"Essay", Gapura Buwana_
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Where is Gegerboyo’s Anti-Narrative?

English | Indonesia

The working process of the “Gapura Buwana” exhibition. (Photo: Muhammad Dzulqornain)

A delightful thing about observing Gegerboyo’s drawings in Gapura Buwana is—both from their production or construction of placement according to the situation in the gallery of Cemeti – Institute for Art and Society—a certain ambiguous feeling, familiar to the motives of some theatrical approaches. When I said ‘theatrical motives’, I was not talking about the ‘theatrical quality’ in terms of the story that is [perhaps] contained in the sequenced drawings on the walls and the transparent fabrics. I was referring to the principal style (and purpose) of three different forms of theatre, in which these styles give a unique characteristic to Gegerboyo’s pattern of creation and construction of drawing.

I must emphasize that these motives are not complete, they disguise each other’s existence and possibilities; they echo hesitantly. As we begin to approach a possibility of these motives, the fact that we are dealing with drawings would immediately bring us back to the realization that it is not theatre.

But I personally do not want to ignore the possibility of the three theatrical motives—which I will describe shortly—below. This is because, apart from the fact that Gegerboyo are frequently in contact with theater artists (so it will be quite challenging for me to try and formulate this speculation), I also think that in account of the motives I will discuss, it is likely that we can elaborate an anti-narrative approach attached to the practices of Gegerboyo.


WHEN I agreed to Gegerboyo’s confession of their method of collective drawing, which adopted the ‘eye contact’ communication method commonly practiced by performance/tonil/theatre actors, in my head I was recalling Teater Rakyat (People’s Theatre—trans.), a method developed by SAV PUSKAT (which is not a traditional theatre) mainly because of (1) their non-adherence to a standard, (2) their theme of the people’s everyday problems, and (3) their production tends to  pursue a better condition[1] (in terms of the functions of Gegerboyo’s drawings as therapy and learning medium, [one of them is] to learn Javanese language). We will notice that Gegerboyo only adopts a part of Teater Rakyat’s motive. ‘Teater Rakyat’s method of production’ and ‘Gegerboyo’s method of creating their drawing’ are not a totality. This is because Gegerboyo has not touched the aspect of ‘blending spectatorship with actorship’ in their pattern of creation of their visual work. However, on one hand, ‘the narrative in Gegerboyo’s visual universe’ does not presuppose the existence of a protagonist/character. On the other, it emphasizes the interactive-dialogic possibilities between the image (‘Gegerboyo’s theatrical universe’) and the spectator (‘people’). These two things more or less embody the spirit of Teater Rakyat.

Gegerboyo, “Gapura Buwana”, 2021. (Photo: A. Semali)

Apart from that, in Gapura Buwana’s production, the intention to play with the spectator’s modes of perception through transparent fabrics—as I have described in the article “Where is Gegerboyo’s Visual Production?[2]—can be understood as a way to present perceptual and spatial interuptions. This mode arguably imbues the notion of ‘situation production’ in the Brechtian sense, though not completely, because the juxtaposition of linguistic elements (e.g., between the visual verbality on the wall and visual substantiality on the fabric, both are disjunctionally connected) plays an important role to place the spectator in a ‘state of distance’. However, this ‘state of distance’ is not meant to draw the spectator in a sequential illusion (as the contemplative effect of modern visual art or naturalist theatre does), but it provides an opportunity to observe the image critically. The spectator gets involved in a ‘game’. But it differs from the politically-oriented Brechtian rational vision, in which Gegerboyo’s orientation focuses on formal (visual) criticism.

