The queer resemblance between a philosophical investigation (perhaps especially in mathematics) and an aesthetic one.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein (Culture and Value)

I agree that two and two make four is an excellent thing; but to give everything its due, two and two makes five is also a very fine thing.
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Notes from Underground)

The composer Schubert was asked what a particular piece of his means. He replied: “Let me play it again for you.” I don’t know if this anecdote is true or not. And if it isn’t, it should be.  His answer was as elegant as insightful; an insightfulness we seem to have forgotten as we are preoccupied with reading. We are busy reading reflexive texts: wall texts, artist statements, curatorial essays in catalogs and reviews. We have forgotten the use of our own senses. And the sensual. Beauty, too.

Where would we be without taboos? However, it is rather unfortunate that beauty has become a taboo within the world of contemporary art – post-Kant, post-Duchamp. Beauty – not divine bliss, not the Kantian sublime, not one or another self-referential theory of art or aesthetics with a capital ‘A’ – can art really be experienced without a sense of beauty? No, of course not. And such experience of the tactile is primarily physical – an artwork can kick one in the gut, can lift one up and etcetera.

Today, one way to be radical as an artist is to embrace tactility, and beauty too. Today, beauty is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it runs counter the consensus: what generally is considered contemporary in visual art. Beauty is considered cheap, sentimental. Beauty is kitsch. Contemporary art, on the other hand, has to mean something and this meaning is to be discursive. As if the sensuous is without meaning. And in our present day – with a tongue twister called contemporaneity – beauty is subversive!

We have come to be prejudiced against beauty in contemporary art. Beauty as taboo – however, of course, contemporary art can be beautiful. It often is. But because the continuous talk of discourse and the new – the shock of the new while the new will grow old over night – we might not know it if it hit us. Far too often, though, art nowadays is clumsy and deskilled. I wonder if there is causality between this and what Boris Groys calls the ontological collapse between, on the one hand, making art in a studio and, on the other hand, showing art in an exhibition space: the art installation.

Poetic beauty lies in a delicate balance between knowing what to express and having the skills to show it. Focusing only on the first part of the equation is to trivialize art. Great art, writes Jeanette Winterson, objects to become familiar. Ideas aren’t enough (this is even true for conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt). And jumping from one medium to another doesn’t help either (the cross- or multidisciplinary approach is en vogue: with unsteady hand video recorded performance turned into an installation, sometimes site-specific and/or participatory) – top heavy on ideas and feather light on visualization.

What happened to ‘show, don’t tell’? “What a visual work has to ‘say’, if anything, cannot be reduced to any other ‘saying’,” claims artist Daniel Buren. A great – beautiful – artwork transcends the possibilities of propositional language, if it can be turned into such language, it is simply not a great work of art. A great work of art not so much allows for multiple interpretations (including contradicting ones) but postpones intellectual interpretation. To achieve this, an artist has to master the medium in all its facets and then, in turn, push the limits of the medium. And it requires focus to shape and form the medium across its confines.

Bandung-based artist and graphic designer Irfan Hendrian shows his latest artworks at Via Via in southern Yogyakarta. He glues and presses layers of paper sheets of different colors together. He cuts in these sheets of paper. He punctures these sheets of paper. This is laborious work, which requires focus and a steady hand to attain the precision he aims for. This requires spending a lot of time in his studio in northern, up-hill Bandung. Cutting and puncturing the layers of paper are deliberatively developed into patterns and permutations. These patterns and permutations allow the paper to gain a rhythmic quality.

As an artist as well as a designer, Irfan Hendrian’s work shows affinity with art movements de Stijl and Bauhaus. The works of Piet Mondrian, Maurits Cornelis Escher and others also inspire his work. To bring it closer to home and our time, he sees Yogyakarta-based artist Anggara Tua Sitompul as a kindred spirit. A commitment to patterned forms connects Irfan Hendrian’s work with these artists and their movements. However, unlike painters, Irfan Hendrian cannot correct or hide mistakes – one wrong cut or puncture can disfigure his work for good.

Thus, Irfan Hendrian doesn’t have the luxury Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) had. Piet Mondrian is often characterized as a mathematician-like painter, but mathematics is at best a figure of speech here. This can be seen in his last and unfinished work: Victory Boogie Woogie (1942-1944), in which he was attempting to find the ‘right’ – jazzy – rhythm by slowly altering the composition of this lozenge-shaped painting; he didn’t have a formula to his disposal, just his experience and skill. On the other hand, when Irfan Hendrian composes one counterpoint too many in his work it can start too feel lopsided and he has to start from scratch.

However, dear Via Via patrons, don’t spend too much time perusing these two essays. Look at Irfan Hendrian’s artworks. Drink your delicious coffee. Look again. And again – more than a glance in passing please. What do you see? What do you sense here?

Roy Voragen is a Bandung-based art writer and founder of Roma Arts, he can be contacted at

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