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Flying High: Six Indonesian Artists

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Melati Suryodarmo, "Exergie-butter dance", performed at VideoBrasil, Sao Paolo, Brasil, 2005
Entang Wiharso, Temple of Hope : Forest of Eyes, 2011, image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

On March 18, 2013 the BBC reported that the European-owned plane maker Airbus had won a record order for 234 planes worth EUR 18.4 billion from the Indonesian air company Lion Air. The order trumps last year’s record order of 230 Boeing planes—also from Lion Air. This fact confirms the current state of Indonesia, a country that is definitely “flying high”. Considering the reality in which we live, a reality that is ever more porous, where every facet—culture and finance above all—is intertwined and deeply connected to each other, the fact that the art scene in Indonesia is also flying higher than ever comes as no surprise. Before presenting the practice of a selected group of artists working in Indonesia, a brief analysis of the scene and its recent emancipation might be required.

In May 1998, the Indonesian dictator General Mohammed Suharto was forced out of power when his cabinet and the other generals—faced with escalating mass protests—abandoned him. A second upsurge of protest, drawing in even larger layers of the population in November 1998, forced Suharto’s successor as Indonesian president, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, to call elections. Around the same time—between 1997 and 1999— the curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru organized the traveling exhibition “Cities on the Move”. The exhibition—focused on the new model of metropolis developed in Asia—included among the others Arahmaiani Feisal—whose work we will discuss later—Heri Dono and the Dutch-Indonesian Fiona Tan.

While Heri Dono is still active and can be considered the pioneer of the scene, in the following decade, the 2000s, the situation evolved and ‘traces’ of Indonesia started to appear in the work of international artists: from Damien Hirst’s series of paintings developed while staying in Bali to Luigi Ontani’s use of the local Balinese craftsmanship for his masks, Indonesian culture—one of the most rich and multi-layered in the world—has become more and more present in the contemporary art field and people started to refer to Indonesia not only as a tourist spot but mainly as a place for cultural production.[1] 

Entang Wiharso, Eating Identity, 2008, photo by Charles Quigg
Entang Wiharso, Expanded Dreams # 4, 2011, image courtesy of Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, Switzerland & the Artist, photo by Berndt Borchardt
Left: Entang Wiharso, Eating Identity, 2008, photo by Charles Quigg. Right: Entang Wiharso, Expanded Dreams # 4, 2011, image courtesy of Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation, Switzerland & the Artist, photo by Berndt Borchardt.

A pivotal figure in this regard is the American artist Ashley Bickerton who—after his breakthrough in the 1980s New York art scene as part of the Neo-Geo group, together with Jeff Koons and Peter Halley—moved to Bali and started to make disturbing works that took his interest in the legacy of painting to the next level, merging it with an ironic and rather direct critique of the way Westerners look at tourism and exoticism in South East Asia.[2]

While this was happening a group of Indonesian artists started to realize that their work needed to circulate outside the country, they started to understand the need for showing abroad and having connections with a broader community. If this seems pretty obvious for any scene coming from the so-called periphery—if this word still makes any sense—and we can see it in the development of the art scenes in Poland, Mexico, Romania and Israel, for Indonesia things were very different. The incredibly fast pace of the economy in the country generated a very unique situation: a group of businessmen, mostly Chinese Indonesians, who are also avid collectors of contemporary art, gave financial stability to many artists who therefore needed time to realize they had to step out of their comfort zone and face the international arena. 

This process took a longer time also due to the lack of infrastructure, or rather the presence of another kind of (infra-) structure, where the artist leads his own market—here to be understood not strictly financially—in tandem with the collector and often with the auction house, leaving gallery owners, curators and art critics marginalized.

At the same time the porosity of our reality, a quality that is even more visible in the field of visual art, allowed artists to move forward through grassroots action and self-organization, although some examples, like Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta, still remain quite provincial in their way of dealing with the art system, not understanding that the borders between what is institutional and what is commercial, between the underground and the establishment are continually being negotiated and redefined. In this scenario, examples like the 2013 Indonesian Pavilion at Art Stage Singapore and the Indonesian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale[3] become relevant moments of explorations and understanding of the emerging art scene in the country.

Entang Wiharso, Feast Table, 2010, photo by StudionoMADEN, Yogyakarta.
Entang Wiharso, Feast Table, 2010, photo by StudionoMADEN, Yogyakarta.