Mural in “Gapura Buwana” exhibition, 2021 (Photo: Muhammad Dzulqornain)

The third theatrical motive which echoed, specifically in relation to Gapura Buwana’s presentation of work, is the Artaudian concept—in fact, it is radically polarized to the Brechtian approach—in terms of the layered visuals as well as the emotional gestures of some figures across the wall, creating a sense of irrationality through the construction of a visual landscape surrounding the visitors who are looking at the works. In terms of their content, Gegerboyo often presents visuals of ritual and religious events into irrational forms and arrangements. The irrationality of these drawings contains and rests on a network of indexes, directing our attention to the intention of the drawing to create a visual terror. This terror, as Artaud intended it, could be a “as vehicle  to  return  to  primal  myth  and  symbol,  the  transcendence of  individual  psychology  by  collective  consciousness  accessible through the mass spectacle.”[3] Simultaneously, in terms of its formal presentation, the visual construction of Gapura Buwana places the spectator as an axis of the imagined ‘theatrical event’; the stage that surrounds the audience; a circular showroom. Gegerboyo’s visual tsunami is an explosion of visual language directed to the audience, who is standing right in the middle of them. In this irrational aspect, it can be said that Gegerboyo’s construction of Gapura Buwana is a manifestation of the alternative rituality of the image itself. The visual of these drawings play a certain gesture to presuppose the urge to emancipate us from the systemic control (emancipation in the Artaudian sense)—in this case, the conventional system of illustrative images.


EMANCIPATION! Gegerboyo’s drawings emancipate themselves from the system. My statement relates to the ‘non-system’ drawing method they have endorsed. However, the ‘absence of system’ will eventually become a ‘system’, albeit in a completely new form. So, what system does Gegerboyo use in their anti-narrative approach?

Again, we reflect on Teater Rakyat: emancipating oneself from the standard (of theatrical scene in general) means moving away from the conventional pattern and narrative modes. We need to understand that the narrative construction in Teater Rakyat is not merely to tell a story. In Teater Rakyat, when a material (story) is presented or demonstrated, or in another words, narrated,[4] the subjects involved are actually creating a space to examine themselves, their (social) issue, position, and situation. Narrative, in this sense, is a style of expression that tends to analyze rather than simply describe objects, subjects, and events. Instead of constructing a ‘scene’ or ‘sequence of scenes’ of a story, Teater Rakyat use their narrative as a knife to dissect parts (of the story) to reveal things that they previously did not see/were not aware of. To achieve this, they ‘violate’ the flow of events, dramatic casuality, scenes, and plot. Perhaps, each scene is compounded by a completely new one. The attempts to analysis the subject matter happens in this very process of ‘compounding each other’.

Mural in “Gapura Buwana” exhibition, 2021 (Photo: Muhammad Dzulqornain)

In the case of Gegerboyo, their drawings are no longer in the level of telling, describing, or illustrating their theme. Although not in a mathematical form, Gegerboyo’s drawings can be understood as an analytical process, a step to understand visually. For example, a limasan roof (five-sided traditional Javanese roof—trans.) was not drawn to convey its mystical and mythical elements (although this visualization might be important), but to examine its architectural structures and possibilities of deconstructing its socio-cultural meanings through compounding the object’s visual elements with another drawing. As seen in Gapura Buwana, the limasan roof architecture is compounded by a drawing of a (human) body part, whether intact or not. Here, we can understand that the play of signs in Gegerboyo’s drawings is not a symbolic or iconic language, even though many symbols and icons are scattered here and there. Gapura Buwana is a linkage of indexes, and therefore the language that underlies it is the play of indexical signs. I think this is one of the characteristics of Gegerboyo’s visual narrative, in which their construction functions as an arena to understand forms (of objects, space, creatures, and symbols; almost all of which are based on Javanese and contemporary urban story [materials]) instead of merely an illustration. If the old definition of a narrative is a way to tell a story, Gegerboyo’s definition is a counter to those kinds of narratives. Narratives, in Gegerboyo’s style of expression—in this case, anti-narrative—is an attempt to convey, which analyzes rather than describes (tells) a material (story). To analyze images, through images.


