Kelvin Atmadibrata

artist in resident & exhibited artist

PSX: a decade of performance art in the UK, 2021. Photo by Zack Mennell

Kelvin Atmadibrata (b.1988, Jakarta, Indonesia) recruits superpowers awakened by puberty and adolescent fantasy. Equipped by shōnen characters, kōhai hierarchy and macho ero-kawaii, he often personifies power and strength into partially canon and fan fiction antiheroes to contest Southeast Asian masculine meta and erotica. He works primarily with performances, often accompanied by and translated into drawings, mixed media collages and objects compiled as installations. Approached as bricolages, Kelvin translates narratives and recreates personifications based on RPGs (Role-playing video games) theories and pop mythologies. He is a recent Master of Art graduate in Contemporary Art Practice (Performance) from Royal College of Art, London, United Kingdom and currently lives and works between London and Jakarta.

We interviewed Kelvin in March 2021, at the mid-way point of his residency at VSSL.

Benjamin Sebastian: I was wondering if you could tell us about the role that studio - either virtual or physical - plays in your practice? I’m thinking how even without the physical space of a studio, you have your blog and I see this as a type of studio as well.

Kelvin Atmadibrata: When I start thinking about a work, I don’t usually start with a single idea, but with a lot. I prefer the process of making, of thinking, of collecting inspiration to be scattered. It is not A-B-C, but it might start from M and jump all the way to Z and come back to A. It’s a circular mode of thinking, and I think that’s where studio practice - whether physical or virtual, or if it's in my room or on a train - becomes really important for me. It’s where I consolidate all these different ideas, and it gives me restrictions, in terms of time and space, 
where I force myself to explore which of these different elements might be worth being presented or developed.

Joseph Morgan Schofield: Something I admire and appreciate about your practice is the really considered gestural language that you use, and I want to ask you about this process of focussing, or distillation. How do you distill all these ideas and inspirations into a gesture? How much does the gesture hold, and how do you arrive at the gesture?

KA: The live aspect of the work, which includes the gesture or actions, but also the choice of the body, the performer, sometimes the costume, sometimes the music and the site, tend to be constant through the process. I decide on them early on and most of the time they don’t change, they remain.  I can’t really think of a work of mine, where this element changed drastically through the process. Maybe this is an irony in the way I make work. The elements that are added through the process are in support of the live element.

I’m not sure if the live parts of my work are the core or the driving force, but they tend to be the base of what the work eventually looks like. I think this is probably not a very healthy way of producing work because it's almost as though the works revolve around the action instead of everything else. For example, with the work that I’m currently developing at VSSL, I decided the performance element on day one, and it’s as though I’m subconsciously too stubborn to change the gesture. I’d rather change other elements to compliment the performance. I want to use the word stubborn, because the process is not as fluid as I would like it to be.

BS: Some of these other elements are drawing and paper - which I think of as process and material. How does drawing function in your practice?

KA: Lots of my drawings are based on performance ideas, whether or not they will be realised. I see drawing (and paper) as both material and process.. I’m thinking about how to document or preserve performance beyond photography or video, and I guess drawings might be one way. They’re not sketches, but an attempt to capture the essence of the work. And I guess that echoes how the works that I have been developing in recent years have been very still, and that stillness is something that can be translated onto paper.

JMS: I love drawing as an archive or memory. When you are drawing post-event, do these drawings allow something fantastical to come through? Are they representational of the performance, or do they allow for other forces to become present?

PSX: a decade of performance art in the UK, 2021. Photo by Zack Mennell

KA: I think both. The drawings are not just documents or summaries, but they also compliment the action works. For instance, following the piece that I performed in FUTURERITUAL, I gave you one of the drawings. In the background were these kind of stickers, which I thought were an important element of the performance but, because I was stubbornly attached to my original idea for the presentation, the stickers were not as apparent as they might have been. I didn’t expect anyone to look at them or notice them, but I wanted them to exist in the space. When I translate that to the paper-based work, I think I can drawn attention to what might be vital but not very noticeable.

BS: So the drawing becomes a particularly fine focus point, as well as a compliment?

KA: I see them on an equal standing. Drawings allow me to pay attention to things which have come up during the process but, at the same time, the drawings are way more limited in terms of expression compared to performance. I depend on them to extend the project but it’s an ironic relationship between the two works.

BS: Could you talk to us about moving between these worlds of drawing and performance, in relation to fantasy? I’d like to know about how fantasy comes into your work through gaming culture, how you take images from these fantasy worlds and draw them into performance and drawing?

