Art: The Soulfood of Yogyakarta

Bandung, Ubud and Yogyakarta are some of the places in Indonesia where I never failed to feel at home. There is a welcoming sense, a grounding force, a rhythm that make things work in comforting pattern. At the risk of sounding New Age-y, I’d say because these places have a soul I just respond to.

For Yogyakarta, that soul is art. From the classics displayed and performed in the old Javanese palaces to the contemporary arts that breathe fresh air out of countless galleries across the city and into its countryside.

The famed contemporary art fair Artjog turned 10 this year, taking place in the 2-storey, all white, unassuming, old building that is Jogja National Museum (JNM). The month-long Artjog is also the centerpiece of a much larger Jogja ArtWeeks 2017, where art galleries competing to put best collection out. And just like the Artjog I saw and wrote here a few years ago, the hordes of critics, curators, collectors, gallerists and art aficionados flocked to Yogyakarta this time around.

The perennial clash between development and nature was the running theme I immediately picked up from the installations curated for Artjog. Since ‘tree-hugging artists’ is a long-running cliché, with pleasure I report that what I saw were far from cliché.

I loved how Hestu A. Nugroho, a.k.a. Setu Legi, created a roomful of site-specific installation to depict the hypocrisy of pledges to preserve environment often touted by Government-backed developments. The most memorable side of the murals smartly illustrated traffic-jammed flyovers circling into an eco-park next to public space traded off for dubious “green investment” projects, while the king sitting majestically nearby and saying none. Cheeky, brave—considering the Sultan of Yogyakarta also holds executive power over the province–, and pointed. Looking at the statistics of hotel development in the province, the mighty Sultan would better heed this particular note.

Aliansyah Caniago turned wood from a pencil factory’s waste by a lake in West Java into a gritty wall installation. The preppy pink and green finishes he chose almost blurred the toll borne by the local ecosystem, until you inched closer to observe the texture.

Bamboos hard-pressed by gleaming steels were perhaps the least subtle metaphor, yet I liked how the bamboos were intermingled like the convoluted human minds constantly wrangling each other—losing the ‘ultimate battle’ against the machines due to inner-fighting– so kudos to Joko Dwi Avianto for that encapsulation.

Can’t humans progress without pushing nature to digress? A project initiated by Angki Purbandono, in collaboration with actor Nicholas Saputra, managed to cast a light on the villagers of North Sumatra’s Tangkahan, living on the outskirts of a national park no less, gradually shifting from illegal loggers to elephant caretakers in a community-run eco-park. The villagers feel no more need to commit illegal logging to earn a living, while the elephants don’t feel the urge to stomp over the village to defend their turf. The win-win solution does sound almost utopic, until you watch the multimedia to see the struggling process and the feasibility of such approach to be replicated elsewhere. I immediately thought of West Papua’s Kaimana I wrote about in last column, where its almost unadulterated beauty and mostly impoverished population might benefit from this model in the coming years when tourists started descending upon their land.

Another side of development affecting nature is, naturally, on human resources. Communication technology in the last decade has leapt considerably, decreasing distance among people and supplying stage for ego. Thanks to social media, everyone can be a celebrity these days and holding on to it for more than 15 minutes, while status is a currency hotter than Bitcoin. Agus Suwage’s “Anatomy of Desire” and Farhan Siki’s “Unquenchable Sense of Deficiency” beautifully dissected the social phenomenon, yet it was Oky Rey Montha’s installation of shameless toilet selfie that just cracked me up. I personally know people who’s not above taking bathroom selfie, without the slightest inkling towards the too-much-information notion or the consideration that other people might just be bored off by their visage already. If only I could replicate that installation and sent it around. Sigh.

Suppose you’re touring Yogyakarta, I keenly suggest gallery-hopping. Sangkring Art Place in Bantul boasts some of the sharpest social messages like Hari Budiono’s slap over the country’s current racism undertone, Gusmen Heriadi’s imagined human perceptions, and Hono Sun’s sarcastic illustration of public discussion done in friendly manner. Not to be outdone by them is Erizal As’ bold strokes titled “Identity Politics”, part of the Bakaba6 exhibition by Sakato Art Community in Jogja Gallery near the Palace, that showed how power legitimized any kind of façade one could adopt to grab or retain it. If you’re lucky enough to have more than a weekend like I did a couple of weeks ago, there are more great galleries you can visit. Even as you roam around the small walkways, or have a cocktail by some royal-mansion-turned-hotel, you’re bound to catch a valuable artwork or two, even in the form of a street graffiti.

Yogyakarta is nothing without its hearty food like gudeg, many tourism websites would say. But to be more precise, Yogyakarta would be nothing without art that’s so ingrained in their home-born artists and gluing their highly-connected communities, the soulfood that nourishes you long after the gudeg has been digested. For that, Yogyakarta, I always heart ya.

As published:

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