On Intergalactic Exploration and Other Speculations


Imagine this scene: A few people sitting in the darkness, staring at the sky, full of hope. They are a delegation of experts in weaponry, waiting for a fairly large meteorite to crash into the earth. No one really knows when the meteorite is going to fall until, one day, a giant fireball strikes, followed by a loud explosion. From all corners, the delegation hurries to trace the source of the fire, examine the coordinates of the crash, and explore the landscape. The stone from outer space is smoldering, and has sunk three meters beneath the surface of the earth. The alloy contained in the meteorite is one of the best for crafting weapons. At the same time, right at the site of the crash, a social conflict was unfolding. One hundred experts in weaponry were appointed to work together on an ultimate weapon that would ease the conflict. But the resulting creation had its own ideas and became evil. When it was finally defeated, to hide its feelings of shame and anger, the weapon had jumped onto a rocket in a flash, headed for outer space. It vowed to return once every 500 years to get its revenge by sending epidemics into Earth. Its arrival would be marked by the appearance of a giant fireball crossing the earth.

This scene can easily be passed off as the opening scene from Kal-El’s[1] inception, or from any number of science-fiction comic series from the ’40s about intergalactic explorations, alien invasions, interplanetary wars, and other speculations. But in essence, this synopsis also serves as the story of the Empu, or the Javanese Craftsman Master that reigned from the 12th-13th century[2] who often used materials found in meteorites to create weapons with supernatural powers. This story points to the legend of an heirloom keris, which was named Kyai Condong Campur, from the glorious era of the Majapahit (1293-1527). The Empu were not only experts in weaponry, but also masters of the natural world, familiar with the alloys contained in meteorites, able to read the sky, and calculate geographical coordinates. In addition, the arrival of the stone from outer space was thought to increase the weapon’s “prestige” as it contained a piece of life from outer space that was older than the Earth. From this anecdote, we can only assume that the Javanese Empu had an understanding of interplanetary movements, both as movements of substance, alloy, and stone, as well as the falls of pulung[3]; along with the hypothesis that there is life outside of Earth, whatever shape it may take.

I remembered this story after having a long conversation with Heri Dono about the stories of Empu and the boundless imagination in science fiction. “Even before humans first touched the surface of the moon, stories like Flash Gordon and Trigan Empire were already describing intergalactic life and movements,” he said. Heri Dono is aware of how advanced the human mind and imagination are in the creation of science fiction stories, even before people could actually realize these ideas through science and technology. During our talk, he mentioned that when he was in college, he regularly drew figures that were unusual, strange, and often scary, to the point that his friends thought he had the ability to see supernatural things. In fact, right from the start, his drawings had been inspired by the visuals in animated films and Western science fiction. Eventually, he inserted mythological elements into his works, shaping unique characters that are very difficult to map. They are foreign, yet familiar.


Heri Dono grew up influenced by animated films about interplanetary explorations, adventures of policemen patrolling the ocean in stingray cars, the Brothers Grimm’s fairy-tales, wayang stories, and folktales. It is not surprising that Heri Dono’s works don’t feel as if they emerge from any single identity or era. During his time, these works felt avant-garde. As if on the verge of realizing an imagination of the future, yet one that still comes from the past. This mixture of past and future is what makes the works look futuristic. Just like the stories of the Empu in the Majapahit era, waiting for pieces of a past life, while possessing an awareness of the content of alloys and the existence of extraterrestrial life. Both these things seem like science fiction, but they were present in the real life of the past. A similar feeling occurs when entering Heri Dono’s studio. Images that straddle the far and the near, the familiar and foreign, and traditions that are more than just exoticism blend without a clear beginning and end. In particular, fictional figures informed by these stories mentioned here often appear in his installation works: fairies shaped like small humans with insect wings; giant robots representing Dewa Ruci; a dinosaur-and-human hybrid creature; masculine para-demon figures on old motorbikes, looking ready for trouble; and wayang figures with the faces of world leaders.

One of Heri Dono’s performance works which succeeded in blending these opposing poles is the work Tarian Traktor Jogja. This work was part of Heri Dono’s opening for the exhibition Heridonology. As if straight out of a Transformers movie, there was an excavator performing the Bedaya dance in Yogyakarta’s palace square. It was operated to move slowly, or at least according to the norms of a heavyload scraper machine made of steel. This work was a social commentary on the excavator as a machine used in construction, as well as one that creates environmental damage. This machine was taken from its own “habitat” at the foot of Mount Merapi, a place where it is viewed as a giant destructive monster and is often protested and driven away by local residents. It is as if Heri wanted to show that there is another side to it, transforming it from the hated monster wreaking destruction into a supple dancer entertaining urban audiences in the palace square. The choice of using the North Square was also a form of protest towards the government over the ecological destruction at the foot of Merapi. Despite choosing the sacred Bedayo dance for the tractor’s execution, the work’s references are actually a blend of Western science fiction stories and animated films.