NOW, let’s speculate about verbal languages—dialogue! Neil Kenny explained that, although the Brechtian and Artaudian approach contradicts each other, both are similar in their concern on the actual function of language. It is mainly because they both aim to deal with the illusion of a process of fusion in theatre.[5] This illusion is anticipated through “transforming the mechanics of the spectacle by breaking it down into its constituent parts” in order to ensure that “the individual components will no longer mutely accompany the dialogue” (companions that are muted), but “they will have sufficient autonomy to be juxtaposed on equal terms with each other and with dialogue itself”—if Brecht did this by cultivating other types of language (verbal or non-verbal) as many as possible, in the contrary, Artaud reduced the verbal language (dialogue) as little as possible.[6] The act of breaking down is done through; first, the radical separation of the existing elements; and second, each of the elements are played against each other—directed to influence each other.[7]

In the context of Gegerboyo’s drawings, the process of fusion is the ‘sequential drawings’, and the anticipation of ‘illusion of the fusion process’ we have mentioned is therefore anticipation of ‘sequential illusion’. This is important, in order to see other potentials of Gegerboyo’s ‘anti-narrative’. Before I elaborate on this problem, I would like to explain some important things:

First, we need to understand that drawings are not drama, so this combination between Brechtian and Artaudian approach I have explained above cannot be taken for granted in order to understand the position of Gegerboyo’s visual narrative. Next, like it or not, I must complicate things for a moment because I would like to borrow Scholes’ (1980) thought on the ‘narrative’ and ‘anti-narrative’.

Mural in “Gapura Buwana” exhibition, 2021 (Photo: Muhammad Dzulqornain)

In a drawing, a character might be involved in a dialogue as happens in a drama (for example, comics). However, regarding the visual, we do not hear nor see the character’s body in a direct situation, its presence in a real time and space. Borrowing Scholes’ theory, we can understand that the ‘narrative’ of the visual certainly presupposes events that have passed, as the nature of ‘narrative’ itself. Thus, the language spoken here is in past tense (preterite). According to Scholes, this is a characteristic of historical and fictional texts: the events precede the text, and the text precedes the diegesis (‘image of events’ in the reader’s mind—interpretation). As a narrative that has a certain syntactic form and subject matter, the story (as a material) allows the projection of the material itself, on the humanist values and the real natural universe from where we are. These three aspects—event, text, and diegesis—have their own durational structure and temporality: events depend on time and natural duration, text depends on the time and duration selected by the speaker, while diegesis depend on the time and duration concluded by the reader based on the ‘textual time’. Scholes argued that the tendency of humans to organize things in sequences—as is their instinct as entities living in a natural space and time—results in narratives that naturally presupposes an arrangement of proairetic (non-mysterious) and hermeneutic (mysterious) codes. Under the hegemony of the ‘Narrative/Story Regime’, we have been accustomed to require chronology and causes in order to gain an understanding of what the narrative projects.[8]

Meanwhile, according to Scholes, the anti-narrative approach is an attempt to thwart the automatic application of the codes (which generally happens within ourselves) in all Texts[9], especially those based on events (or stories). Anti-narrative is a step to separate us from the process of constructing the diegesis according to our usual interpretive process. In this regard, Scholes refers to Derrida, the pioneer of Deconstruction, who have attempted to thwart all kinds of restrictions on the text through his philosophical ideas.[10]

We should note that Derrida’s intention is certainly related to his attempts to dispel logocentrism, which sees textual signs as merely representations (or merely a derivative) of the verbal language; he rejects the notion of speech (verbal language) as primary and writing (text) as secondary, just as he rejects the binary-hierarchical relationship between ‘existence’ and ‘nothingness’, between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. In other words, Derrida demands equality (not uniformity) between the speech and the writing by abandoning the opposition between the two and asserting that neither is more important than the other.[11] If logocentrism posits linguistic signs as something different from the phenomenon they represent, it is based on the assumption that there is a realm of ‘truth’ that precedes what represented that ‘truth’. In fact, this view subordinates the sign (as how writing is subordinate to the speech). Therefore, this subordination leads to a process of identification of meaning in language that is solely driven by the idea/original intention that precedes this language, in which this interpretation has gone through a distortion in the mind of the speaker. According to Derrida’s thoughts, we can conclude that this subordinative situation limits the text. This situation confines us to the shackles of ‘representational experience’, complacent to reach for the ‘truth’ which is outside or precedes the language itself.  

