For young artist Roby Dwi Antono, imagination holds the key to his works and by it, we are invited to his magical world
Through every work that Roby Dwi Antono has presented, he takes viewers into this fascinating world that once lived only in his mind. And more often than not, he lets his imagination guide him to create these wonderful works. Antono tells his stories through his own contemporary juxtaposition and some has described his visual style as fusing the aesthetics of surrealism and classical Renaissance. One thing for sure, his works have personal meanings as past memories played a very influential part in his creation process. We talked to the Jogjakarta-based artist about his creative process and manifesting his imagination into reality.
First and foremost, if we could start from, well the start, what was it that inspired you to become an artist? When exactly did you first become interested in art?
My interest in art has been around since I was a kid. Of course, at that time I didn’t understand what art was. I just loved scribbling on the walls of my house. My parents allowed me to draw on the walls of my home as a means of expressing myself. To be honest, as a child, what I wanted to be was a professional soccer player. Becoming an artist was not exactly my dream back then. But when I moved to Jogja and met many artists and had the opportunity to see exhibitions that were held here, my desire to create art became stronger. You can say that what inspired me to become an artist was the environment in which I lived in and also the artists who became my role models.
How did you learn to become an artist? Did you attend art school?
I studied art but not formally. So, you could say that I was self-taught. After graduating from high school, I decided to work as a layout designer for a printing/advertising company. My job is to prepare everything that will go through the printing process. In 2011, I worked at a school yearbook company, working on page layouts and the illustration for the covers. There I developed my manual and digital skill. I learned and practiced using Adobe Photoshop to make digital illustrations or photo manipulation. I’d still take the time to make drawings on paper and digital drawings between working hours. Afterwards, I became more serious about continuing to study art. Almost every morning before work, I’d make a drawing in my sketchbook – a kind of visual diary. Then I posted my picture on my personal blog and Facebook, because at that time there was no Instagram. Then in 2012, I got an offer to present my work in a solo exhibition at a new small artspace in Yogyakarta. I showcased my little drawings here. At that show, there were visitors who appreciated my works. Some of my works were even bought by young collectors.
On multiple occasions, we’ve heard your style described as “a fusion of surrealism and classical renaissance”. What do you think about this description? Is it accurate, misplaced, or perhaps at least partially correct?
I honestly never thought about this. But I always accept what other people think of my work. I love how viewers bring unique interpretations of my paintings. Because I really believe that when I have displayed my work in an exhibition room or published it on social media and have it enjoyed by other people, the work will completely belong to the audience. Multiple interpretations are natural. I don’t want to lead the audience’s interpretation based on what I want. Like a song or a poem, I want my paintings to stimulate feelings that may be different for each person. And I’ve always liked my work to be a little poetic. For example, when my work is exhibited at an art fair, many people come and go to my painting. There are people who just stare at the work in confusion, frown, and leave. Some are very excited and try to open a conversation with me. There was a girl who came to see my painting. She was eager to understand the meaning of my painting. But I threw back questions to her about the feelings she felt and the interpretations she caught. Then, when she started to interpret my painting, I was amazed because it turned out that the interpretation she expressed was deeper than the simple things I really wanted to convey. According to her, the visual language in my painting is very relevant to her past. Since then, I decided not to always answer people’s questions about the meaning of my paintings.
Overall, how do you express yourself artistically? What elements do you incorporate into your own style?
I love to pair aliens and spaceships with various dinosaurs in my works. The reason is that, as a child, I watched films about dinosaurs as well as aliens, and I fell in love with them. Movies like Mars Attacks!, Men in Black, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Dinosaur, and many others made a strong impression on me. I also love the TV shows on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel about prehistoric beings and also the mysterious universe and cosmos. All of my interests stimulated my delusion to always wish they were real and that I could find them. As a child, I always had a dream that I could raise one of those dinosaurs. I like to add these symbols in my paintings because each one has a meaning that I interpret by myself.
Dinosaurs or other prehistoric creatures and sometimes small microorganisms in my works are representations of the past. An arrangement of microorganisms or bacteria that represent the past where life first appeared about two billion years ago. A past time that we may not be able to meet again. Something that only exists in memory. We can remember, but it’s not always accurate. Just as researchers and scientists reimagine the shapes, colours, and textures of each type of dinosaur with the help of computers and sophisticated technology, I think with the data they have they might be able to bring dinosaurs back to life. But still, the creatures they create will not always be accurate because we have never encountered them directly. They can only approximate their appearance. They became extinct before humans came to this earth.
Meanwhile, the symbols of aliens and star clusters and other materials that make up the cosmos are representations of mystery. In the movies, we are often visited by aliens from outside the earth, who have a much higher level of intelligence and technology. Various human questions regarding the universe remain unanswered. Scientists are competing to continue to explore our universe.
Your works feature everything from starry-eyed children to mythological creatures. How do you select the subjects in your artworks?
The creatures and figures that are created and appear in my paintings are a combination of real people and imagination. But, I think imagination takes a bigger portion. I like to modify original characters into something new; they can become beautiful, or broken and strange. In designing these creatures, I usually look for and collect image references or photography of two or more characters, then I let my imagination work by adding or subtracting certain parts. I used to work by making a few rough sketches in a sketchbook then I would scan it and process it in Photoshop. Or sometimes from sketching on paper I immediately move to canvas.