A participant of both the aforementioned projects, Entang Wiharso (Tegal, Central Java, Indonesia, 1967) is definitely the leader of the newly emancipated scene in Indonesia. Working with different media, his work consists of sculptures, installations, paintings, videos, and performances. They employ a strong visual language to create a link between elements of the Javanese culture—such us the puppet tradition—and biographical elements, as in the light box The Family Portrait (2012), which can be considered the manifesto of what he calls “the Indonesian Diaspora”.[4] In his work the figure of the artist, Wiharso himself in many ways, is presented as an outcast. This relationship to the world and its related state of mind is symbolically presented by the artist through the quasi-mythological figure of the “black goat”, which is a recurring element of his practice. At the same time, confirming the necessity of being active “in the field” and not only in the studio, Wiharso—who is based between Yogyakarta (Jogja) and Rhode Island—has been able to pair his art practice with interesting side projects like the 2003 Jogja Biennale, whose structure he reshaped with Christine Cocca, as well as Antena Projects, a project-based initiative he runs, again with Cocca. 

Also included in both the pavilions in Singapore and Venice, is the work of Sri Astari (Jakarta, 1953). An important figure of the Indonesian art scene, Astari is the embodiment of many complexes and fragile contradictions: from being a woman artist in the biggest Muslim country on the earth to her desire to link her Javanese roots—which she shares with Wiharso—to the recent developments in Indonesian consumer society. Perfectly illustrating this “state in between” are the installations she presented at the 2010 and 2012 editions of Art Jog in Yogyakarta. The Peace Keeper (2010)[5] is a fabric sculpture consisting of a woman’s purse whose outside surface is pink-instead-of-army-green camouflage and inside surface is a pattern featuring Rupiah’s bills—a sign of the money-oriented attitude of the Indonesian army. Guarding the purse is a small figurine, whose features are reminiscent of Punakawan, the ironical and critical servant character of the Javanese theater.[6] In Skeleton Woman and the Dragon (2012), a skeleton dressed in traditional female Javanese clothes—through which you can see a light-flashing plastic heart—looks at the audience with frightening eyeballs while guarding her ‘pet’: a life-size cherry-red plastic reproduction of a Komodo dragon. In many ways, Sri Astari is the quintessential representation of the female dandy—an oxymoron in itself, even more so, if we consider the Indonesian context.

Sri Astari Rasjid, Wild Womn and The Beast, 2012
Sri Astari Rasjid, Wild Womn and The Beast, 2012

Balancing the studio practice with a more systematic and structurally engaged attitude is Fendry Ekel (Jakarta, 1971). Born to Indonesian parents and raised in the Netherlands, which colonized the country for 350 years, he studied under Michelangelo Pistoletto, Narcisse Tordoir and Luc Tuymans who inspired and influenced his approach to painting, an approach Ekel always pairs with a mix of different cultural and historical references he consequently twists: from Franz Kafka under the Empire State Building[7] to Walter Gropius dressed like a military figure, from Leon Trotsky with the hairstyle of the already appropriated[8] poster of Bob Dylan designed by Milton Glaser, to Mata Hari, the legendary Dutch exotic dancer—born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle—who was accused of being a double spy and eventually executed by a firing squad in France under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I. A real “painter painter”, Ekel is also the co-founder of OFCA – Office for Contemporary Art International, which originally started in Amsterdam. Now based in Yogyakarta and co-directed with Astrid Honold, this artist initiative continues its unique activity, creating dialogues among fellow artists, sharing knowledge, organizing lectures and producing exhibitions and books in collaboration with curators, galleries and museums.

Jumaldi Alfi, Blackboard Series ‘fake’, 2010
Jumaldi Alfi, Blackboard Series ‘fake’, 2010

A member of OFCA and a real “painter painter” is also Jumaldi Alfi (Lintau, West Sumatra, 1973), whose level of leadership within the Indonesian art community is similar to that of Wiharso although in the case of Alfi, leadership is always delivered through collective and collegial efforts rather than through individuality and isolation. In fact, prior to OFCA, Alfi was a member of Jendela Art Group together with Rudi Mantofani, Yusra Martunus, Yunizar and Handiwirman Saputra. The group can be seen as one of the most interesting models of semi-collectivity in Asia and can be easily compared to Ładnie Group in Poland, hobbypopMUSEUM in Germany and Rafani in Czech Republic.[9] Among the most celebrated artists in Indonesia, Alfi’s best-known body of work is the “Blackboard Series” a group of large-scale Trompe-l’œil canvases which “repudiate the superiority of Western thoughts and norms and present an alternative, edited visual thesis” and “reflect often futile efforts by Indonesian artists to come to terms with expectations about contemporary art practices that please specific aesthetic or thematic preferences”.[10]

