Five thousand hand-knitted bright orange fish dangle from the ceiling. Beneath them lies a colorful world of coral and, if you look closely, a friendly lobster. Peering through a collection of vibrant purple pom poms, a bright red coral sits atop thriving underwater vegetation. Each work of art, which mimics the marine ecosystem, is different from another.
Unexpected details and colors form Mulyanas “Modular utopia.” But as you step out of the installation titled “Ocean Wonderland” and walk through the museum space, the colors begin to fade. The purple turns gray and the life that once sprang from joy and adventure fades into the white museum walls and disappears from sight.
The new exhibit at the USC Fisher Museum of Art is Mulyana’s first solo show in Los Angeles. The Indonesian artist, known for knitting and crocheting marine life from upcycled materials such as worn-out clothing and plastic bags, gives shape to a new utopia that simultaneously encourages the viewer to take action. His practice focuses on sustainability and community, with a focus on the fading colors of the world we live in.
On his first snorkeling adventure in the Gili Islands, Mulyana was amazed to see how pollution had turned the coral gray. “It was very scary,” he says.
He reflects on this discovery in ‘Modular Utopia’, in which he shows the effects of pollution on underwater life by contrasting something so beautiful with a gloomy environment. The title of the exhibition stems from the modular nature of the pieces: each section of coral can be taken apart and rearranged, bringing bits and pieces into new exhibits.
He started his journey of creating these modular landscapes with pom poms. The technique he used for scarves soon grew into a creature: the mogus.
In 2008, Mulyana created his first mogus character, or monster, and named it after a combination of his family name and the Indonesian word for octopus. As we ventured through the exhibit space during the installation, Mulyana took that first mogus out of his bag: a small, gray creation with tentacles, a single eye, and a pink moustache.
Also on display are “Si Koneng” and “Adikara” costumes presented on mannequins. The characters are extensions of the coral reef, rising from the ground in shades of green and yellow. They not only reflect feelings of isolation and liberation, but also continue the theme of sustainability: “Si Koneng” is made from used yellow plastic bags and is woven into a costume full of curves and flowing layers.
Mulyana sources used materials and over-produced plastics in his hometown of Yogyakarta – and sometimes abroad – to make his creations. Online, he documents the process by folding over a plastic bag, cutting it into strips and twisting it into a knitting thread. This can sometimes be a problem when certain colors are hard to find and certain materials are running out. But the limitation of materials is part of why his coral creations are so unique.
Over the years, Mulyana has shared his gift of knitting and crochet with others. He has given workshops to children and enlisted the help of a community of transgender women in the village of Sorogenen to create modular coral sculptures. A large part of his Islamic faith is about sharing knowledge, and that is what he aims to do with his artistic practice.
Curator John Silvis says: “From the moment I went to the first studio and when I met Mulyana and other artists, it was very clear to me that it is a communal process. It really is a joint effort. Everyone works in the community.”
Collaboration is also why a significant portion of “Ocean Wonderland” is interactive, inviting viewers to create their own monsters with a mirror and separate body parts – including claws, eyes, and bright lips. For Mulyana it is a group effort to bring the exhibition to life.
Each exciting and playful glimpse into this underwater world leads to the final exhibit, ‘Satu’. In it, Mulyana shows a 30-foot whale skeleton surrounded by starving white coral. Viewers come face to face with the impacts of climate change.
“Sometimes we forget because we don’t live in the sea,” says Mulyana. “We must not forget that we have to be careful with the environment in which we live.”
“Mulyana: modular utopia”
Where: USC Fisher Museum of Art, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Tuesday-Friday from 12:00 to 17:00 and Saturday from 12:00 to 16:00. Runs through April 13.