Meanwhile, Derrida’s intention to emphasize the exploration of signs as codes means trying to understand the conflicts that mediate them. That meaning is created precisely because the dialectic relationship and the infinite two-way game of the differences of the signs. The endless connection defers the emergence of meaning but it leads us to continue to exist in the process of interpretation. On this topic, again I would like to quote Scholes, that the anti-narrative approach which echoes in Derrida’s philosophy emphasizes codes as our critical concern, not merely as aspects of the realm of human and the world; “the function of anti-narrative is to problematize the whole process of narrative and interpretation.”[12]

Gegerboyo, “Gapura Buwana”, 2021. (Photo: A. Semali)

In the context of drama/theatre, “the radical separation of the elements” that build the drama into autonomous parts, as well as the “interplay” between these autonomous parts, is Brecht’s and Artaud’s way to explore the signs as codes. This method is anti-narrative because it breaks the usual narrative chronology and causality, and it serves to invoke the audience’s critical awareness in understanding the harmonization of these autonomous elements into drama. This provides opportunities for direct observation and leads the audience to gain a better awareness of the real world. Because, through the spectacle, the audience is stimulated to examine how language works; both the language that takes place in the drama and the actual world it represents. In this way, both Brecht and Artaud established drama/theatre beyond the realms of representation, but as a part of direct and actual events. 

We now realize that this mechanism has a surprising meeting point with the mode of Teater Rakyat: ‘analysis’ as a direct product of an ‘anti-narrative’, in which the interplay between the ‘compounded scene’ and the ‘compounding scene’ is another mode of the radical separation of dramatic elements. In other words, the compounding scenes in Teater Rakyat is also a way to explore dramatic codes as codes to be able to ‘leap’ into the real problem; not through representation, but through presentation (inside the performance that is being watched—where the audience can also involve themselves as actors).

In the visual context, the preterite nature of the narrative becomes a problem, because this characteristic prohibits a narrative ‘presence’. However, this problem can be overcome through the method mentioned above, through the ‘separation of narrative elements of the drawings’ into autonomous components, and the play between the reciprocal possibilities of these components.

In the context of Gegerboyo, the ‘radical separation’ belongs in their tendency to separate their materials (story) into fragments, and to juxtapose them outside the framework of the plot. A scene in a fragment may coincide with a scene from another fragment, which chronologically and causally indicates a discordance (narrative discrepancy). In further detail, each element (or figures, objects) in a fragment may also be discordant with each other:

Mural in “Gapura Buwana” exhibition, 2021 (Photo: Muhammad Dzulqornain)

For example, under the limasan roof beared by the body of a giant, there is a mountain range; near the large drawing of loro blonyo[13], there is a swimming pool and a scene of a group of people painting (in a smaller size); above the mountain range, there is a grave draped in a fabric that stretches as long as the mountain range; besides the people who are betting on cockfights, there is a pile of giant masks (giant, if compared with the size of the people); around a temple, someone is seen painting, the figure’s portrait aligned with Methodos’ character, while above them a dragon wraps itself around a boat, and besides the boat, there is a normal human figure, and besides them is another person (which seems more gigantic) wearing a helmet. Another example: a giant crocodile carries a mountain range and a portrait of Nyi Roro Kidul, while also carrying a more gigantic wooden construction; behind a person who is praying on a sajadah illustrated with a skull, there is an ambulance; at the edge of the mouth of a winged crocodile, one of Methodos’ figures is seen chilling on a mat, nearby something that looks like another draped grave, and under them are figures that represent Gegerboyo members.

What I described in the last paragraph was only a few examples that caught my eye. Basically, we can describe each of the many fragments, how they collaborate and compound each other without any chronologic or causal motive. Because, however it is, to narrate is to chronologize material (story) into sequences to be delivered to the narrative recipient. Thus, to destroy the “narrative system”, we can disrupt sequences into odd arrangements. Whether they realize it or not, Gegerboyo responds to every element of the drawing, and each of the drawing, and each arrangement of the drawings, as Brecht and Artaud respond and arrange the elements of language (both verbal and non-verbal). Gegerboyo’s inconsistent arrangement (according to the conventional narrative) of the fragments is an operation of the two stages through the Brechtian and Artaudian approach to manipulate the sequential illution: ‘separation of elements’ and ‘playing the separated elements against each other’. The odd arrangement is a mode to emphasize the separation/distinction of each element as well as an application of how each element is played against each other.

