The atypical Freudian case

Try pointing out one or two (old) works by an artist and ask the creator the following questions: “What’s the title of this work? When did you make it?” Most artists would  have to stop and think hard to answer the questions, especially when the works are not their “top works”. Meanwhile S. Teddy D. is often able to give immediate answers. He can even describe the situations surrounding these works, his feelings, his anxiety, and other issues around him when he was making the works.

Below are three extreme examples that we can use as a reference when talking about Teddy and his recollections about his works:

  1. Head House Series (1998, screenprint on paper, 20 prints each in three editions): “These are truly sick works. Literally sick. I was afraid to go out of the house for three months at the time. At first I made drawings on paper every single day. I really made a lot of them. I was indeed crazy at the time. Sick. The drawings are quite sick, too. I wasn’t the one who made the prints, really. I was afraid of my drawings, so I just had them transferred to another medium. I burnt some of the original drawings and discarded some others. I was truly scared. Bonyong [Munnie Ardhi] said that these drawing works are dangerous for my mental well-being. I felt that I had to transfer those drawings to other media. Producing the series was a bit like menstruation: I just had to let it all out.”
  2. Headscream Seller (1999, oil on canvas): “At the time, Walls ice-cream sellers started to come around on their bikes, you see. [Chuckling] This is actually an ice-cream seller. This is the ice-cream, but the ice-cream is in the form of human heads. It’s head ice-cream, so we’ll lick the heads. [Chuckling]”
  3. 1997 (1998, oil on miltary fabric/cloth): “People had been really afraid to use such [militaristic] camouflage material to joke around, much less to make insults. But, well, this was in 1997. People were demonstrating, protesting. Apart from being involved in the demonstrations, I was doing it in my works, too.” (In 1998, Indonesia was undergoing a reform period. The government with its “guided democracy” style, led by a “smiling dictator” who had ruled the country for 32 years, went down after a tide of demonstrations and protests initiated by university students all over the country.)

Teddy thoroughly documented his anger and love about things, along with all his thoughts and feelings—be it about the social and political discourses, scientific theories, or the banalities of his neighbors’ affairs. It had been said that it would be very difficult for us humans to learn about things with no meaning, much less to remember them, as to remember them is to incorporate them into one section of the brain that psychologists have identified as a storage for long-term memories. All of Teddy’s strong recollections about his works immediately tell us how significant his life experiences, thoughts, and freedom are for him. In his essay written for Teddy’s retrospective exhibition at Langgeng Art Foundation, the curator Hendro Wiyanto pronounced him “a thinker in art”. Hendro uses as his basis a pronouncement by Teddy’s fellow artist, Ugo Untoro: “Teddy is an artist who creates all of his works using his head.”(1)

In Teddy’s artistic journey, consciousness is everything. “Mindscape”—that is how Teddy describes his awareness about his conditions (his experience and feelings) when he is at work. Teddy borrows the term from (the late) Omi Intan Naomi, a writer who was one of Teddy’s closest friends.(2) Whether we use psychology —one of the oldest branches of science— or neuroscience —one of the latest— the situation is the same: We are yet to come to an agreement about that which we call “consciousness”.

“Consciousness remains the last unexplored frontier of psychology, and arguably one of the greatest mysteries of life itself”, wrote David Groome (An Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: Processes and Disorders, 1999, page 10). The most prominent figure in the discourse about consciousness is Sigmund Freud. Freud’s entire work builds on the consciousness trichotomy, which in turn is very much influenced by the ambiguity in the use of the term “unconscious”. In Teddy’s context, the consciousness (or awareness) that we are talking about is the Freudian “conscious awareness”.

“My father was a soldier, so when I was a child, I moved around quite a bit, from one city to another, depending on where he was posted. There was a constant change of atmosphere and I kept having new friends,” that is, more or less, how Teddy begins his stories (to anyone who asks) about the theme of violence in his works. Even with his keen sense of “conscious awareness”, Teddy is not immediately free from the “curse” of being a romantic. Indeed, more often than not, Indonesian artists are a romantic bunch (or perhaps it’s we who often accuse them of being romantic). I suspect that this is a chronic illness—which might have even been here for centuries. It started from the time when modern lifestyle and all its trappings were being introduced to the Indies—or Indonesia of the Dutch colonial era—and found in the awkwardness among Indonesians in using the “water closet” and in their acquaintance with asphalt roads and motor vehicles, etc. Then there was S. Sudjojono who tried to assert the philosophy of Indonesian modern art with his concept of jiwa ketok (“revealed soul”) from the thirties onward, to challenge the exoticism of the “pretty Indies” (Mooi Indië) found in the paintings of his predecessors. It is still true in contemporary living of today, in this archipelago where there are pockets of lands that remain untouched by modernity. To be a romantic, or in other words to lay greater emphasis on imaginations and emotions, seems to be a simpler way of survival, easier than to observe the changes of the time, which might take place in a matter of minutes. It would be much easier to say “This is my expression” than to explain where the “collage” of thoughts originate from in the artist’s mind.

