Eko Nugroho’s ‘Cut the Mountain and Let It Fly’, A Reflection on Human Nature

by Dini Adanurani
20th July 2023
Presenting a myriad of works that range from sculptures to embroideries, Eko Nugroho brings his own brand of playful social commentary on human nature for his first solo exhibition in Indonesia since 2015.

Returning with his first solo exhibition in Indonesia since 2015, ‘Cut the Mountain and Let It Fly’ by Eko Nugroho presents a myriad of works at ROH on Surabaya Street, Central Jakarta, from his newest sculptures, painting and site-specific mural to older works of embroideries and watercolour sketches. 

“Working with ROH’s space is both challenging and delightful. I created a small model of the gallery to imagine how my works would be displayed, and how it would respond to the space,” shared the artist on using the gallery’s semi-industrial space as his canvas. 

Take the eye-catching series of neon-coloured fibreglass sculptures ‘Half Hero Half Stone’ (2022 – 2023) spread across Gallery Apple. Individually titled with virtuous values such as ‘Equality’, ‘Tolerance’ and ‘Diversity’, they visualise disfigured humanlike figures, sometimes hybridised with other objects and forms, each propped on an exposed cement pillar that matches those seen on the corners of the gallery. One can see the satirical humour in commemorating these statues with grandiose titles; for example, a pink bust with a gas cylinder as its head may symbolise ‘Prosperity’, while the neon yellow sculpture titled ‘Justice’ covers its face with its shirt while revealing a pair of eyes planted in its chest. 

More semi-human sculptures populate the galleries, sometimes taking up the most unlikely spots, like with ‘Becoming Stone and Blooming’ (2023) and ‘Future Fungi’ (2023), which overlook the visitors from the gallery’s second-floor platforms. Their resemblance to humans is so uncanny that sculptures like ‘Reconstruction Dream’ (2023), a squatting figure with yellow coils engulfing its head, can startle unwary visitors. Along with ‘Ala Carte Modern Slavery’ (2023), another humanlike sculpture clad in office attire and a long, dangling shape in place of a right arm, Eko envisions the current day labour as a dehumanising process, but not without his own brand of humour and flair. 

By size, the work that stands out the most is certainly the gigantic sculpture that seizes Gallery Orange. ‘We Are Human’ (2023) takes the form of a futuristic spaceship: a five-legged orb in radiant yellow decked with little windows where Eko’s signature pair of peeking eyes gaze into the gallery space. The title of the sculpture is a statement in itself—if the inhabitants of the imagined spaceship declare themselves to be human, then what does that make us? 

Behind the spaceship is also another centrepiece of the exhibition; a floor-to-ceiling, black-and-white mural titled ‘Cut the Mountain and Let It Fly #2′ (2023). Although it takes a different form to its predecessor, the largest mural he’s ever worked on a building for Lyon Biennale 2009, it embodies the same spirit of struggle between tradition and modernity, destruction and creation. The new mural unfolds a plethora of contrasting patterns that resemble rocks, leaves, the ever-present peeking eyes and a robotic figure similar to the spaceship of ‘We Are Human’

The title ‘Cut the Mountain and Let It Fly’ may come across as whimsical, creating an image that only exists in one’s imagination—a fitting description of Eko’s sprawling universe of fantastical characters. Yet, there is also something very grounded about the metaphor itself, where the act of ‘cutting the mountain’ can either symbolise a human’s determination or greed. As one of the artists that had challenged, or ‘cut through the mountain’ of the New Order regime, this dynamic is something that Eko often contemplates throughout his two-decade-long artistic practice, and by extension this exhibition as well, offering a reflection into our nature as human beings.