Schemes and the City

A few years ago the Embassy of Japan held a very interesting exhibition of vintage, luxurious kimonos in Plaza Senayan. Displayed grandly in tall, strategically-lit, glass showcases, accompanied with sufficient captions, the kimonos captured the attention of mall visitors across genders, age brackets and levels of affinity towards fashion, history, or Japanese culture.

Some people at that time, including within the diplomatic community, frowned upon what was seen as degradation of a museum-worthy presentation to have been folded out on the slick floor of a, gasp, shopping mall. But I thought the Japs were brilliant. They have a respectable cultural center, and surely could afford to rent out a gallery or a museum, but they knew that not only most of the city museums were outdated, Jakartans also tended to flock to malls. Their smart scheme to attract hordes of visitors worked its charm like cherry blossoms in springtime.

And I guess that’s what art must do to stay prevalent and relevant in cities like Jakarta, where the rising income levels and propagation of urban lifestyles have not given as much boost to proper museums as they have to fancy malls. Art must scheme its way into this messy metropolitan populated by often jaded urbanites. How apt that Jakarta Biennnale committee decided to pick “Siasat” (= scheme, plot) as its main theme this year.

Opened earlier this month in the basement parking of Taman Ismail Marzuki’s newest theatre, Jakarta Biennale will run until month’s end in the city’s many nooks and crannies. Fully-funded by DKI government, 52 artists from 18 countries worked with various communities to create art installations and projects, of multiple mediums, all over Jakarta, depicting how residents often must plot creative ways in navigating the frequently choppy waters of urban living.

Beyond the main venue there are satellite exhibits held in various establishments– Museum Keramik dan Senirupa and Teater Salihara, to name a few—, city murals, park and market performances, children-friendly programs such as cartoon workshop or picnic and, even, the actual building of a futsal court for slum dwellers in one of Jakarta’s least fortunate corners to use as the community’s meeting point even beyond the Biennale. So hats off for these efforts to bring art closer to the Jakartans.

A surprising omission, though, is Jakarta’s ubiquitous malls. Curious, as I remember catchy fashion-related art installations at Senayan City a few years back as a part of Jakarta Biennale then. A missed momentum, as the fashion world has been holding fabulous exhibitions on prominent museums overseas in recent years. Perhaps this year’s committee somehow thinks that Jakarta mall rats have already been exposed to all the art they could handle.

Sadly, that’s not the case. Apart from the usual commercial events, there have been very few noteworthy exhibitions at Jakarta malls. Nods are reserved for the charity Leica exhibit in Plaza Senayan earlier this year and the on-going display in Gandaria City to commemorate 125th anniversary of National Geographic– though it really saddened me to see how inadequately presented the NatGeo pictures were, a far cry from how their much larger collection was recently featured at the museum inside Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s most luxurious mall complex. The irony in this may just warrant its own photo exhibit, and it only underlines the fact that art has to scheme its way into the Jakarta urban jungle.

And some of those schemes are aimed, and actually working, to actually lure Jakartans back into the museums. Thumbs up for the mini shows staged by Indonesia’s most popular theatre company, Teater Koma, using Museum Nasional’s permanent collections that have made many families forgoing weekend retail therapy, toting their kids instead for an art therapy. And since recent exhibitions of historical traditional fabrics in both Museum Nasional and Galeri Nasional were noticeably successful in luring different crowds, I’d say a proper fashion museum exhibition should be in the scheme somewhere.

If you’re keen, further information of the aforementioned, on-going programs can be searched online. Another great exhibition in town that’s unfortunately so under-promoted is the first SEA+ Triennale, where dozens of Southeast Asian artists filled all wings of Galeri Nasional with their engaging, fun, yet thought-provoking creations.

I’m neither collector, nor curator– let alone art critic. But I enjoy art as I, too, must regularly scheme a balancing dose of mental tonic into the humdrum of my urban life. While the road to MOMA or Prado level of presence is still very long, steep and rocky, I salute the initiatives paved by Jakarta artist communities to bring the art scene closer to the city daily life. And one easy way to move these initiatives forward is by us Jakartans to spare some time to swing by the venues to enjoy the works.

Now if only I can scheme a way out of my tight schedule into the newly-opened Jogja Biennale. Hmm…

As published:

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