Earlier this year I spent a day visiting two friends, rising contemporary artists who are also one of the cutest married couples around, at their Yogyakarta-based studio and home. I can’t remember exactly how during the long chats with the husband that we arrived at the topic, but we ended up questioning why the Indonesian art scene seemed so obsessed with artworks carrying social critiques—that it seemed almost unfathomable to place value on an artwork that pinpointed to anything less than the flaws and fractures of our raggedy social fabrics.
He mused that perhaps, beyond ceremony-oriented tribal art we inherited from ancient times, the arts that Indonesians have been mainly exposed to are the ones created to voice disobedience against ruling powers (Dutch colonialist and every administration post-independence). He had a point there. That situation, coupled with the inadequate art curriculum in our education system, just made art a subject less understandable, often undesirable, than science, to most Indonesians. Only those born with it can do art, only those born with gist can get art. For all the laughing at the elite that artists are prone to do, Indonesian artists tend to roam around in an elitist bubble of their own. I’d said it before in this column, and when I repeated it to my artist friend he chuckled and didn’t try to contradict me one bit.
Back to social critiques. True that art has been one of the most powerful soft tools in delivering the missives. Yet these days, when everyone and their cousin’s neighbor’s colleague can instantly post a rant on multiple social media platforms simultaneously, most of the time without being liable to libel charges, how would art retain its power to voice out issues? Would it have to shout louder and loonier, or subtler and sounder?
The artistic minds behind the newly opened Jakarta Biennale 2015 seemed keen to at least bring down the elitist walls to bring art closer to the masses. From the symbolic choices of main venue in a barren warehouse of Indonesia’s first department store that has long lost its luster plus a traditional market and modest neighborhoods for satellite projects, and various outreach programs to schools and communities. Commendable efforts that, at least seen from the crowd at Opening, have managed to attract art hipsters, thirtysomething corporate type on Saturday date, and a handful of socialites in out-of-place Valentino stud stilettos and full makeup that was merrily melting inside the non-AC venue.
Were people there at the Biennale to be illuminated by the beauty of art, to be inspired by the pulsating messages underneath, or to snap an obligatory selfie at the ‘it’ party on the ever-spinning urban social calendar? I’m sure for all three, and there’s nothing too awful with any. It may take at least another generation for our government to properly educating Indonesians on art through the system, so I’ll praise any public efforts to get art more enmeshed into the mainstream lives.
Now, on the art itself, what was offered by the Jakarta Biennale? There were plenty to enjoy for a regular Jane like me. Questions of social inequality stemming from the natural resource exploitations were addressed creatively through installations by Maryanto, Iswadi Basri and Richard Bell (Australia). Yoppy Pieter languidly portrayed a grandma and her cat in a deserted, post-urbanization South Sumatran village. The Youngrrr unapologetically pointed at how New Order manipulated state philosophy Pancasila to mold Indonesians into docile citizens, something that I feel is still continuing in the current administration. Arahmaiani, in a poignant installation and a skit performed mere hours after Paris attacks, condemned systematic violence across generations.
There was a healthy dose of self-journey a, too. Reza Afisina recapitulated personal resources exhausted on dogged determination in riding private instead of public transportation. Bron Zelani cheekily illustrated an indie band trying so hard to find cliché role models while emulating cool at the same time; hilariously ironic considering the roster of indie bands performing at the Biennale’s Opening. The cherry on top, no pun intended, was the powerful installation and performance by Kolatt (Myanmar)– dressed in crimson leotard, employing red platform stripper’s shoes and red apples, smashing red chair on blood red mat no less, to enact his struggles with childhood, religion, and homosexuality.
I was still recovering from a respiratory infection but glad I soldiered on last weekend. I encourage you to check out Jakarta Biennale this weekend, be it in the main venue of Sarinah Department Store Warehouse or satellite sites citywide. Will you find the social message blistering or blasé, or will you get any message at all, not a matter– just go to have fun with art. The set-up is laidback and unintimidating, refreshing for anyone looking for something else than jaded art galleries or chaotic weekend malls. Some exhibitions may need parental guidance but there are some children-friendly installations and programs as well—details which can be obtained through their pretty well-run social media accounts.
Nourish some art into your weary heart, o Jakarta urbanites.