See Girl Has Got to Have it: Diyan Achjadi and the Military Complex – Vanessa Kwan and NMP

Diyan Achjadi

Diyan Achjadi’s work is vibrantly activist, straightforwardly innocent, and colourfully violent. With a palette ripped right out of the seams of camouflage couture, Diyan’s practice literally explodes with candy-coated colour and childhood imagery. NMP is thrilled to showcase 3 of Diyan’s animations; Fun With Girl, 2006, Overflow, 2009 and Victoria, 2009, accompanied by a text written by Vanessa Kwan and an interview with Diyan about these vividly unforgettable works and her practice.

The Eve of Destruction: Diyan Achjadi’s See Girl
Vanessa Kwan

It’s not shock or awe. The images are not the least bit unfamiliar. Abstracted, maybe, through the digital palette, the saturated colours, the tidy untidiness. They have the smooth look of fantasy and product, of video games and fashionable colour choices, of symbols whose real-world function is replaced by a pop consumable (Do you ever need pink camouflage, if not for fashion?). Diyan Achjadi’s images float somewhere between statement and product; they are, in the push-pull of luscious colour and horrific subject matter, an uneasy vision for uneasy times.

Car bombings, razor wire, camo gear and burning cityscapes—this is the stuff of the daily news, the quotidian dinner-hour reminder of conflict, violence, dissolution. These are not dystopic images, but inevitable ones: logical conclusions to the fucked-up nature of our current global situation. Whether in the interests of “security” or aggression, this is the bed we sleep in.

And the girl is unscathed. She is impossibly resilient, unconventionally gigantic, irresponsibly breezy, in her knee-length skirt amidst pluming smoke and firearms. She wears a gas mask, and striped socks; little Mary Janes with chemical gloves. Wise beyond her years, she survives the worst of it, and her jolly pink form rises well above the blast radius. She is incongruous, a figment. She is the imagined observer, the last gasp of humanity, or maybe, as she towers over landscapes and crushed forms, she’s the one who’s putting an end to it all.

Perhaps she’s the alchemical conflation of our fantasies with our fears, the manifestation of an absurd thought—that all that is left in the end is a girl, with a skirt, a gun and a gas mask. And perhaps we’ll have to content ourselves with this (because once we’re all smoldering, she’ll rule the world): it’s not quite a clean start, but it’s something new.

Talking with Diyan Achjadi

NMP: How is your printmaking practice and your animation practice related?

DA: I consider my animated works to be a natural extension of my print-based practice. Individual “stills” are made and gathered over a period of time, and then woven into short sequences, expanding on their narrative. As I make my images, I often construct stories in my head around a particular scene, and imagine the gestures that come immediately before and after the depicted moment.

NMP: Your work seems to reference signs and codes of mass media, and its power structure. What in particular draws you to these symbols and codes?

DA: I am interested in print media and its social function as a means of reproducing visual and textual information, especially in the ways in which codes of behavior, power structures, and belief systems are manifested in mass-produced works. Print media, through enabling reproduction and dissemination, can be used as a tool of power by entrenching ideologies in a society, while also providing for the possibility of their dismantling. I examine popular mass media – women’s magazines, advertisements, mass-produced toys, news programs, and children’s books, for example – and the ways that the images and texts generated by these media, through their perpetual repetition, can form an accepted “truth.”

NMP: Do you see the military complex as selling militarism to kids, similar to how Big Tobacco has been accused of marketing cigarettes to children? How do you create the idea of military in your work?

DA: Popular media can be seen as a primary vehicle for normalizing ideologies of power. In response, much of my current work unpacks the ways that militarism and militaristic activities are illustrated, appropriated and reproduced in material culture aimed at children. I am particularly interested in the ways that symbols of power are made to seem harmless through their use in entertainment and decoration. Their manifestation in children’s toys and juvenile literature for instance, relegate them into the realm of play. Mimicking adult objects and situations, toys miniaturize, sanitize, and simplify. Coated in sugar-sweet colors, they exist within a veneer of harmlessness, using the guise of play to lull and seduce viewers into participation. I appropriate the visual and verbal language used in these media – overly lush and colorful, almost-cute, and seemingly simplistic scenarios – as a means of commenting on and questioning the many ways that our contemporary society is militarized. Through this process, I aim to uncover hidden readings and provide alternatives to dominant cultural narratives.

NMP: Who is Girl? Where does she live? What is the difference between her life in print and her life in animation?