Mural pada pameran “Gapura Buwana”, 2021 (Foto: Muhammad Dzulqornain)

In a Derridean perspective, the odd arrangement of Gegerboyo’s drawings is not meaningless. The meaning does not occur in an iconic way or exists as a raw representation; not descriptive, nor definitive. The meaning in Gegerboyo’s chaotic drawings appear through the conflict and dialectic relationship between each element; the meaning of one element depends on its difference with another element, the meaning of one fragment depends on its difference with another fragment, and so it goes. At the end, the final meaning of an element, drawing, or fragment, or even the sequence as a whole, does not fully appear in front of us. In fact, what happens is an endless deferment of meaning in an infinitely long chain of meanings; each meaning, according to Derrida, contains a ‘trace’ of [previous] meaning as its guide.[14]  Each fragment revises each other’s meaning, intertwined in a diachronic sequence. Based on this thought, we can conclude in this section that Gegerboyo’s visual anti-narrative lies in its tendency to destroy the illusion of a sequence by disrupting them, and simultaneously creating alternative arrangements. In this way, Gegerboyo invites us to understand how the language of images works rather than simply pursuing the meaning of the images; to understand how—as a visual assemblage—these images work as sequences of language. 


IN “Where is Gegerboyo’s Visual Production?”, I have explained my speculation about the aspect of “presence” in Gegerboyo’s Gapura Buwana, namely by placing the exhibition as a part of the “production process”. However, in its position as a narrative, visual narrative from the drawing, it is impossible to deny its perterite nature. In other words, we can only call the anti-narrative approach of Gegerboyo, as I have previously described its modus operandi, as an attempt to alter the perterite nature of the narrative. How does Gegerboyo work with time?

Capdevila argued that practices of artistic anti-narrative can be aimed at creating an aporetic experience of time, namely an experience in which there is a logical disjunction or an unresolved internal contradiction. Adopting Paul Ricoeur’s theory, Capdevila explains that in every narrative, there are three levels of mimetic process. First, pre-narrative (Mimesis I), which is the realm of “pre-understanding of the world of action that any plot assumes”[15], where the concept of time is understood in the way “in which everyday activity orders past, present, and future in relation to one another.”[16] The second one is the story itself (Mimesis II),  namely a “diegetic succession of events, an intelligible diachronic order”, or “construction of a story and its telling by the narrator”, and has a temporal structure of an “episodic dimension”[17], but also has a “non-chronological” dimension”.[18] Third, post-narrative (Mimesis III), which is an “influence of the narrative work on its beholder”[19], or in other words, “meaning that narratives have for human beings (who beholds)”, in which it influences the “configuration of our temporal structure”.[20] We can understand that the three levels resemble the three aspects explained by Scholes: event (object of the story), text (sign sequences of the story), and diegesis (interpretation of the story).

In accordance with the three levels, Capdavila explained that to achieve aporetic experience, anti-narrative subverts one or more levels of the mimetic process classified by Ricoeur in order to encourage reflection on other levels of mimetic processes, regarding the changes that occur within those levels. For example, anti-narrative operates the cancellation of Mimesis II by preventing the understanding of Mimesis I’s subjective intentions, in order to convey an ironic, critical, or playful view of the resulting interpretation (Mimesis III). In the 1920s or the 1960-1970s avant-garde works, for example, Capdavila mentioned that the artists experimented with concepts of marginalized temporalities, creating different means of experience and other types of temporal experience, reassessing the categories of time.