We could classify it within the subgenre of speculative fiction, despite the work having a closer resemblance to the visual identity of steampunk (with its goggles, war helmets, and somewhat primitive machines that fuse scrap metal with a second soul), but, overall, I would prefer to imagine the work as part of the subgenre of mythpunk, which generally combines mythology and folktales with science fiction elements. The employment of folk tales or mythology in this subgenre is a form of resistance to the hegemony of science in the science fiction genre. More specifically, the interesting aspect of this subgenre is how mythpunk questions the dominant social norms and engages in negotiations between traditions and exact sciences. In this essay, I try to offer an interpretation of the intersections between these various poles. The question I am asking is: could we use existing narratives from various different contexts to question and reevaluate the position of Western canons, both in science fiction stories and in contemporary art?



Before we go on to discuss this topic, I will share another anecdote from the movie Another Life, which is streaming on Netflix. The movie is about a team of astronauts sent to explore the “moon” to study the genesis of artifacts belonging to a past civilization of aliens. The movie is rather unpopular, scoring low in ratings. However, there is one scene which made the movie the subject of a heated debate. The scene went more or less like this: one of the main characters arrived on the “moon” and found a “strange,” red-colored fruit which was described as the aliens’ food. She tasted the fruit and said “It’s disgusting.” Netflix, with their big production budgets, could have just created a fictional fruit as a form of imagining alien food. But it didn’t. Instead, the film chose to use the rambutan as a representation of “alien food”! This has immediately become a source of ridicule among many parties (especially Asian viewers) and related memes immediately started appearing, along with the problems of representation and exoticism. 

One of the main concepts in science fiction narratives is the presence of the Other, which is different both physically and culturally. Science fiction is a means to describe anything that is “out there” behind the mysteries of the cosmos, or various unfamiliar places and situations that are generally seen as distant. This image of being foreign and distant is easily depicted with different physical forms, unintelligible languages, and landscapes which are unfamiliar to the main character’s everyday life. Generally, the physical differences are the most essential in distinguishing the self from what is “foreign/alien,” as established by the author and described through the perspective of the main character. Meanwhile, the distinctions made by colonialism between the “self” and the “other” function as methods of political control to shape social hierarchies and enforced hierarchies of knowledge.[4] The colonialist constructions often position rooted local knowledge and traditions as being “backward” compared to Western science.[5] We know that science fiction is one way of expressing the existence of other dimensions, cosmos, futures, and unknown, foreign places. If we return to the anecdote I shared earlier, these aspects are no longer foreign in the perception of Javanese cosmologies, mythologies, wayang stories, and folk tales. However, the specificity of the local context, language, and a cosmological system that would now be considered unscientific or “superstitious” make this anecdote a more suitable fit for the field of ethnographic studies than speculative fiction.

If we dissect this further, the fiction in the genre of science fiction is not that problematic. After all, fiction has been a way to tell stories in oral cultures and transmit knowledge across different times. However, the position of science in science fiction gives the impression that the fantasies contained within this genre is only the dominion of Western science. Put simply, this genre describes the mindset and worldview of Western canonical ideas about dystopia or utopia; their designations of what and who is considered “foreign/alien”; and their subversive representations of reality. It is not surprising if Netflix’s audience in Asia felt offended when the “alien food” in the movie Another Life was represented by a rambutan fruit from real life in Southeast Asia. In science fiction, sophisticated technology (or even ancient technology which symbolizes the might of past civilizations) also has an important role in shaping a new fantasy world. Meanwhile, could the cosmological system of the Empu in ancient Majapahit, rooted in local understanding from long before the global establishment of science, be seen as another form of science? And vice versa—the system of empirical determination within science shouldn’t just point towards the West, should it?

Only by acknowledging the slippery risks in the issues of representation and colonial narratives can a science fiction writer overcome his/her own limitations. A similar concern was pointed out by Heri Dono in our back-and-forth conversations. At that time, he reflected on how disturbed he was after watching American movies depicting Indian tribes as the antagonists and cowboys as the protagonists, and similarly with war movies that seemed to glorify the massacre of local inhabitants/aliens/people considered to be vicious “barbarians” and deserving of annihilation—while the truth of these narratives needs to be constantly examined. Those holding control over these narratives are the ones entitled to determine the direction of the gaze and the narrative.



This tension regarding who controls the gaze is also something Heri Dono experienced during his residency programs. His artistic practice has placed him within a whirlwind of mobility and international movements. Many of his works deal with local themes, offer commentaries on social and political conditions, and incorporate elements of fantasy. Meanwhile, there are people who have a say in making these exchanges possible, meaning that whoever gets in this position has control over the direction of the gaze. It is not surprising then that at one point in his career as a contemporary artist, Heri Dono was invited to exhibit his works in an ethnology museum instead of a contemporary art museum.

