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Live for Satan | Madeleine King

It may surprise some to learn that heavy metal—a sub-genre of rock music that emerged largely from America and England in the 1970s—was at the heart of Indonesia’s late 1990s pro-democracy movement[1].   Not so for historian Mark LeVine, author of colourful studies of politics and music such as ‘Headbanging Against Repressive Regimes’ (2008).  LeVine writes that “in societies where people, particularly young people, are desperate for liberation from authoritarian politics and social norms, heavy metal has found a welcome home”[2].  In much of the Muslim world, heavy metal has expressed modernisation, individual freedoms, youth culture, secularisation, resistance, political transgression and despair, as well as the undermining of Islamic faith. While heavy metal’s role as a legitimate and influential political mobiliser in Indonesia is therefore consistent with Levine’s observation, in the years following Suharto’s resignation in 1998 the de-regulation of media in Indonesia has perhaps diminished heavy metal’s political clout—meaning what was once a repressed yet vital underground subculture has become less offensive, less threatening and more mainstream.  In the West, the ubiquity of heavy metal’s formerly shocking and transgressive imagery has made it seem empty (Ozzy Ozbourne is a good example of how time has abated metal’s ferocity), and as a result, fair game for satirical parody.   It would seem this is the case in MTV-watching Indonesia too.

Convincingly styled as a KISS-emulating metalhead, Ican Harem, a young artist from Indonesia’s art capital Yogyakarta, emerged in what had been described as an ‘anticipatory zone’.  A performance space in waiting, the installation Live for Satan at the Boxcopy gallery space was described as accommodating the seemingly incongruous rituals of karaoke, prayer and sacrifice.  What eventuated was karaoke above all else: Harem performed covers of death metal classics, such as Norwegian group Mayhem’s ‘Death Crush’, accompanied by recordings of his band Cangkang Serigala in absentia.

Harem’s ‘death metal karaoke’ performance on the 12th of February, 2011 was not the first example of heavy metal culture and music parodied by Indonesian ‘art bands’ that Australian audiences have witnessed.  Many would recall Australian artist Danius Kesminas’ recent spoof Indonesian punk/hard rock/heavy metal outfit ‘Punkasila’ who set the tunes of Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden to satirical lyrics inspired largely by the nation’s rich collection of political acronyms (the empty rhetoric of politics being equivalent to the empty posturing of heavy metal).   Taken in view of heavy metal’s relationship with Indonesia’s turbulent political history over the last 20 years, which has seen a transition from fearful and influential subcultural movement to a sometimes ridiculed cipher in much the same way as it has come to be in the West, perhaps the recent phenomenon of the Indonesian comedy-rock art-band (if these two examples can even constitute a ‘phenomenon’) is not so peculiar. In the context of 21st century Indonesia, Harem may well owe his influences to the de-regulation of media as much to the pro-democracy movement and subsequent reformasi period of political art in Indonesia[3], referencing not only heavy metal’s place in Indonesia’s political history, but also celebrated Western parodies of heavy metal culture (such as the animated TV series ‘Metalocalypse’).

Video imagery of a mosque, a found-object prayer mat, and a large-scale reproduction of a page from an Indonesian children’s comic of Islamic doctrine[4] reinforced the Islamic symbolism evoked in Harem’s installation. For the performance Harem wore a temporary inscription across his bare chest that read ‘Kafir’, a label for non-Muslims (and also a reference to the song ‘Kafir!’ by American death metal band Nile).  Death metal’s notorious invocation of Satan has the same resonance in Muslim culture as it does in Christianity; Satan’s Islamic equivalent is Iblis, an antagonistic figure, representing for metalheads in both cultures what Erik Campbell, poet and proud metalhead, describes fondly as the “visceral, non-intellectual, simplistic and dualistic” quest for meaning and ‘God’ through an exploration of the antithetical[5].   However, while Harem’s installation and performance together connoted the religious symbolism of Islamic and death metal culture as though they were artist’s own duelling belief systems, ultimately the occultist posturing of Harem’s performance was more comic and irreverent than it was threatening, transgressive or even autobiographical.  In this sense, there is an attitudinal similarity between expat Kesminas’ project and the one by Harem the Indonesian national: both appear to tenderly send up the transgressive, anti-establishment on-stage theatrics, costuming and fan-zine comic culture of the punk/hard rock/heavy metal scene, by revelling in its concomitant seriousness and silliness[6].

The exhibition’s title and subject of one of Harem’s karaoke videos, ‘Live for Satan’, exemplifies the absurdly contrary manoeuvre that characterises the artist’s invocation of death metal’s occultism.  In the artist’s video, the words appear on the back of a t-shirt worn by a man engaged in prayer at a mosque, in crude cartoonish defiance to the orthodox purposes of the mosque as a place for Islamic worship.  Similarly, in attempting to reconfigure the gallery space of Boxcopy into a mosque-cum-karaoke booth, Harem asserted his desire to upset the conventions of any given establishment.  But while the symbolism of Islam and the anti-christ may underline some genuine political and autobiographical sentiment, the overriding irreverence of Live for Satan prompts the questions: is Harem revelling in the comparative freedoms enjoyed in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, critiquing Islamic conservatism and contesting good and bad, or is he focused on another enemy, namely, the art establishment?  Perhaps it is an attempt at all of these things.

by Madeleine King


[1] LeVine, M. 2009. Doing the Devil’s Work: Heavy Metal and the Threat to Public Order in the Muslim World. Social Compass 56:564. pg.572

[2] Ibid, p570

[3] Depictions of the political events and new freedoms of post-Suharto Indonesia largely characterise reformasi-era art.  Cohen, M. 1999.  Art of the Possible.  Far Eastern Economic Review Dec 16, 1999; 162, 50. pg. 42

[4] The image comes from the comic ‘Siska Neraka’ (which translates loosely as ‘Hell Punishment’), which I am told depicts an interpretation of the qu’ranic punishment for greed

[5] Campbell, E. 2005. The Death of Satan: A Novice Poet’s Ode to his Innocence, Classic Heavy Metal, & the Creativity of Imaginary Evil. The Massachusetts Review; Spring 2005; 46, 1. pg 109-117

[6] Incidentally, Harem tells me that like Punkasila, Cangkang Serigala’s association with the art establishment has made them subject to the ridicule of more genuine metalheads in Indonesia.

© Copyright 2011. Boxcopy and the writers and artists. Not to be reproduced without permission from Boxcopy.