The Memories of Unidentified Experience

/1. Introduction: about an ordinary boy who live an extraordinary life/

How much can one recall the past?

For Dito Yuwono, his past is about fractions of memories triggered by senses-- smells and sensations of certain scenes he cannot fully recall. One day, when I was cleaning my nail polish using acetone, his memory flew to those unpleasant moments when a nurse applied a generous dose of alcohol to clean a freshly cut surgical wound on his head. His memories flashed back to the cold and tender sensation of the nurse’s touch and white dissolving pictures of the hospital when he was sedated. He remembers the blurry scenes of white sterile lights and shivers.  Perhaps that is why he starts associating neon bright white light with coldness and discomfort. From then on, I never clean my nail polish near him. When he tries to remember more, he is uncertain whether his efforts to recall these memories portrayed his real past experiences or if his mind was playing tricks on him. Other than that, he remembers living a happy childhood life, showered with love and attention from friends and family. As he stated, his life was not special. It was normal. But then again, how would you define normal?

What happened in his past was almost like a myth. Often he wondered what could have happened since his life is just like other people’s, liking things that other people like, and doing things the way other people do them. Aside from his unusual visual appearance, he is just one of a million other guys you will meet randomly on the street. The reactions he gets from other people is what makes him curious. Because it might be a sensitive thing to talk about, most people just stare instead of asking him about his unusual appearance, surgery marks, and other things regarding his past. When the question does come up, he would jokingly answer or show an uneasy hesitation that makes people never ask again. The way people stared, questioned, and treated him differently actually caused trauma in his childhood and made him endlessly question his own identity

His shy and unconfident nature is clearly linked to this grey history. But, when people first meet him, the timid nature of Dito Yuwono does not show. He grew up having a sunny attitude surrounded by loved ones and friends. Showered with attention and affections, his past is buried and forgotten rather than dealt with. Only when one is close enough with him, the inferiority that has been built years after years during his childhood shows. That is why, having Dito Yuwono tell his story through this photo series is even more than stripping off his clothes and leave him naked. It becomes the threshold between what is private and what is public to him.

In his daily life, he seldom talks about what happened in his past; especially about his experiences facing numerous and continuous surgeries during his childhood from age one to eleven. Not only because he was medically declared healthy when he was eleven years old, but also because he cannot remember it himself. It was something his body experienced but his memories only consist of fractions of semiconscious images. Yet, those life changing experiences become a self history that highly affects who he is today. The realm of mind and his desire to exorcise his foggy memories and to acknowledge his present state triggered him to create this work. He began a systematic investigation of his own body, identity, and self-history in this series of work.


/2. Artwork: his quest in finding the past that is lost to him/

Dito Yuwono spent a year and a half occupying a space driven by the intense energy of obsession to search and try to understand the past that is lost to him. Using his own body as a point of departure, his quest in trying to understand his unidentified experiences has resulted in an autobiographical work about what happened years ago and where the journey took him to in the present time, bounded with a mix of nostalgia and irony.

The first body of work, "Naked", consists of four self-portraits featuring different parts of the body and their X-ray images. The process of making this series was quite emotional. In his quest to understand what happened to him, he used his old x-rays as a starting point. Asking for the old x-rays was like opening a well-kept wound for his parents; perhaps even more than Dito's wounds. What for him is a self-history, might be someone else's tragedy. There are degrees of trauma behind this story beside those who actually experienced the pain. Most of the time when these x-rays were made, Dito was highly sedated and remembers only fractions of spectral images. But for his parents, these were traumatic experiences. In the process of talking to them about it, Dito uncovered the detailed story of his past for the first time. He then decided to materialize the quality of those memories and his understanding of them using transparent tracing paper taped onto neon lightboxes, reminding him of hospital x-ray lightboxes.

The self portrait becomes a mirror of who he really is, using X-ray images as a mask to capture what is hidden behind his unusual appearance. The x-ray images are put in front of his body parts suggesting its position as a mask with an irony of its function: instead of hiding what is behind the mask, it unveils what is actually hidden. Yet, these images are unfamiliar for common people. They can only be explained by medical experts, leaving us with more intriguing questions about what is known and what is blurred. Which one is the mask? Which identity to hold on to? Which one explains who he really is?

