Suicide: The Meaning of Death and Life

Art for Thought

CW: discussions of suicide

‘Art For Thought’ is a fortnightly column by Janice Peh – she encourages readers to discuss what is happening in the world today, by meditating on a different artwork every fortnight.


Look at my Body and my Life is a painting that contemplates the vulnerability and temporality of life, as well as notions of spirituality. The artist, Ivan Sagita, prompts us to meditate on the philosophy of human existentialism, the definition of death and the meaning of life.

It is painted in the style of ‘Jogja surrealism’, an art movement that began in Jogjakarta in Indonesia. This painting differs from Western surrealism art in that the sociocultural environment in Jogjakarta is as surreal as the artwork. The environment is made so by the locals who simultaneously embrace modern innovation, while also adhering to mysticism and giving credence to traditional folk mythologies. This surrealistic environment of modern mysticism in Jogjakarta informs Sagita’s use of realistic painting techniques to create unrealistic images, thus depicting the integration of modernity with tradition.

This painting is inspired by a traditional and popular mythology in Indonesia known as ‘Pulung Gantung’. The myth originated in Gunungkidul, a region in Jogjakarta infamous for its high suicidal rate. Pulung Gantung is alleged to be an enigmatic red glow that resembles a comet. When this red comet plummets over a home, it is a sign that a resident of the house will commit suicide, typically by hanging. Sagita conveys the pertinence of the hangings through the image of a man hanging upside down on the left side of the painting and an elderly lady’s significantly long hair being pulled up tight and hanging in the air in the middle of this painting, as her severed head rests on the ground beside her knees.

Bianca Winata is doing a bachelor of art history at ANU. She is in her honours year and her research interest is in the contemporary arts of Indonesia. A native Indonesian from Jakarta, she says:
‘I think the myth of Pulung Gantung is, to some extent, addressed in this work. The display of the inner and outer world in the artwork reveals a dialogue between the Javanese mythical beliefs and everyday reality.

‘Often, these suicides are linked to mythical beliefs and a form of symbolic sacrifice. The people in Jogja have strong family ties, so when such ties cause problems, they might resort to suicide as a symbolic way to communicate their problems, as influenced by their Javanese belief system.

‘Gunungkidul, where most of the suicide takes place, has often been said to have some kind of magical power. Perhaps the myth does play a role in the high suicide of this region considering its strong Javanese beliefs and culture.’

Gunungkidul has a population of 750,000, and the majority of these people are elderly. In 2011, the suicide rate in Gunungkidul was nine in every 100,000 persons. In Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, it was much lower, at 1.2 in every 100,000 persons. Apart from the mythology of Pulung Gantung, it has been widely cited that the high rate of suicide in Gunungkidul is due to poverty, loneliness and poor health. Gunungkidul Police’s spokesperson First Inspector Ngadino said: ‘The largest number of suicides is by hanging. We have also been conducting regular preaching activities to provide people with religious insights to help boost their mental welfare.’ The police and neighbourhood community leaders have also been collating information on the elderly, so as to identify those who are at risk of suicide attempts.

Mrs Hj. Badingah, former regent of Gunungkidul, said: ‘Many elderly people [in the regency] have seen their children leave for big cities to get better jobs and easily get lonely.’ Because vast areas in Gunungkidul are infertile lands, most youths and young adults opt to migrate to larger cities, in hopes of a better life.

Chng Ren Ying, who is undertaking a master of clinical psychology at ANU and has previously worked in the social service sector in Singapore, specialising in the welfare and protection of teenagers, said: ‘I think this artwork convey a sense of gloominess and desperation. It seems like the man and woman are helplessly looking at each other as they kill themselves. They appear expressionless, which could be a symptom of depression.’

Sagita has a tendency to portray the unpredictability of life in his paintings with a particular emphasis on those who are vulnerable, impoverished and oppressed in society like the traditional Javanese in Jogyakarta. He says, ‘They struggle to survive, but accept whatever happens to them. To me, life always goes differently than we expect to … everybody is controlled by an invisible power.’

My perspective on Pulung Gantung is that suicides are not ‘natural’ occurrences that are beyond human control. Rather, there should be stronger and intentional education on mental illnesses, suicide warning signs and avenues for help. It has been said that the high suicide rate in Gunungkidul is likely caused by people’s difficult economic situations and the sense of loneliness that individuals feel as more people increasingly leave this region for larger cities. The widespread belief, however, that suicide can be divinely predicted could be exacerbating the problem, giving people the assurance that suicides are uncontrollable and divinely decided.

Rather than justifying a self-fulfilling prophecy, we can help one another by ensuring that everyone is connected to strong networks of support in communities, engaging in pursuits that are personally meaningful, equipping oneself with the emotional capacity to handle life’s challenges and seeking help when we need it.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.