Mural in “Gapura Buwana”, 2021 (Photo: Muhammad Dzulqornain)

I think that the landscape of Gegerboyo’s drawings in Gapura Buwana, from the beginning of the wall to the end of the other wall, is consciously or unconsciously playing with the conception of time. First of all, we can identify time asynchronization from the discontinuity of historical time, because of the multifarious drawings. For example, a cave painting is lit by modern lighting equipment, a mythological animal meets a contemporary angkringan cart, a statue of a god is side by side with a figure of an Arabic philosopher, Soekarno meets Nyi Roro Kidul, Soeharto’s portrait after the dismantling of Lubang Buaya meets figures of women who are on their cellphones. These configurations become a hermeneutic code, while at the same time invokes a certain peculiarity that is difficult to understand. As they appear in Gapura Buwana’s landscape together, all the events imply a simultaneity, but also emphasize a narratively logical disconnection.

In other words, Gegerboyo’s anti-narrative lies in their tendency to play with historical chronicle and fiction in terms of content. Whether they realize it or not, the discordance in the sequence of their drawings that compound and overlap with each other actually cancels the second-level mimetic process (Mimesis II), and, as a result, revises the meaning we will interpret (Mimesis III) without giving any explanation on the events they describe (Mimesis I). Once again, the interplay of these drawings reminds us to the principle that occurs in the Brechtian and Artaudian approach.

In relation to Java, the conception of time that operates in Gapura Buwana is time in the Javanese conception. I mention this, because I recalled the words of Gunawan Maryanto (moderator of the public discussion of Gapura Buwana on April 20, 2021). The simultaneity of the events that are describe are not in the sense of demonstrating parallel time. They are still in the linear time, but it is seen from another side. If a timeline is imagined as a thread, our understanding of time is generally illustrated by the position where we see the thread that looms horizontally in front of our eyes (while each end of the thread is on the left and right side). While according to Gunawan Maryanto, Javanese cultural conception of linear time is like seeing a thread only from one end, while the other end is far behind us. This position arranges us to look at one point, where the past and the present happens simultaneously and overlaps, even though they belong in the same linear timeline. In the performativity of the overlapping, the narrative mode in the conventional sense no longer applies, which therefore becomes anti-narrative, and the preterite nature can transform (though not replaced) into an alternative plot. The overlapping time that operates in signs that also overlaps, the visual world of tumpuk undhung (pile up), it is where Gegerboyo’s visual anti-narrative exists and grows.


Pengunjung pameran “Gapura Buwana”, 2021 (Foto: Muhammad Dzulqornain)

THUS, how do we enjoy Gegerboyo’s drawings that challenges us in the situation of deferred meaning? Where is the excitement in looking at images that do not presuppose meaning, that do not act as representations of our world? In this regard, codes need to be perceived not with a cerebral framework (a brain-based approach to decoding), but with an experiential framework. This has to do with emphasizing the mode of viewing rather than merely ‘reading’.[21] However, the tumpuk undhung visual presented by Gegerboyo in the construction of Gapura Buwana attempts to leap beyond: to emphasize the bodily experience (bodily gestures that moves and fills space) as opposed to merely seeing what is on a flat plane. In other words, the experiential framework is multiple: to experience by seeing through the eyes, as well as by perceiving the spatial sensation through the body

It is the emphasis on intuition from the experience of seeing and embodiment that finally directs the audience to feel the intonation of drawing, the weight, the empty space between drawing elements, the tempo and duration of observation that differs from each element, and the process of going back and forth from one fragment to another. The disjointedness of the “noisy” and “crowded” visuals slowly find its own “order”, leading us into a certain rhythm of the exploration process. Thus, the meaning of image is not read, but felt. Looking at Gegerboyo’s drawings is like listening to hymns.

What kind of anti-narrative that gets more exciting than this? If we ask about the nature of enjoyment of a work, I will try to answer: the essence of pleasure provided by an artwork is when we understand how the pleasure is created and works on us. ***

[13] Loro blonyo is a statue of a bride and her groom in Javanese traditional attire, usually displayed in Javanese traditional wedding ceremonies. This statue symbolizes prosperity and regeneration/offsprings.—trans.

[21] Lihat di Katherine McCoy & David Frej, “Typography as Discourse”, 1988, dalam Helen Armstrong (Ed.), Graphic Design Theory: Reading from The Field (Ney York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), p. 82-83.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Di mana Anti-narasi Visual Gegerboyo? | CEMETI

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