LOS ANGELES — The Fisher Museum of Art at the University of Southern California has been swallowed by the sea. 

The Indonesian fiber artist Mulyana has taken over the museum with colorful, hand-knitted and crocheted aquatic life. Mulyana: Modular Utopia features two room-sized installations, three-dimensional fiber wall sculptures, colorful costumes, and soft, inviting pillows.

Mulyana crafts a tactile, mystical world in which fish, whales, and coral reefs coexist with sea monsters. A multi-hued green figure made from yarn, “Adikara” (2020), emerges from a bright bed of seaweed and coral. Mulyana, pulling from Indonesian tradition, often creates masks and costumes to explore other dimensions of his personality, usually a heroic, nonhuman creature. A ruffled, yellow costume, “Si Koneng” (2022), sprouts from patches of dull gray coral, contrasting the subdued sea life with its sunny energy.

The duality of life and death is a recurring theme in Mulyana’s deceptively cheerful art. Much of the plush, gray coral that spreads across the walls in “Luna#6” and “Candramawa” (both 2022) represents reefs in slow states of decay. Warming waters associated with climate change and manmade chemical waste dumped into oceans are responsible for the once-vibrant ecosystems’ loss of color. In a video performance, the Si Koneng monster wanders through the dreary, grayscale ruins of Indonesia, searching for signs of life.

The devastation becomes more accentuated in the large-scale installation “Satu” (2018). Beautiful, pure white clusters of tubular and rosette corals surround a 3D-printed whale skeleton. Above, a large cluster of jellyfish study their fallen friend. The monochromatic room harrowingly foreshadows what will happen to our oceans without any intervention.

Mulyana, however, remains optimistic, and embraces life in another installation. “Ocean Wonderland” (2022) contrasts “Satu” with lush forms of corals: purple buttons, pink shoots, green petal-like folds. Thousands of yellow fish swim overhead. A large whale pillow, velvety and inviting, lets visitors rest and take in the peaceful ocean scene.

This room also contains the various hand-sewn pieces that make up “Modular Monster” (2020). People can pick up different pieces of anatomy, like bean-shaped eyes, wavy tentacles, or branch-like horns, and hold them up to a mirror to reflect a strange new creature. Mulyana’s intent is that multiple people will hold up a body part while standing behind one another, waving the piece to make a cohesive creature. 

Ironically, Modular Utopia is on view during a period of historic rain and snowfall in California. The frequent precipitation that chases one inside of the Fisher Museum should keep the effects of climate change at the forefront of any visitor’s mind. But hold tightly onto the optimistic visions. By situating the collaborative “Modular Monster” in the same room as “Ocean Wonderland,” the artist emphasizes the importance of working together to create a harmonious world. The bleached oceans are not the only possibility looming; and perhaps the monsters we create are not bad spirits, but protectors of the ocean, desperately needed conservators of life.

Mulyana, “Candramawa” (2022), yarn, dacron, cable wire, plastic net (courtesy the artist and Sapar Contemporary)
Mulyana, “Adikara” (2020), yarn, dacron, cable wire, plastic net, felt fabric, approx. 92 x 84  x 72 inches (courtesy the artist and Sapar Contemporary)
Mulyana, “Satu” (2018), mixed media; dimensions variable
Mulyana, “Si Koneng” (2020), yarn, dacron, cable wire, plastic net, felt fabric (courtesy the artist and Sapar Contemporary)
Mulyana, “Ocean Wonderland” (2020), yarn, dacron, cable wire, plastic net, metal rod, felt fabric (courtesy the artist and Sapar Contemporary)

Mulyana: Modular Utopia continues at the USC Fisher Museum of Art (823 West Exposition Boulevard, University Park, Los Angeles) through April 13. The exhibition was curated by John Silvis.

Renée Reizman lives in Los Angeles, where she is a research-based interdisciplinary artist and writer who examines cultural aesthetics and their relationship between urbanization, law, and technology....