The blurry border between what is intimate and public becomes a radical investigation of himself. It was almost like a child play-acting a neurosurgeon. Just like when the real neurosurgeon got him through the series of childhood surgeries years ago; Dito Yuwono uses photography as a medium to dismantle and abstract his body through intense examination. The cutouts of body parts and the x-ray portraits of what is happening inside seem to achieve a self-evident autonomy as a physical and psychological confrontation. Those fractions of body parts and their x-rays are reconstructed in a way that is no longer connected to the original, creating an expression of alienation instead.

Dito Yuwono's self portrait in this body of work was never meant to self-dramatize himself in front of the camera. And yet the nature of his appearance is inherently melodramatic. The images are shockingly raw, displaying the old wounds and disturbing exterior of himself; bringing an ‘in your face’ aspect to the photo. Once again, he lets people stare.

He was searching through his childhood home trying to find memorabilia of the past when he found a bag of old medicine on the telephone table. He started looking for more and find several bags of medicines prescribed for him at four locations in the house: on the telephone table, on the key box under the staircase, on the snack table, and in his bedroom. He started documenting the pills and wondering why he was prescribed them in the first place. He treated the pills as found objects; memorabilia of his past. His illnesses when he was prescribed were not exactly serious. They varied from stomach ache, skin disease, to omega 3 fish oil that was meant to lower his cholesterol level. These are the kinds of medicine other people received when they visit the doctor and were quite common.
In this series of work, “Prescribed”, Dito Yuwono presents a diaristic element of his quest. The found-objects are photographed and numbered based on where he found them. A map of where those objects were found is displayed like a treasure-hunt map and numbered. Of all the bodies of work in this series, this is the only one that isn’t printed on semi-transparent paper, suggesting that the artifacts were solid, the past can be recalled this time, and the objects can be documented.  How he differentiates the material of memories in the other works and in this body of work shows the transparency of consciousness and opacity of objective reality.

The last part of this work is a simple drawing about his understanding of the chemical interaction between pharmaceutical active ingredients of two pills and his body, contemplating the semi-conscious state of consuming medicine. The choice of white-on-white display of this work suggests how some people, including himself, faithfully consume the drugs prescribed for them without thinking twice about how it might affect his body and how one active pharmaceutical ingredient might interact with another, creating an unknown chemical reaction inside the human body.

For this body of work, he not only contemplates his identity through the number of chemicals he faithfully consumed; but also how loose the medical distribution regulations are in this country. Most of the drugs and pills he photographed in this series are sold freely in drugstores all over the country and are often prescribed loosely by doctors. Faithful consumers who swallow them without thinking twice about the consequences makes the experience of consuming drugs an unidentified experience.  

Out of curiosity and inferiority, Dito created the third body of work in this series, “Sleeping with Myself”. Even after he was medically declared as fully recovered from the condition he had when he was a child, what he experiences now is a sleeping problem as a result of it. Again, this condition leaves him in a state of a series of unidentified experiences every night. Dito Yuwono knows that he snores in his sleep- leaving him unconfident and refusing to share his bed with other people caused by his own anxiety about not wanting to disturb other people’s sleep.  He sleeps with his eyes sometimes open and continuously moves around trying to breathe better. This condition sometimes leaves him exhausted in the morning because the body and mind are rarely rested. For him, sleeping is more like a meditational state of semi-consciousness that exists between sleeping and waking. His conscience is glimpsed, lost, and then glimpsed again in repetition.

In this body of work, he tries to understand a world that is lost to him. His question is simple: how disturbing can he be in his sleep? In order to recreate the experience for himself, he went through a process of recording himself, asking people how he behaves in his sleep and then attempting to replicate the experience of sleeping with himself. His self-portrait represents an impossible mirror image; a reality that only other people can see.

The pictures of his continuous sleeping movements are printed on semi-transparent paper, creating a ghost-like trail of self-portraits, presented with the sound of him snoring. Rather than trying to make people experience what he perceived was a burden to sleep with, Dito Yuwono is trying to understand what people actually experience when sleeping with him by creating an installation where he can actually 'sleep with himself'. This body of work might look like a residue of a dream world, yet it actually is meant to be the most blatant experience he wish to have. The dark room was created as a peephole that offers a glimpse into his private space.