Past memories are very influential in this creation process. Childhood figures that are deeply imprinted in emotional memories are very interesting for me to re-draw into my works. There are many characters that I remember from various movies or cartoon series, both Japanese and American, when I was a child. For example, the old-school kaiju shows such as the Ultraman or Godzilla series. I think the kaiju have a strange physical form; it is as if they are created from several combined creatures, whether animals or plants modified into one whole creature, which in my opinion is a pretty cool thing.
We also noticed that rabbits appear quite often in your works. Is there a particular reason behind it?
There is no particular reason, I just love it. These rabbit characters appeared in between 2011 – 2018. After that, they slowly became less of a main figure and became a little forgotten. Now the main figures in my work are children and strange figures inspired by pop icons that were popular when I was a child and accompanied me when I was growing up.
“I really believe that when I have displayed my work in an exhibition room or published it on social media and have it enjoyed by other people, the work will completely belong to the audience”
Where do you find inspiration? And on a related note, who do you consider your “heroes” in the world of art?
Many influences and inspiration have had an impact on my own artistic voice in my work. I think the people closest to me have a lot of influence. I’m a visual person. I’ve always enjoyed playing with visuals. My heroes in the world of art are Yoshitomo Nara and Mark Ryden.
Tell us about your working space: What it looks like and since when did you start working in your studio?
My studio is always quiet; I work alone. I don’t have any special rituals. Usually, I make tea before I start painting. I feel very comfortable starting my paintings in the morning and finishing in the afternoon. The morning air is very relaxing and I still have enough energy after waking up. Also, working under sunlight. So, my productive time is in the morning to evening. Usually, I do the drawings at night after I finish painting on a large canvas.
In general, what is your creative process like from beginning to end?
Like I mentioned earlier, I used to work by making a few rough sketches in a sketchbook, then scanning and processing it in Photoshop. Or sometimes from sketching on paper I immediately move to canvas. I feel that all materials have their own joy. I always feel challenged to use new mediums: Oil paints, watercolours, pencils, soft pastels, spray paint, charcoal – I love all of that.
What I love the most about the creative process is finding the unexpected while painting. Usually, I already have a picture in my head of the visuals that I will paint on the canvas. But when I do something accidental and come up with something new and interesting, I feel really good. Sometimes I get it from my dreams while sleeping. Even though I don’t remember them well and don’t accurately reflect them, I will make rough sketches of the characters and settings that appear in the dream so that I don’t forget them. Usually, the characters and settings that appear in dreams are strange, illogical, and have abstract shapes and colours. But it is very interesting for me to translate those into a visual form. Of course, I add and subtract things according to my imagination. That’s an interesting thing for me. It is like giving souls to my dream world beings. But in some works, I get them by looking at references from other artists or also from strange characters in films, old photos that I find on the Internet, and many other sources that have had a lot of influence on my work. I really like to recollect my memories from the past randomly and then combine them into one shape that might represent a different meaning from the original form.
Moving on to some of your more recent works, we’d like to take a closer look at your solo exhibition titled “EPOS” in Los Angeles and the collaboration with Moosey Art in the UK. Can you tell us a bit about how those projects came to be? And are there any specific messages that you want to deliver through those two projects?
This exhibition is my attempt to visit the memories that appear on the surface and to dive into those buried deep in the bottom. It is not an easy thing to retrieve all of those memories, gather and organize them in a neat and timely order when they were born. Pieces of memory scattered in the middle of the map were piled up in the corner of the room. Maybe they aren’t really forced to be sequential and traced, but random and not even traceable. The past that can be both good and bad. EPOS is a kind of traditional literary work that tells stories of heroism. These epics are often stated in verse. Some examples of famous epics are the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and so on. There is always balance, good and bad. Of course, my childhood heroes were fictional ’90s characters. They are things that provide a strong emotional bond. Whenever I feel lonely or go through bad events, their presence will give me peace. Sometimes I even wish to be them. Past memories are very influential in this creation process. Childhood figures that are deeply imprinted in emotional memories will be very interesting for me to re-draw into the work.
In this effort to dive into memories, I chose to try to look at everything simple, trivial, and insignificant memories to very emotional memories. Then I process these random memories and present them in a visual language that might give birth to new meanings and feelings from the fragmented pieces, whether it becomes simple or becomes even more complex. On the way, this activity of remembering took me by and dragged my memories mostly toward the house, more specifically to the family.
One by one the memories that I managed to capture were collected and broken down into details that may or may not be accurate. And that opens the assumption that the past that I experienced had a huge impact on me in the present. These memories are the accumulations of past human experiences that have always been the root of present and future events. Something that we do as small as anything can be a big role in our lives today. Time will continue to pass. Humans are always faced with worries and fears of a future that is always a mystery.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you are currently working on?
I am currently working on a number of paintings and drawings – maybe there will be sculptures, too – as part of my solo exhibition which is planned for later this year. I have not found the right title for this exhibition yet. The solo exhibition will take place at the Unit London in November. And I will also participate in several group exhibitions at several galleries and art fairs.