Parallel to how the problematics of the gaze exist in science fiction, ethnology museums practice a similar paradigm in dichotomizing the subject and object, or the self and other. This dichotomy is represented very well by two German concepts, that of volkskundemuseum and museum für völkerkunde to describe similar yet distinctive types of ethnology museums.[6] Volkskundemuseum is used to describe ethnology museums which present European folk tales—concerning traditions, cultures, and national identity—with the nation’s core as its main subject. Meanwhile, museum für völkerkunde is used to describe ethnology museums which present studies about other non-Western regions such as the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, and “other” places from around the world; as objects represented through a specific perspective. Before the emergence of ethnology museums, exotic discoveries were often exhibited in “cabinets of curiosities” as the private collection rooms of explorers, which invited visitors to enjoy, curiously imagine, and “experience” (with all its limitations) other cultures from far and mysterious places. These feelings of curiosity and speculation towards the existence of others who lived in these mysterious places are precisely the reasons for the emergence of this type of museum. Just like in the tales of explorations and other speculations, with each exploration (and colonization) there is a terra incognita (unknown land) protected by the giant squid monster Kraken, the giant sea serpent Leviathan, deadly mermaids, dragons, and other fantastic wild beasts. Besides this, natives are portrayed as either lovely and amazing, or so barbaric, uncivilized, and dangerous that they need to be “fixed” by means of scientific, religious, and cultural enlightenment.

When he was chosen as the artist to represent the Indonesian Pavilion at Venice Biennale, Heri Dono decided to show his often-felt anxiety in relation to the issue of representation. The work Trokomod, which he presented in the Indonesian Pavilion at Venice Biennale, tried to address the contestation of power and the issue of who stands where and looks in what direction. If the artist felt that up until now his work has been viewed from an Orientalist perspective, in this work he reversed the gaze with an Occidentalist mindset. Both of these paradigms generally use old-fashioned and sometimes degrading stereotypes—the only difference is that Orientalism originates from the West looking at the East, while Occidentalism is the East looking at the West. Trokomod, an abbreviation of “The Trojan Komodo,” is used as a “vehicle” to transmit this message. In this work, Heri Dono combines many figures together: from the “dragon” which descended from the ancient family of dinosaurs and survives today in the form of the Komodo dragon, to the Trojan Horse which features in ancient Greek mythology as a tool to secretly infiltrate and invade the fortifications of Troy.  Inside the “Trojan horse” shaped as a Komodo, there is a cabinet of curiosities containing so-called exotic objects. They are from Heri Dono’s personal collection of objects taken from the “West” during his artistic travels; ranging from wigs used in courtrooms, to blue plates from the Dutch East India Company, to a musket. Just as artifacts are placed in a cabinet of curiosities or an ethnology museum, these objects are used to represent a Western culture, without any context or detailed information about where these objects were “found.” Presenting them using the cabinet of curiosities model is a rather cynical attitude to choose, as if positioning the owners of this culture as exotic and rather primitive—no matter how sophisticated their local social structures, inhabitants, and knowledge are.  Apart from this, there is also Soekarno’s speech at the United Nations about the identity of a nation, as well as Heri Dono’s eulogy for the future of Indonesia as presented to an audience of animals. On top of the Trokomod, there are nine intricate boats which show how advanced the ancient maritime culture of the Nusantara was, long before the West’s invasion. With the work Trokomod, Heri Dono chose to look back upon the self and upon the nation’s identity through a roundabout way, as well as by placing Western culture as a footnote to his work.

This could be seen as the first step towards an interesting institutional critique, especially since it is being executed within an art show with a history as long as the Venice Biennale’s. However, we still have a long way to go before we can re-measure and re-write the canonical positions to offer a variety of counter-perspectives, within the contexts of both science fiction and contemporary art.  But as with intergalactic explorations, we can at least start by imagining, questioning, and making new speculations.

[1] Kal-El is the birth name of the fictional character Superman. Kal-El was born on the planet of Krypton and sent to Earth to avoid the destruction of his planet. He arrived on Earth in a rocket from outer space which crashed into a field with a loud bang. Source: https://dc.fandom.com/wiki/Kal-El_(Earth-One) (accessed on May 1, 2021)

[2] Dhitasari, Ni Nyoman. "Komet Van Java: Lintang Kemukus Dan Legenda Keris Pusaka Majapahit." Langitselatan. October 24, 2015. Accessed on May 1, 2021. https://langitselatan.com/2015/10/24/komet-van-java-lintang-kemukus-dan-legenda-keris-pusaka-majapahit/

[3] In traditional Javanese belief, the fall of pulung is marked by the fall of a comet or fireball in a specific direction, and represents an invisible sign that something or someone will receive a gift but also an important mandate.

[4] Langer, Jessica. “Race, Culture, Identity and Alien/Nation, Postcolonialism and Science Fiction”. Postcolonialism and Science Fiction. Houndmills, Basingstoke Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

[5]  Idem., 87

[6] Fromm, Annette B. "Ethnographic Museums and Intangible Cultural Heritage Return to Our Roots." Journal of Marine and Island Cultures 5, no. 2 (2016): 90.