KA: I’ve always found it really difficult to visualise or to produce the fantastical imagery that I would like it to. I’m not talking about knights and magic and monsters here. Rather, I’m thinking about a performance which requires three hands, which of course is impossible with my body. In my work I’m simplifying the fantasies which have inspired the work. They’ve been narrowed down to such an extent that they no longer really exist.

The fantasy realm and video game narratives have motivated my work, but I don’t think that I represent them very clearly. If I were to label a work as ‘fantasy inspired’, I think my audience or the people that I try to communicate with would be disappointed, because it’s almost as if the fantasy no longer exists. I had never thought of the relationship between performance and drawing as a fantasy relationship until you mentioned it, because the fantasy has been distilled to such an extent.

JMS: It’s an impossible task, to render the fantastical in three dimensional, living breathing sweating form.

BS: I see this process of distillation, breaking these parts down until they are no longer recognisable from the original elements, but I don’t experience a disappointment or a non-recognition of the fantastic. I see an amplification - like when you distil an essence into an essential oil from plants for example it becomes more potent in a smaller dose, and this is what I see in your work. I see a crystalline moment of the fantastic, as though we are in a glitch or a loop and you have distilled this element of the fantastic and we are sat in it, durationally. I don’t see alienation, but an amplification.

KA: My narrative choice has been influenced by the way in which Japanese RPG narratives have developed historically. In the past they were very magic focussed, today they are more machine focussed. In Japanese popular culture, the differences in aesthetic are very apparent - though maybe less in American popular culture. In JRPG narratives something nonsensical has been simplified into abstract forms. Working in a machine based language, I’m not able to make all the colours and extreme gestures which might illustrate the magic. This distinction between magic and machine is very specific to the context of JRPG.

BS: For me, the ideas of magic and machine both presuppose a body, because they are in relation or opposition to a body which exists somewhere. We’ve spoken before about the marks on your skin and what they might mean in a performance, about how you feel this may be inappropriate. You’re talking about what you can and cannot achieve in your body in relation to these concepts in JRPG, but could you talk to us more about how your body operates in your work, and the importance of a body in your work?

KA: It’s changed, definitely. Recently, I have approached the flesh as a pedestal which carries or exhibits the work, so I guess one of my problems with the tattooed body is that it is no longer sterile. Especially now that I’m thinking of drawing and mark making alongside gestures and actions, markings on flesh are visually noisy. At the same time, the costume also becomes part of the work, in the way that the body becomes a clothes hanger for the costume.

BS: Do you want to use the body as a clean line?

KA: Maybe I would want to approach the body as though it was dead, rather than alive. It is entirely a material. That’s why I want to start using other people’s bodies, that they might become the paper or the soil, to be painted on or moved.

JMS: I’m curious about the relationship between you as artist/author, coming with your obsessions and knowledges and histories, which include your tattoos, and then this desire that you have to kind of use your body but have it neutral. I feel like we always carry ourselves into our work, our histories are always present, whether they are visible inky marks or not. It’s strange to me that you want to obscure or abstract that history.

KA: This thought just came, but I think that if I were to involve other people in my work, I’d be less particular about their markings. I’m so familiar with my body and with my tattoos, so it’s impossible for me to put myself in the space of not knowing.
If you had been here, he wouldn't have died, Melaka, Kelvin Atmadibrata, 2015. Malaysia Photo: Ridzuan Rashid

BS: I was going to ask you that! The interstices between bodies, between fantasy, reality, mark making and gesture are playful and creative, but also ertoic. Could you talk about the role of the erotic in your process?

KA: I make works through the lens of the erotic, without a doubt. In the beginning it was very consciously political, but it has become so embeded in my thinking process that I am sure that almost all of the gestures or actions tend to carry the sense of the erotic, in one way or another. I’m not really sure how apparent it is to the audience, but eroticism is one of the most enriching forces in my decision making.

BS: If it was political in the beginning, what is it now?

KA: Well I don't really see my works as political today. I think eroticism has become part of my unconscious language. I might have realised that my performance actions could be separated from the erotic qualities which inspired them, but it comes back to the way in which my stubbornness gets in the way. I don’t find a problem with that though.

BS: If I place the words fantasy - erotic - drawing - performance on each side of a square, what is in the middle? What’s at the heart of it for you?

KA: There’s nothing in the middle. It just keeps moving.

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