Jakarta Post | April 21, 2007

Ugo Untoro: Using horses to criticize social evils
by Tarko Sudiarno, The Jakarta Post, Yogyakarta

One late afternoon in an upmarket housing area somewhere in the western part of Yogyakarta, security guards on duty were caught by surprise by the visit of a cool-faced horse rider.

Without asking for a permission, the horse rider went straight into the housing compound and rode around. When later asked by perplexed security guards, he said with ease that he wanted to pay a visit to a friend of his in the area.

It is indeed extremely unusual to visit someone living in an elite housing compound on horseback. However, for Ugo Untoro, 37, a noted artist from Yogyakarta who was the man on the horse, this is something very normal. In fact, he has been close to horses since his childhood and even today he keeps three stallions in on his property in Bantul, Yogyakarta.

It has come as no surprise, therefore, that of all the tattoos on his body, the one on his chest depicts a soldier riding a horse. Ugo also wears a stallion charm on a necklace.

"I like horses very much. Every morning I take my horses out for a walk," said Ugo, stroking the mane of a horse called Mussolini, which he had just ridden.

For Ugo, who won the Philip Morris Award in 1994 and 1998, horses occupy an important place in his heart. Horses figured very strongly in an exhibition in Yogyakarta last March. Ugo is currently holding a solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Jakarta, with horses taking a very important place. In both exhibitions, Ugo utilizes horse skin as a symbol and idiom of life that is full of stories.

"The idea to hold the Poem of Blood exhibition started with the death of my horse Badai Lembut. During a horse race in Cilacap, Central Java in 2005, Badai Lembut was close to reaching the finish but suddenly it collapsed and died. Since then, I have always been haunted by its death," Ugo said.

During his solo exhibition in Yogyakarta, Ugo displayed a work of art immortalizing Badai Lembut in a work titled The Last Race. Produced in 2006, this work shows how the great horse fell down on the sand. Weak and helpless, it can no longer stand on its own legs.

Through preserved horse carcasses, Ugo narrates the long history of horse. The animal, according to Ugo, has a long history. History shows how human beings have adored the beauty, loyalty and mightiness of their horses.

"Their grace, speed, wildness and strength have become the symbol of a human being that is filled with unbounded desires and passions. The horse has basically become a symbol of social class and a symbol of mankind's history," he said.

Against this background, Ugo has made use of the hides of horses to express various idioms and symbols in highly meaningful works of art. At a glance, Ugo's works do arouse horror and pity towards horses. However, titles given to those works encourage us to look inwardly at ourselves, our environment and our nation.

Take a look, for example, at a work titled Melipat Sejarah (Folding History). Although it is just a piece of horse hide that is beautifully folded, this work encourages us to look at the reality of our nation. How often have we committed frauds about our own history and manipulated it?

A similar message is also conveyed through another work of art called Drowning History, which takes the form of a horse hair still stuck to the hide but preserved in hard cement concrete.

Then there is another work in the form of the full hide of a horse plus the horse head hung on an iron pole. This work is called Menggantung Sejarah (Hanging History). In another work, made on canvas measuring 200 cm by 300 cm, Ugo drew a picture of a horse wrapped in a yellow cloth, covered afterwards with multi-color cloth and finally with a cloth in a dark color. This painting is called Mengemas Sejarah (Packaging History).

At a glance, you would think that these works invite the viewers to enter the realm of politics. Ugo, however, strongly denies that his works are political criticisms. These works, according to him, remain symbols and idioms about the history of human life filled with invariably burning passions and desires.

Thanks to his intimacy with horses and his wide knowledge about this animal, Ugo encourages other people to learn more about horse, which shares a common destiny with human beings. Strong, beautiful and faithful horses will eventually die.

The position of horse as a symbol of social class, especially in Javanese culture, seems to be foiled by human beings themselves. Indeed, to have a perfect life, a Javanese nobleman must possess five symbols -- a house, a wife, a bird, a kris (dagger) and a horse. If a Javanese man possesses these five, he will be respectable in a special social class. These symbols, however, will remain symbols if a man is dominated by his desires and greed. This is, among other things, what Ugo wishes to put across through his works.

From his observations on the life of horses, particularly in Yogyakarta, Ugo has come to realize that horses, which become a social symbol and are full of dedication to their masters, will eventually have a tragic fate. They will end up in a slaughter house and the meat will be sold to human beings to eat.

This slaughter house will immediately come to mind the moment we see one of Ugo's works, Poem of Blood. This work takes the form of several pieces of full horse hide hung in line just like lumps of meat are hung in a slaughter house. A tragic death.

It seems that human beings have no feelings at all about their friends, the horses. "So this exhibition shows that horses keep a mystery in which there is something like a human being's betrayal of his own friend. This mystery actually keeps human history itself. A Poem of Blood," Ugo said.