Aside from the three bodies of work that represent the threshold between what is public and what is private to him; an interview was also conducted to understand the realm of his mind, providing snippets of whats going on inside his internal self, and serving as another self-portrait[i]. Of course, the question of authorship of the self portrait is not relevant anymore in contemporary society. Does it still matter who pulls the trigger as long as the whole direction and artistic valuation was controlled by the artist? What Dito made is an impossible object of things he cannot see. The camera becomes unjudgemental anonymous eye that materializes the artist’s interpretation of his past, self-history, and identity.

/3. Closure: reflection of the absurdity of the experience/

What Dito Yuwono experienced is pretty absurd. Gliding between consciousness and unconsciousness most of his life; the powerless feeling resulting from his body experiencing things his mind failed to understand. It is understandable that he sees the necessity to gain control over himself, forcing him to experiment beyond his personal aesthetic. Using himself as a subject and object of his investigation is his way to seize control of the time and space he once lost.

What Dito Yuwono remembers about his past is what Proust defines as 'involuntary memory'[ii]. It is a subcomponent of memory that occurs when cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort. For Proust, it was a taste of petite madeleine cake soaked in a cup of tea that triggered a childhood memory that was lost to him. The taste triggered vivid memories of how his childhood home looked and how happy he was. For Dito, the essence of the past was the smell of acetone that triggered his memory, bringing him back to the white-washed glimpses of the hospital.

What he is attempting to make in this work is the materialization of these memories. It is the binary opposite of the involuntary memory that serve as a deliberate effort to try remembering a moment in the past. At this point, his body was not only contain of some notes and memorabilia of the old wound traces but also become a memory-keeping device for his experience. His body remembers the cold gentle sensation of the nurse's touch when sterilizing his fresh wound, and he remembers the sensation of getting the thread out of his dried wound.  He uses his body as the starting point for the journey back to track his past for the body is neither an internal subject nor a fully external object of experience[iii].

The self-portraits are presented on transparent medium, suggesting the spectral memories he is trying to materialize.  This work is a quest to learn about his personal history and an in-depth study of the self without focusing on the drama and tragedy. In one way or another, this work serves as a form of expressive therapy and a reconstruction of identity. It is a way for him to come to terms with himself and his past, and at the same time to do the one thing that he fears the most: exposing himself to explore his unstable nature.

Historically, self-portraits are the outward expression of inner feelings, to penetrate self analysis and contemplation[iv]. Using x-ray images usually associated with medical purposes; he shifts their context from documentation to art. This work can be compared to Siya Singh’s Brain MRI 2006 (2009) work where she uses her unfathomable brain x-ray image as a self-portrait. While Singh replace her headshot with her brain x-ray alone, Dito Yuwono chose to use the x-ray image as a mask. The way Dito Yuwono wears this mask exposes the physical interior instead of covering his exterior, showing the unanswered questions that only professionals can assess and tell us what actually went wrong inside that unusual exterior.

This whole project is an autobiographical exploration through self portraiture, re-telling the strange experience of having no control nor understanding of oneself as a physical being. Through this series of work, Dito Yuwono is writing an autobiography of himself and looking back to the things that he missed. The camera becomes his insightful tool for self-analysis as well as being a visual record of personal tragedy.

In a way, he is trying to see through the eyes of children who, in innocent curiosity,  often give him weird stares. He is trying to create mirror images to see what is abnormal about himself. As a survivor, this series of works reveals the struggle and torment that is actually a reality for some people, while at the same time questioning the true definition of what is normal. This condition reminds us of those oeuvres by Nan Goldin and Frida Kahlo who celebrate their life fully using autobiographical works capturing even the most poignant and painful moments in their lives. The way they publicly show those wounds in rather intriguing portraits publicly reclaims their pride and identity as self. 

All and all[v], this exhibition is about collected memories of unidentified experiences, personal history, and how the past relates to Dito Yuwono’s present.  More than that, this series is about self-acceptance: the desire to learn about himself was meant to make him feel more ease with who he is through revisiting the past in staged photography, and with courage to show how he survived the gaze and the questions. He can finally wear the wound like a trophy or a medal of bravery.

(Mira Asriningtyas)

[i] The interview was inspired by the self-investigatory work of Lucas Samaras, "Another Autointerviews" (1971).
[ii] From the madeleine scene of Marcel Proust’s novel, “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” or “Remembrance of Things Past” (1900)
[iii] Generated from Marleau-Ponty’s theory of phenomenology, “Phenomenology of Perception” (1945)
[iv] Susan Bright. “Auto Focus: the Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography” (2010)