has to do to keep the rupiah flowing. "It's my industrial art," he explained. "Only when I've done enough can I get involved in my fine art. I want to extend the images and ideas that I've been showing overseas but there are no sponsors for this sort of work."
However there have been plenty willing to pay serious money to Ponimin provided he follows their designs, not his.
The clients are housing developers and recreation park investors whose ideas of art come not from the ancient culture that they've inherited and which surrounds them, but from European history books.
Ponimin has had to make statues of dinosaurs, Roman gladiators, Egyptian pharaohs, chariots, figures from Greek mythology, armless Venus de Milo look-alikes, unlimited galloping stallions and even the Sydney Opera House.
These are used to give 'quality' to the tropical urban landscape. Don't worry about the potholes and open drains; a fine figure in a toga nursing a cornucopia keeps the mind off the mundane.
Or maybe they're just a sly way to put statues of semi-clothed maidens around gateways and on median strips. If they featured bare-breasted Javanese virgins there might be an outcry from self-appointed moral guardians, while anything that looks Caucasian and classical is acceptable.
Ponimin is aware of the incongruities and tries to fight them. He teaches art at the Malang State University and pushes his students to look at the local culture and landscape for inspiration.
But they also know what sells. So in the shadow of Mount Kawi, a mountain rich in magic, they're busy molding sway-back Balinese beauties with mask faces, just big enough to fit into a traveler's bag.
"I never think about selling my fine art," Ponimin said. "This what I want to do to express myself. I plan a new installation that reverses the pyramid and has grains of rice trickling down to the people who suffer from all the weight above them."
No doubt they'll still look like happy hobgoblins rather than the gaunt downtrodden masses that normally feature in the art of social protest.
(First published in The Weekender magazine (JP), September 2007)