Precious Things

The New Life of Paper in Irfan Hendrian’s Art

by Farah Wardani

At first glance, we see a massive stack of bricks, enough to build a small house. But a closer look reveals that they are bricks mixed with books created from white office paper with covers of a brick-like terracotta color. The apparent concreteness of the books echoes the solidity of the bricks, like these very different materials always, in fact, closely related to each other. In another work, we see towering, sturdy pillars with a color gradation of curious hues. Again, as we take a closer look, we find they are made from meticulously crafted layers of used offset paper. The two works are ‘Tropical Ephemerality: Brick Stack’ and ‘Piles of Ink & Paper’, by Irfan Hendrian. In Irfan’s works, paper is not a delicate, easily destroyed material that most of us still see and use everyday. It is a strong and powerful material. But Irfan’s works are far more than ingenious paper sculptures.

Irfan’s love of paper, and his conscious choice of industrial paper/printing paper as subject-matter, can be traced back to his high school years. He came of age in Bandung at the turn of the millennium, a city in West Java popularly known for its fashion and creative industry. The early-noughties were interesting times in the Indonesian art scene. With the spirit of 1998 still in the air, many independent art spaces and collectives were mushrooming into existence, giving a new generation of young artists a platform to begin their careers. At that time, the Bandung art scene was closely tied with the ‘distro’ (distributor outlet) subculture, an ecosystem of small-scale, independent creative industries which stretched across music, fashion, zines, and graphic/product design. Both the art scene and the distro culture helped to define Bandung’s identity and its status as a center of creative industry in Indonesia in the early 2000s.

Irfan took part in this distro culture from his teens and that was where he started developing his craft as a graphic designer – still his professional vocation. At that time, digital culture was still in its infancy. While designed on computer the printing process was very much analogue, with offset printers and silkscreen that are now regarded as ‘vintage’. Visual communications and branding during those times still relied heavily on printed materials, especially in the distro culture of books, booklets, posters, flyers and album covers. All of this changed drastically with the rise of digital technology and social media, which also transformed the notion of graphic design practice in general. As Irfan says, “The digital has made graphic design move away from, and marginalize, its origins in print and paper.”

Yet, Irfan maintained his belief in the medium of printed paper, even after finishing a course in design at Wanganui School of Design, New Zealand, in 2009 – which he passed with distinction. Aside from being a sought-after art publications designer in Bandung, he also teaches at STDI (Sekolah Tinggi Desain Indonesia – Indonesia Design Academy), teaching the history of design, branding, typography and production methods – including analog printing processes. As a designer, Irfan has been integral in the branding of prominent art spaces in Bandung such as Lawang Wangi, Rumah Proses, Common Room, Gerilya Project and Platform 3 - all of which nurtured Bandung’s emerging contemporary artists of the 2000s and 2010s. Around 2012 he started to focus on being an artist. He bought an abandoned mushola (a type of small mosque) and turned it into his studio.  The relations between paper, analog printing, and imbuing old, abandoned things with new value and meaning, became his subject-matter.

Irfan gave me a 'virtual tour' around Pagarsih, an ecosystem of small printshops in downtown Bandung that has now become central to his working life. It is a street occupied by more than a hundred print-related services and workshops, most of them still operate solely for small-scale print-on-paper demands, with old analog printers and industrial paper. Pagarsih was the centre of resources and production during his distro days, long before he was professional designer working on art publications. The shops are typical of small business in Indonesia, shabby, crammed, messy but lively and busy – with rusty print and cutting machines, and endless stacks of paper, new and used, visible in every corner. This modest place is where Irfan took his paper and print materials for ‘Tropical Ephemerality: Brick Stack, shown at Aloft @ Hermès last year, and ‘Piles of Ink and Paper’, which was purchased by the Singapore Art Museum.

There was a mall-like building called ‘Plaza Pagarsih’ built a few years back that was supposed to replace the small shops, but it is mostly left empty and most of the business owners and workers remain in their original place. They are also not threatened by the emergence of big new digital printing companies in the suburbs or the franchise digital print shops that have become common. In a way, I see how the resilience of Pagarsih, and also Irfan’s own devotion to working with print and paper, reflect not only the changes of the print and paper medium, but also the changes of Bandung itself. It used to be known as the ‘Paris of Java’, the hilly city was famed for its cool air, flowers and cozy street corners with a rich legacy of colonial architecture  – and now it has become a commercialized and hyper-gentrified place . New commercial places built every year to accommodate tourists and shoppers, and the streets are filled with traffic jams and billboards. The city has rapidly changed since Irfan and his generation came of age.

But Irfan does not base his work on nostalgia or romanticism about the old or things that are or will be obsolete. His perspective is more about being open to change while at the same time not taking things for granted, and to give those things new values and meaning. As Irfan says, “I don’t think that paper will be gone. On the contrary, the data shows that the demand for paper and print now is actually higher – for packaging purposes, and it’s actually due to the rise of e-commerce. I see it as an interesting shift of how we see paper, as a material of protection.” In a digital world the tangibility of paper gives it a new value, it’s a durable medium in an ephemeral age.

Then again, he does acknowledge that the function of paper and print as a conveyor of information is being overshadowed by digital media. And this knowledge affects how he develops his subject-matter, returning them to their essential materiality, physicality and original form. This relates so much to his interest in the relationships between people and object. For him digital technology makes people increasingly detached from materials; it makes them lose their sensitivity to the value, quality and virtue of crafting things. He uses the example of cheap mass-produced furniture, which people throw out and change for something new when they are bored.

“People no longer fix or renew things themselves,” Irfan says – and this is what he does with the endless stacks of paper in Pagarsih, giving them new life, identity and existential purpose. Irfan’s focus on the preciousness of paper and print challenges how we comprehend materiality and the things we use in everyday life. Writing this during the physical distancing of the Covid-19 pandemic, with everyone and everything shifting to digital mediums and virtual space, physical things – just like the body, and life itself -  suddenly feel so startlingly precious .

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