On another occasion, however, Teddy could also begin his stories about the theme of violence in his works by talking about different aspects of power (using the theories of Foucault, Nietzsche, or Machiavelli) or about homo homini lupus. He can also tell us about the “collage” of his thoughts that formed the conceptual basis of The Temple (Love Tank, 2009), while laughingly explaining the symbols. “You see, if it had been only four tanks colliding into one another in the middle of the Rotunda, it would seem too trivial. So, it seemed apt to play around with my own codes. I did away with the violent image of tanks. I used plywood, pink color, with lotus images. Then when I was taking a walk in the city, in Singapore, I found there were so many temples in different corners of the city. That gave me the idea to make the tanks look like a temple. Offering, the ceremonial dishes… it’s the rituals. It’s still about hope, I think. War is still not the right thing to do; it has no use,” explained Teddy about his installation of seven tanks, arranged to appear like a pagoda.(3) Although he does not try to reject the “curse” of being a romantic, Teddy can still trace the origins of his ideas and at the end of the day come up with statements that in no way romanticize different aspects of his works. According to the Freudian structural model (The Ego and the Id, 1923), Teddy’s conscious awareness is a part of the Ego that one can “train” to summon the preconscious and unconscious elements.

The tank prototypes installed at the National Museum of Singapore was not Teddy’s first attempt to “kill” violence; Ha Na Ca Ra Ka (Keluar, Masuk) (Getting Out, Coming In; 2003) also did exactly that. In the latter work, two similar swords (or, to use Teddy’s words: the two swords are similarly powerful) perish in one “home”. The complete set of Javanese alphabets have been inscribed on the swords: Ha Na Ca Ra Ka, Da Ta Sa Wa La, Pa Dha Ja Ya Nya, Ma Ga Ba Ta Nga —which form a poem saying: “There [were] two messengers, having animosity [among each other], [they were] equally powerful [in fight], here are the corpses.” Teddy has used a variety of approaches to talk about violence, apart from “killing” it. He might, for example, employ mockery. There are at least two of his works that I strongly remember as having to do with mockery: Paduan Suara Tidak Bisa Berkata Tidak (The Choir that Cannot Say No, 1997) and Chicken Molotov (2003). Observe the simplicity in the elements that Teddy used there to convey his ideas. Both works “mutilate” chickens to talk about followers, cowards, scaredy-cats, and a variety of key words that might be associated with “chicken”. The colors used in the works immediately say something, too (yellow, the color of the dominant party at the time that tended to exert repressive power; and green, which we often associate with Islam or Islamic political parties). Teddy’s choice of language of expression that he uses in his works tends to be genuinely authentic, simple, and effective.

Ever since he felt certain and resolute about his choice to become a professional artist (which he used as the main idea for his first solo show at Cemeti Contemporary Art Gallery, 1996), Teddy has been constructing his visual vocabulary. Today it would seem as if Teddy has his own visual dictionary. Virtually all the images that one often finds today in his works have been used previously in the 1995 – 2000 period: images of heads, feet, hands, phallus, houses, bridges, peanuts, tanks, and AK 47, for example. Teddy’s collection of images appear with a variety of stories. Before I began writing this essay, I had the chance to ask him, “When and how do you decide which images to use in your works?” Teddy answered: “I’m neither original nor a genius. Those elements seem to pop up, like records of what I have seen. From the myriad of events, some have been recorded clearly in my minds and frequently appear in my mind.

It seems as if there are corrections of the images that I’ve stored in my mind, all of a sudden popping up in my head and conducting internal dialogues with my being. As soon as a new image appears, this process takes place. I think it’s because of the accumulation of the many other things that I’ve seen and experienced, which then transform the original form of the image.”(4) During our discussion to prepare for this exhibition, Teddy decided to stop using images of tanks. He has taken such decisions before with the chicken-head image, which he then “imprisoned” in a resin cube. To him, such “imprisonment” is a symbol of his stance. Obviously, this time he would not be freezing his 7.5 meter-high tank pagoda, but we should not be surprised if he ends up “freezing” one of his tank merchandises as a symbolic act. That is what he does. He reinforces his convictions through his acts upon his works.

The phallus images (as well as his noisy motorbike) that Teddy presents today in this exhibition intrigue me and make me want to write this essay by using the almost-ancient Freudian theory of Id, Ego, and Super-ego.(5) To cut the story short, Super-ego according to Freud is the moral element of a human being, growing and developing in line with the agreements (and constructions) of ethics around him, arising at the end of that which Freud called the “Phallic Stage” (before adolescent). Super-ego is human consciousness that enables one to determine whether something is right or wrong. I position Super-ego as the representative of humanity (which according to Teddy we humans have outwitted through wars). To Teddy, the war is masculine, phallus is masculine, war is wrong, and masculinity disturbs him. It is classic and clichéd—just as Teddy’s stance toward his works. Just as how Freud had cursed the phallus, the symbol of human potency, as ancient libido.

