Heri Dono’s Flying Angels (1996) brings folk traditions and technology together through an unlikely partnership: an Indonesian artist and a team of radio repairmen.
Indonesian artist Heri Dono’s Flying Angels (1996) was first exhibited at the Vienna Secession as part of the inaugural edition of Cities on the Move, a travelling exhibition that explored the shifting intersections of contemporary art from Asia and the West during a pivotal moment of globalisation.
Flying Angels was exhibited alongside works by other Asian artists, including Lee Bul’s Hydra (Monument) (1996), Zhou Tiehai’s large-format newspaper series, and Liew Kung Yu’s Pasti Boleh (Sure You Can) (1997). The works were all placed and juxtaposed in a tight space under a metal scaffolding structure designed by architect Yung Ho Chang. Deviating from the conventional white-cube gallery aesthetic, this arrangement created an environment reminiscent of the high-density urban landscapes of Southeast and East Asia.
The works shown at Cities on the Move were made with diverse materials, and each piece carried a different cultural meaning. Presenting them together highlighted the reality of Asia as a vast geographical region—a complex and interconnected labyrinth of cultural histories that had become ever more interlinked in the age of globalisation. In this sense, the exhibition revealed a broader cultural context where artists like Dono grappled with the legacies of tradition and culture in the face of rapid modernisation.
Created out of fibreglass and electronic components, the suspended cherubic figures in Dono’s Flying Angels wear makeup and headdresses reminiscent of wayang—a traditional form of Javanese puppet theatre—and have diaphanous wings made of bamboo and fabric to symbolise inspiration and freedom. A cacophony of whirling motorised sounds, including recordings of birds and crickets, are emitted from the angels, which harbour windows in their chests that reveal their inner mechanical workings.
Championing crossovers between art, media, and modes of expression, Flying Angels reflects Dono’s artistic philosophy, which challenges ‘the existence of cultural categories and barriers that are too strong and too exclusive’ within contemporary art and culture while also advocating for ‘a pluralistic understanding of truth, or a way of arriving at truth via an experimental process in which one breaks the rules of the older/conservative theories of art’. The installation marries local traditions with low-grade technologies and avant-garde artistic languages to create a form of contemporary Indonesian art that represents a conversation between local and global cultures.
To make Flying Angels, Dono collaborated with a team of radio repairmen to experiment with and repurpose used electronics to create mechanical wings capable of simple, languid, and graceful movements. On one hand, the work criticises the utopia that was promised by global commerce, which failed those in Indonesia who are too impoverished to afford the gadgets Dono collected to create his installation. On the other hand, the radio repairmen’s innovative spirit speaks to the vitality of those living in poverty and showcased their enduring resilience and humour.
Ethnic traditions and folk art are central forms of communication within Javanese society and are used to express traditional values, articulate new concepts, and engage in political critiques, as was the case during the economic and political upheavals in Indonesia during the 1990s. Dono’s works often incorporate this cultural heritage to comment on Indonesia’s sociopolitical milieu while also referencing his earlier works. Wayang Legenda (1988-1992) and Watching the Marginal People (2000), for example, are installations of kinetic shadow puppets inspired by wayang folktale stories and legends. Dono, who grew up reading both Indonesian and foreign comic books, hybridises wayang characters with pop-culture icons and addresses the complexities of identity by fusing contemporary, traditional, technological, and vernacular crafts. His openness to working with and reinterpreting tradition shrugs off the danger of exoticising or generalising contemporary Indonesia and its art, whether in the global context or within nationalist attitudes in Indonesia or elsewhere. While Flying Angels reveals the reality of rapid sociopolitical shifts in contemporary Indonesia, the work also expresses the importance of mediating the local and the global when defining contemporary Indonesia at the dawn of globalisation. The puppets in Flying Angels seem to be floating aimlessly, as if to reflect Indonesia’s fast yet unfocused economic development in the spinning wheel of globalisation.
Astri Wright, ‘Heri Dono, Indonesia: A Rebel’s Playground’, in 12 ASEAN Artists, ed. Valentine Willie (Kuala Lumpur: Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2000), 91.