The miniature kapok-stuffed, rice-sack dolls, which are now synonymous with Samsul Arifin, first made an appearance within his earliest sculptures and installations. Then faceless and nameless, they were sandwiched by the dozen between the covers of a book, or spilled out of a supermarket trolley. Their most iconic appearance occurred within his emblematic work, Mattress of Images at the CP Open Biennale in Jakarta in 2003. Following this effort, viewers began sitting up and taking note of the artist who could articulate so much through a little rice-sack figure.
Eventually Arifin developed this doll into a painted motif and personal metaphor, which was formally named 'Goni' by Farah Wardani, curator of his first solo exhibition in 2008. According to the artist, Goni, named for the rice - or goni - sack, is a symbol of innocence and simplicity. Lacking facial definition apart from his wide rolling eyes which constantly bear a gentle air of surprise, Goni is a 'blank' metaphor; a tabula rasa. Arifin identifies keenly with Goni, using him as an alter-ego to observe himself, his life and his environment. Physically crafted from the coarse, unappealing yet solidly reliable hemp material customarily used for sacking, the appearance of Goni within Arifin's compositions also represents traditional elements buffeted about by the waves of modernity.
The series of work within the exhibition, Goni's Journey: Episode 1 , deals primarily with the theme of education. As the main instrument of personal improvement, academic learning is seen by Arifin as a vehicle of individual and societal mobility, allowing an easier, mediated transition from the traditional towards the future. Goni is symbolic of this transition, and within the exhibition, he is seen being sent to school, grappling manfully with weighty objects of learning, and toppling on his head as though bowled over by towering heights of academia. Arifin is highly passionate about the benefits of acquiring a solid education especially in regard to young people coming from the working classes, who might otherwise be susceptible to the harsh challenges of today's society. The largest installation shows a human-sized Goni seated at a writing desk in the schoolroom, embodying Arifin's own pre-artistic days. Within the painted formats, Goni is depicted in a variety of poses interacting with educational materials, particularly Staedtler 2B pencils - a familiar sight to any exam-taker of Arifin's generation. In The Tree of Life (Lot 1729), Arifin compares the educational system to this mythological tree, the supposed font of wisdom. The forking branches of the tree - or stub of artistically shaved pencil, as illustrated by Arifin - represents the varying tenets of literature, religion and philosophy; as well as the existence and intertwining of all forms of life.
The present work, Terapung di Laut Asia is one of the largest canvases within this entire series. It shows Goni, alone and adrift, untiringly paddling a paint tube raft within a darkened sea. His sail is constructed from colour pencils in various bright Faber-Castell hues, sharpened to jaunty points. Arifin's message for this work is clear: that without education Goni - and we - will drown; only equipped with the tools of learning can the unfathomable depths of an alien ocean be conquered.
It is revealing that Arifin represents this unfamiliar ocean as the Asian continent, specifically naming his own home ground as the first location of challenging oneself. Goni, floating on his lonesome paint tube, is a metaphor for Asian society, while the cresting waves represent the rapid fluctuations of its economy and political situation. This turbulent sea often throws up difficulties for its inhabitants struggling to adapt. Yet armed with a strong resolve and the flotation device of a good education, we, like Goni, can paddle steadfastly ahead; shooting through the darkened waves like a vivid multi-coloured streak of lightning.