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  • Writer's pictureMacan Mountain

Macan meets Heri Dono (Studio Kalahan)

A couple of words and images cannot capture the critical impact of Heri Dono's almost four-decade-long art practice. His animistic artworks have witnessed precarious cultural changes and are still very much alive in contemporary debates. To truly experience his work, watch his documentary 'The Enigma of HeDonism' (2021). Or go see his work at exhibitions.

Here's our experience of meeting him. Heri Dono could be a character straight out of a Wayang play. A living legend. He is one of Indonesia's best-known visual artists, with an iconic status around the world. But you can still easily meet him when he is casually cycling around town on his vintage roadster. So we took our chance. We approached him and he was happy to give us a tour of his studio and share his insights. We had Tahu Guling for lunch while we talked about tigers, animism and artistic dialogues between Indonesia and the Netherlands.

Heri Dono's workspace is called Studio Kalahan, which means 'loser'. The name is a reflection of Studio Kalahan's belief that 'imperfections, mistakes and failures are a blessing and an essential part of the creative process' (Studio Kalahan). The building was a Dutch police station in colonial times. Heri Dono's artistic creations have taken over the place, subverting the foundations of the building itself. Self-moving installations and lively paintings are the new residents. Visiting Studio Kalahan is like flying with Howl's Moving Castle into the mind of Heri Dono.

Below are parts of our impromptu interview with Heri Dono at Studio Kalahan:

Studio Kalahan Entrance

Do you see a spirit in Wayang and where do you see its origin?

Yes, it has a spirit. Actually, the story is not imported from India, like from Mahabharata and Ramayana. Before the Hindus came to Indonesia, we had our local belief that we call Kejawèn. When the Hindus came to Indonesia this was like to promote Hinduism through the puppet performances.

While reading Noto Soeroto's poetry, we came across the Javanese phrase: 'Wayang manut Dalang, Dalang manut Wayang' (Soeroto, 1916). Soeroto used it to describe how Wayang [Javanese shadow puppets] follow the instructions of the Dalang [puppeteer or shadow artist] and vice versa. The puppeteer reacts to the movement of Wayang puppets. Maybe the audience has a similar kind of influence on the performance? What do you think about this?

I think this is interesting because for the animist belief, the Wayang is alive, like a human being. So when we think that we are Dalang, I believe we are a puppet as well.

When you make a Wayang puppet, is the puppet your extension? Or are you the extension of the Wayang? Is the artwork the puppeteer or you?

I made a puppet performance in 1993 that when I was a Dalang, in the end I become a puppet. Because at that time I saw the situation when we were in the regime of Soeharto. The Dalang gets the order from the regime to direct people. And then when I may become Dalang, in the end I become a puppet. So Dalang and puppet. In politics we can say that we are puppets.

Heri Dono, Three Donosaurus, 2013.

Nowadays, it seems that people are the Wayang who are moved by technology as the Dalang. What do you think of Wayang as living technology?

When we see robot Sophia, when we see this new technology from the concept of animism, it is actually created from materials. But we can still have discussions with this robot like a human being.

Heri Dono, Fermentation of Nose, 2011.

At Studio Kalahan we saw a variety of Heri Dono's archival works. Each of them with its own critical stance. Art such as 'Fermentation of Nose' (2011) still resonates strongly with contemporary conversations about post-truth and virtual realities. This artwork questions how new forms of knowledge production turn students into robotic thinkers who obey truths served up by technology. Heri Dono's installations of repurposed technological artefacts feel like co-inhabitants of the studio. He cares for his installations. Every day he diligently dusts them off and carefully checks that they are still in motion. Studio Kalahan is a reminder that artworks, archives and technological things are full of life.

Thank you Heri Dono and Studio Kalahan

Macan Mountain

Note: Our conversation took place in 2022 and was originally a mixture of Bahasa Indonesia and English. We have translated the conversation into both languages for ease of reading. This may have resulted in some minor translation errors. Which we will consider as a blessing in the creative process.


Bayang, Wimo. The Enigma of HeDonism. Srisasanti Syndicate. 2021.

Hanson Robotics. Sophia.

Soeroto, Noto. De geur van moeders haarwrong. 1916.


Riski Gayuh N. and Macan Mountain


Macan Mountain

In collaboration with Heri Dono and Studio Kalahan (Yogyakarta, Indonesia)

Our conversation took place in August 2022

Macan Meets ...

In the "Macan meets …”-series, Macan goes out in the wild to explore mythical perspectives through studio visits, dialogues, anecdotes and artworks. We ask likeminded artists to express their practice through the eyes of the tiger.


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