Hippocrates’s Vita Brevis, Ars Longa is perhaps the most used quote regarding art. “Life is short; art on the other hand lives long,” it connotes. It does not entail that art provides one with long life. To the contrary, actually it reminds people about the brevity of life vis-à-vis the longevity of art.

Wishing You  A Long Life (1)

At the Bazaar Art Jakarta (BAJ) 2016 last August, Fransisca Retno presented her Long Life Laboratory, a performance piece in a setting that would perhaps remind one of a temporary kitchen of a cooking class in shopping centres. There she prepared Indonesian jamu (traditional Javanese herbal drinks with medicinal or health benefits) for those who watched her performance. This time, she did not want people to simply watch her performance passively. Rather, she wanted them to become active participants who would redefine the meaning of longevity. She also hoped that her audience would share their thoughts about whether the method that they choose is in accordance with their expectations, especially in the midst of the numerous health and beauty products that appear through sophisticated commercial advertisements. “I want to be involved in discussions and dialectics with them, share experiences, absorb feedback and then make new inferences or draw new conclusions about the situation of the day,” she said.

Fransisca Retno’s performance at BAJ 2016 evolved from a collective programme at the Dia. Lo. Gue Artspace in Kemang, November 2015 called Exi(s)t #4: Food Files. Through a rather long curatorial and internship process emerged the initial idea and execution of Wish You a Long Life. “At the time, I presented the work as a monologue in that I appeared in front of an audience in a certain setting and therefore there was an imaginary distance between the audience and I as the artist. Although the audience was free to enjoy my work quite closely and even questioned what I was doing, I did not interact with them at all. Rather I was engaged with my own internal problems,” the artist explained.

Since then, she thought that her work needed to be developed, so she expanded the scope of the matter from a personal problem to a wider social spectrum. She wanted to interact with a general audience as well as art enthusiasts, and explore whether the problems that she was experiencing was also experienced by other people, especially the urbanites of cities like Jakarta. She thought that her work should become a kind of laboratory of experimentations. “In my previous work I featured illustrations about the situation of my confusion in observing the proliferation of ideas from the market about longevity as an instinctive desire of human beings, which have become manifested in various traditional and modern health and beauty products. Now, I have turned my attention to the audience. I asked them to become involved in creating their own prescription for long life, which all depended on their own perceptions, memories, information and hopes about longevity,” Fransisca added.

Fransisca Retno initially studied at the Department of Visual Communication at Trisakti University. While she was still a student in 2008 she joined Maros, an art initiative of a community of illustrators that included some instructors and alumni of the university, and participated in the Siklus (“Cycle”), which became the first exhibition in which she participated outside of her campus and marked her career as an artist. After graduating from Trisakti, she became an illustrator and also taught part-time at Universitas Tarumanagara (UNTAR), Jakarta and Universitas Multimedia Nusantara (UMN), Tangerang.

In 2011, she decided to take her masters degree at the Fine Art Department of the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). Although many questioned her choice, her decision was firm. To become an artist had been her dream and passion since she was young. “Indeed, coming from outside the discipline of fine art had some consequences in my studies. There were differences of frame of thoughts and my technical skills seemed insufficient to comply with the academic standards of the Institute. My artistic concepts were always rejected as they were considered to have too much design content in them”, Fransisca said.

Wishing You  A Long Life (2)

Coincidentally, among the instructors in the creativity team of the magistrate programme of the Institute, was the famous print maker and conceptual artist Tisna Sanjaya. Fransisca learned about performance art from him. He suggested that rather than getting stuck with the problem of technical incompetence and differences in mind frames, Fransisca should adjust her artistic method in such a way that she could explore her personal themes. Eventually, the gateway for the elaboration of her work, which initially departed from a technical point of view shifted towards another perspective: personal explorations.

Gradually, she became more and more sure that this medium was the medium that she could effectively use to communicate her messages according to what she intended to convey. Through academic guidance, emerged her first performance piece, which was entitled Someday I Want to Kill My Virginity (2012). In the following years, she created a number of other performance pieces. Not all of her performances are solo pieces; some are collaborative projects, performed with the assistance of (or assisting) other performers. Earlier this year, with the support of other performer colleagues as well as performance art enthusiasts, among others Aliansyah Caniago, Ali Robin and Heru Hikayat, Fransisca established a research-based art initiative called Performance Lab, which aims to preserve the history of Indonesian performance art and the creative methodology of their artists.

When one observes the name of her art intiative, Performance Lab and her performance piece Long Life Laboratory, it seems clear that of late Fransisca Retno has become more interested in laboratories and the research and experimentation that happens within them. In her performance, she directed the audience to prescribe jamu different from popular jamu potions with which we are already familiar. She preferred that they try to recreate ancestral jamu potions that their family used to make and drink together. In any event, the benefits of the concoctions that were created during the performance might not be actually known exactly, let alone guaranteed to be remedial. “More important are the prayers and the hopes that are manifested in the prescriptions that they prescribe themselves.”

Interestingly, the complete quotation: “Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile” which is usually translated to mean: life is short, and art long, opportunity fleeting, experimentations perilous, and judgement difficult, is actually a preamble of a medical text in which Hippocrates, who was a physician himself, called on his colleagues to seek the cooperation and involvement of others, particularly the patients in the healing process. Although experimentations are indeed perilous, someone has to have the guts to conduct them. We wish you and your art a long life, Fransisca Retno.

Amir Sidharta

Amir Sidharta

Amir Sidharta leads Sidharta Auctioneer, an auction house specialising in fine arts that he founded in 2005. He is also co-founder and chairman of Yayasan Mitra Museum Jakarta. A writer and photographer, he has published several books and his work has appeared across several media outlets.