Fendry Ekel, Portrait of An Indonesian Gentleman, 2012
Fendry Ekel, Portrait of An Indonesian Gentleman, 2012

Like Ekel, the practice of Melati Suryodarmo (Surakarta, 1969) came into shape through the dialogue between the East and the West. Based in Gross Gleidingen, Germany, and Surakarta (Solo), Indonesia, the artist studied with Marina Abramović in Braunschweig and, aligned with the durational and body-based actions of her teacher, she became one of the most interesting art performers of her generation. Always based on the artist’s physical strength, her pieces use the gallery’s architectural elements questioning the pristine and aseptic state of the so-called white cube with theatrical and sometimes dangerous performances: from her one hour performance at Art Stage’s Indonesian Pavilion, where she used clothing to investigate concepts of migration, identity and behavior, to her performance at the National Gallery in Jakarta where she blocked the door connecting two rooms of the museum with a brick wall which she then destroyed by walking through it. For Exergie - butter dance (2000), her infamous[11] performance at Lilith Performance Studio in Malmö, Sweden, she wore a tiny and tight black dress and high heels, dancing on a block of butter, to the rhythm of music from Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and falling on the floor several times.

Melati Suryodarmo, I Love You, performed for EBent Festival, Barcelona, 2007, photo courtesy of the artist
Melati Suryodarmo, I Love You, performed for EBent Festival, Barcelona, 2007, photo courtesy of the artist
Melati Suryodarmo, I Love You, performed for EBent Festival, Barcelona, 2007, photo courtesy of the artist
Melati Suryodarmo, Exergie-butter dance, performed at VideoBrasil, Sao Paolo, Brazil 2005
Melati Suryodarmo, Exergie-butter dance, performed at VideoBrasil, Sao Paolo, Brazil 2005
Arahmaiani Feisal, Flag Project, Shenzhen performance 2008 (left) and Yogyakarta 2009 (right)
Arahmaiani Feisal, Flag Project, Shenzhen performance 2008 (left) and Yogyakarta 2009 (right)
Left: Arahmaiani Feisal, Flag Project, Shenzhen performance 2008. Right: Yogyakarta 2009

Also performative, although not exclusively so, and definitely politically and socially engaged, the life and work of Arahmaiani (Bandung, 1961) questions the very core of the “Indonesian identity”, a dynamic notion that can hardly fit the monolithic standards of the West. For instance her untiring movements across the globe—from Australia to Tibet, from Europe to the United States—and related projects can be considered as a macro projection of the movements within Indonesia itself, an archipelago of 18,307 islands and one of the most populated countries in the world.[12] Furthermore her personal story—her father is an Islamic scholar and her mother is a Javanese of Hindu-Buddhist extraction—mirrors the variety of cultures, races and religions cohabiting within the same nation. Perfectly summarizing her “attitude” are two projects recently presented in Yogyakarta and Singapore. Stitching the Wound (2011), her participation in the 2012 Jogja Biennale consisted of an installation where Arabic signs were transformed into large sculptures made of stuffed fabric that the artist consequently displayed on the floor as well as suspended in space. At first sight feminine, the work can be considered as a sort of catharsis from her paternal roots. On the other hand Memory of Nature (2013), her performance and installation at Art Stage Singapore, which was destroyed on the last day of the fair, was focused on environmentalism, and included among other things a panel discussion with a llama, an environmental activist and an earth scientist.