DA: My ongoing body of work from the past seven years, Girl, centers around a single, awkward, cartoon-character, a forever-flat golden-skinned young girl of unspecified ethnic or national origin, dressed in a simple red or pink dress with knee-high socks and mary-janes. She is the only character in her world. Sometimes she is alone and isolated, towering over a landscape punctuated by puffy explosions in bubble-gum pinks; other times she is multiplied into a perfectly uniform army, marching and exercising in formation. She exists in an imaginary space, pink- and red-hued, where she may be both the heroine and the victim of a series of vague actions in changing urban landscapes. Each printed picture functions as a still from an unmade animation, deliberately illustrative but frozen out of context.

NMP: Tell us about Fun With Girl.

DA: In 2006, I made a series of digital prints called See Girl (March, Girl, March!), where the Girl is seen navigating post-apocalyptic urban landscapes, filled with exploded cars and burning buildings. Much of these works were made in reaction to the news reports of the ongoing “war on terror,” and the imagery that was circulating heavily during that time of car bombs, explosions, and various acts of militarized violence. The animation takes the structure of a reading primer, using simplified language to describe the illustrations. In making the animation, I wanted to create a narrative that would call into question the Girl’s complicity or innocence in the events unfolding around her.

NMP: What was the impetus for Overflow?

DA: In 2006, mud started spewing from the earth in Sidoarjo, East Java, Indonesia, and swallowed whole hundreds of homes, villages, roads, and rice fields. Three years later, it is still flowing. Overflow is a reflection on this disaster.

NMP: Can you talk about Victoria and the project’s origins?

DA: Victoria is a departure from the Girl series, created as part of the project, A Little Distillery in Nowgong: A Novel Exhibition. Author Ashok Mathur proposed to write a novel that could exist as both a book as well as a spatial/physical entity, and asked a number of artists to collaborate with him on that endeavour. My contribution consisted of two short animations, Victoria and Going Right, presented on small monitors approximating the size of a hand-held book. The novel itself traces the story of many generations of a family as they travel from 19th century India to 20th century Canada. In reading the text, I was struck by the underlying narrative of colonialism, and in particular in how the vestiges of the colonial enterprise appear in and impact contemporary circumstances. Victoria pictures a famous portrait of Queen Victoria, emblematic of the heyday of imperial expansion, placed on a wall of paisley. Through the animation, we see her literally choked and destroyed by the wallpaper patterns (a nod to The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman), melting off the frame, and transformed into photographs of contemporary Nowgong, India that were taken by Ashok. The sequence ends with the gold-gilt frame collapsing and turned to kindling.

NMP: You use cartoon imagery in your work situated in environments seemingly constructed by the military complex. What is your interest in narrative structure, and what are the ideological thrusts of your work in regards to narrative, identity and militarism?

DA: As an extension of the investigation into ideologies of power, I am interested in narratives of belonging, particularly as they reflect ideas of home and group identifications. The language of nationalism – a form of group identification – is often militaristic and chauvinistic, and is drilled in subtle (and not so subtle) ways into a child’s education. Schooled during Suharto’s Indonesia of the 1970s and 1980s, I regularly participated in marching exercises, group calisthenics, flag-raising ceremonies, and recitation of nationalistic poems. The militaristic culture that informed a large part of my upbringing was also inundated with uniformity and sameness, where being different or individualistic was seen as a mark of deviance or a lack of patriotism. Much of this experience is the lens through which I look at contemporary manifestations of militarism, and informs the situations and contexts that the Girl finds herself in.

Vanessa Kwan is a Vancouver-based artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited at a number of galleries, including solo exhibitions at the Or Gallery, Access, and the Art Gallery of the South Okanagan. She is a founding member of the arts collective Norma, and currently works as Public Programs Coordinator at the Vancouver Art Gallery. A public art commission for the City of Vancouver is forthcoming in 2010.

Diyan Achjadi received her BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art, New York, and a MFA in Print Media from Concordia University, Montreal. Her installation and print works have been exhibited across the US and Canada. Her short animated videos have been screened across North America and Europe, including at the International Festival of Films on Art (Montreal, 2005) and Les Instants Videos des Manosque (France, 2003). Achjadi’s current work uses print and digital media to explore representations of militarism and violence in pop culture and children’s media.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by ashok (not verified) on Wed, 11/04/2009 – 07:22.

Diyan, nice to see your work all on a page like this. Interesting interplay! Vanessa, very coherent write-up, hard to bring all these disparate parts together, but you handle it handily. A great image and text combo.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 11/01/2009 – 18:14.

such great work – love it love it love it