Let us ask Teddy when he first used the images of phallus, tanks, clenched fist, etc. He remembers (virtually) everything. One thing is certain: he remembers the mindscape. His mindscape. Some memory theorists believe that historical memories about what one is doing/seeing/experiencing are often imprecise (Neisser and Harsch, 1991). In one of their experiments, Neisser and Harsch interviewed a group of students one day after an event of natural disaster struck their campus; three years later, they interviewed the same group of people about the disaster, and a third of them gave inaccurate answers, all the while fully believing that they had been accurate. Neisser (1967) delineated in an entire chapter how memory can be reconstructive and not reproductive at all. Teddy said that the phallus image first came up in his work when he was going out with a feminist. When he was younger, he felt that he suffered from a trauma of “oppressive masculinity” and the phallus to him was the symbol of masculinity. I wonder why the image keeps on appearing to this day. Doesn’t human memory automatically try to repress bad experiences?

In an era when artists tend to “take cover” in such arguments as “this is my experience” or “this is my diary”, Teddy is one of the few artists (at least in Indonesia) who no longer need to use such arguments. Each work by an artist will in any case result from that artist’s idea, and is therefore based on his or her experience. The father of cognitive psychology, Ulric Neisser, offers an interesting statement about human memory. Neisser explained how the process of remembering in human’s brain is the same with the process of problem solving.(6) To remember is not actually to explore in all accuracy the events as recorded in our mind, but rather to reconstruct the recollected event, mixed with our experiences and the wish to see that what is being remembered is in accordance with our current condition. When we apply Neisser’s explanation in the case of Teddy’s recollection about the image of phallus, we can say that Teddy seems to want to experience a trauma. He wants to use trauma as the reason, his reason. It is a straight-forward process, but at the same time is also complex. The human mind (and consciousness) is a complicated thing. Teddy’s works, more often than not, succeed in appearing simple but with extraordinary visual strength and message, presented in “too simple” forms that might seem messy, rough, or wild.

“Teddy always creates his works using such basic media as oil paints, charcoal, and woodcut,” said Nindityo Adipurnomo, Teddy’s colleague and fellow artist.(7) The media that Teddy has used so far play an important part in almost all his works. The simplicity of the media in Teddy’s works (as well as his straightforward treatment of them) reflect how the ideas that he wishes to convey are more important than anything else. Teddy only draws what he needs to draw. This is clearly not the first time for Teddy to find a distinct expression —visually and verbally. His tattoo of “Art Merdeka!” (or, literally, “Art Freedom!”) that now also serves as the name of his studio, is not without significance; Teddy’s statements regarding his art—such as “My two-dimensional works are my breath, and the three-dimensional works are my soul”(8) and “painting is a picture made simple or complex”(9) and his “ideology” to draw only that which is necessary to draw(10) —really mean something to him. So, when we see only a clenched fist, without the arm or the elbow, that means the fist is enough for him to tell the story he wants to convey. Let us observe again the series of clenched fists. Won’t the key words that arise in your brain be the following: demonstration, the crowd, workers? Teddy’s freedom from the pretense of conveying lofty messages, annoying sermons, and extravagant comments has been achieved through extraordinary self-discipline. It does not come automatically.

Whoever says freedom means free?



  1. Hendro Wiyanto, “Someone Who Is Afraid to Lose His Head”, from the monograph on S. Teddy D’s art, REPOSITION: Art Merdeka!, Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Langgeng Art Foundation, 2011.
  2. It is difficult to trace when Omi Intan Naomi first used the term “Mindscape” when talking about S. Teddy D’s art. There is a book compiling her writing about Ugo Untoro (The Sound of Silence and the Colors of the Wind: Between the Tip of a Cigarette and Fire of the Lighter [17 Years of Ugo Untoro’s Fine Art, 1989 – 2006], Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Museum Tanah Liat, 2008) and one can find a fragment there that talks about Teddy and his “mindscape”.
  3. The Temple (The Stories), 29”, 2011. DVD interview between S. Teddy D. and Jaya Limas.
  4. Interview with S. Teddy D, September 10, 2011
  5. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, London: Hogarth Press, 1949.
  6. Ulric Neisser, Cognitive Psychology, New York, USA: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967.
  7. The record of the discussion during S. Teddy D’s artist talk, with Agung Kurniawan, Nindityo Adipurnomo, Ugo Untoro, and Yustoni Volunteero can be accessed on
  8. Tan Boon Hui, “On S. Teddy D.’s Love Tank (The Temple) at the National Museum of Singapore”, exhibition catalogue, Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Art Merdeka, 2009.
  9. BOAT, exhibition catalogue, Jakarta, Indonesia: Nadi Gallery, 2001.
  10. Interview with S. Teddy D, April 14, 2011


This essay was published in LA SALLE College of the Arts’ journal GLOSSARY,  Volume 2, 2014

About Grace Samboh

Believes in unicorn, conviviality and the struggle towards collective subjectivities—even temporarily.
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