 

Nicola Trezzi is an editor, critic and exhibition organizer based in New York. He is currently working on an essay comparing the practice of Indonesian collector Melani Setiawan to that of other collectors based elsewhere.
[1] While Bali will always remain a tourist destination, the three cities that are competing, but also complementing each other, for the leadership are: Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bandung. Jakarta is the place where most of the galleries are located as well as the National Gallery; it’s the place where the business of art happens. Yogyakarta is considered the city of the artists; because the art school is there—the Institut Seni Indonesia Yogyakarta/ISI [Indonesian Institute of the Arts Yogyakarta]—follows the fine art academy model with courses on painting and drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. Most of the artists there are studio-based artists, very “hands on”. Finally Bandung is where most of the conceptual, post-studio artists are based; this approach is mainly related to the school there, the Institut Teknologi Bandung/ITB [Bandung Institute of Technology]. 
[2] In order to deeply understand Ashley Bickerton’s practice beyond stereotypes and clichés see Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay, included in the artist’s monograph published by Other Criteria in 2011.
[3] “In Sanskrit, sakti refers to the primordial cosmic energy and the personification of divine, feminine creative energy, as well as indicating change and liberation. Of Hindu origin, in Indonesia the concept of sakti was quickly integrated into local cosmology, becoming associated with such mythical figures as the rice goddess Dewi Sri and the South Sea Queen, and with certain objects like the keris (dagger). Given Indonesia’s 700 living languages, the idea of sakti can be denoted by other words, but the meaning is almost always the same: a strong creative energy, divine and indestructible, that contains the capacity for achievement beyond mere human ability. As energy, it can be understood as a foundational creative principle. At the 2013 Venice Biennale,“Sakti” is the theme of the Indonesian Pavilion.” Carla Bianpoen, “Indonesia Will Step Onto the Art World Stage at This Year’s Venice Biennale”, in Blouin Artinfo.com Asian Editon (January-February 2013): 49. 
[4] “The term “Indonesia Diaspora” is still a foreign concept for Indonesians and still a new idea and I think this is because of our colonial history. The feeling of resistance towards something foreign still exists. The landscape of regulations and laws that were adopted during colonial rule, which were created to protect wealth and their interests also still exist. That condition, which is my condition, has led to a lot of questions about the Indonesian Diaspora, especially since I have two children.” Entang Wiharso in conversation with the author.
[5] The word “peacekeeper” is widely present in the Indonesian context, especially if we think of the Garuda Contingent—or Kontingen Garuda, often abbreviated to “Konga”—a group of peacekeepers drawn from the Indonesian military that serve with the United Nations. Since its first mission in 1956, it has deployed to three continents. Underlining the strong presence of this word is another work this time by Alfi Jumaldi entitled Peaceful Seeker #01(2012).
[6] The same character can be found in many of Heri Dono’s paintings.
[7] This association is probably based on Kafka’s Amerika the incomplete novel published posthumously in 1927. Apparently the novel incorporates details of the experiences of Kafka’s relatives who went to America, although he never visited the country.
[8] “Depicting Dylan with kaleidoscopic hair, the Glaser poster has been described as “psychedelic” and is often associated with rock posters produced in San Francisco at the same time. But Glaser, who had studied in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship in the early 1950s, is a formalist with a broad awareness of artists and art movements, and he took his inspiration for the Dylan profile from a 1957 self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp. Though Glaser used a similar composition, the transformation of Dylan’s curly mane into a tangled rainbow was his own invention.” Owen Edwards “Sign of the Times: Bob Dylan – Milton Glaser’s 1966 poster of a folk-rock icon captured the psychedelic dazzle of the flower-power era” Smithsonian magazine (June 2010): http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Sign-of-the-Times-Bob-Dylan.html (last access March 19 2013.)
 [9] The members of the Ładnie (“pretty” in Polish) Group are: Rafał Bujnowski, Marek Firek, Józef Tomczyk Kurosawa, Marcin Maciejowski, and Wilhelm Sasnal; the members of hobbypopMUSEUM are Sophie von Hellermann, Christian Jendreiko, Matthias Lahme, Dietmar Lutz, Andre Niebur, Marie-Celine Schafer; the members of Rafani (“wild dog” or “biting dog” in Czech) are Luděk Rathouský, Radim Kořínek, Petr Motejzík, Marek Meduna, Jiří Franta, Petra Čiklová, Ondřej Brody, Viktor Frešo, Václav Magid, David Kořínek, Marek Matějka and Zuzana Blochová; like Jendela, all the members of these groups have their separate practices. 
[10] Christine Cocca, “The Sultans of Indonesian Art: Taking Stock of Seven Contemporary Trailblazers”, Flash Art International (January-February 2012): 109.
 [11] See: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/butter-dance-woman-is-it-art (Accessed March 19, 2013.)
[12] With a population of 135 million, Java is the world’s most populous island, and one of the most densely populated places on the globe. It’s the home of 60 percent of the Indonesian population.