Rid­ing the tiger

In­done­sia’s po­lit­i­cally minded younger artists are see­ing price tags for their work soar. Michael Vatiki­o­tis asks when the bub­ble will burst

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

JOG­JAKARTA is a city of artists. On ev­ery cor­ner of Cen­tral Java’s an­cient royal city there is an as­pir­ing painter with good rea­sons to be hope­ful. A hand­ful of painters have sold their work at auc­tion for tens and even hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars. Used to Be­ing Stripped, a paint­ing by Ny­oman Mas­ri­adi, a na­tive of Bali who lives in the city, fetched $ US538,000 at a Christie’s auc­tion in Hong Kong in May last year.

‘‘ It used to be that par­ents cried when their chil­dren said they wanted to be artists; well, not any more,’’ says Agus Suwage, a lo­cal artist whose works have been shown in­ter­na­tion­ally and now com­mand hun­dred-thou­sand-dol­lar prices at auc­tion.

Jog­jakarta’s art boom is part of an Asia-wide trend that has seen the value of con­tem­po­rary art from coun­tries like In­dia, China, Viet­nam and The Philip­pines as well as In­done­sia soar to phe­nom­e­nal heights on the back of fears about inflation and the se­cu­rity of more liq­uid as­sets. Last May, the ham­mer went down on a paint­ing by the pop­u­lar Chi­nese artist Zheng Fanzhi for $ US9.7 mil­lion at a Christie’s auc­tion in Hong Kong. The global fi­nan­cial cri­sis has hit the Chi­nese art boom, but dealers in South­east Asia say that so far prices for In­done­sian art have held up well be­cause art re­mains a refuge for in­vestors flee­ing stocks.

Jogja is a sprawl­ing medium-sized In­done­sian city of three mil­lion peo­ple steeped in the tra­di­tion of Ja­vanese king­ship. Sul­tan Ha­mengkubu­wono X rules the city and its im­me­di­ate area in one of the more bizarre au­ton­omy ar­range­ments: a feu­dal king holds sway over a tiny part of a mod­ern repub­lic. Yet this exquisitely pre­served-in-as­pic city pro­duces some of the more avant-garde mod­ern artists of South­east Asia along­side its lively and long­stand­ing ar­ti­san com­mu­nity.

Ten years ago, Jogja vis­i­tors were led down nar­row al­ley­ways to view stacks of un­spec­tac­u­lar batik paint­ings gath­er­ing dust in dis­or­derly gar­rets hug­ging the white­washed palace walls. The mo­tifs veered wildly from the earthy tra­di­tional to lurid pop. Se­ri­ous paint­ing was some­thing young peo­ple went to Bali to pur­sue. To­day, Ba­li­nese artists flock to Jogja.

The boom came sud­denly. Early in­ter­est in con­tem­po­rary In­done­sian art dates back to the go-go cap­i­tal­ism of the early 1990s. In­done­sia’s new class of wealthy pri­vate en­trepreneurs had cash to spend. Gal­leries in Jakarta did brisk busi­ness; the art was mostly rel­a­tively con­ser­va­tive ex­pres­sion­ists draw­ing on tra­di­tional themes: dec­o­ra­tive liv­ing room art, not the stuff of for­tunes.

The lo­cal art mar­ket col­lapsed with the 1997 Asian eco­nomic cri­sis. So did the po­lit­i­cal or­der. The seeds of to­day’s art boom were sown in the po­lit­i­cal chaos that ac­com­pa­nied the fall of In­done­sia’s strong­man Suharto in May 1998. Tastes in art changed al­most overnight. A fond­ness for dec­o­ra­tion and cu­rios was re­placed by gritty, hard-edged, so­cially en­gaged art. The move­ment re­flected the pro­found changes in so­ci­ety un­leashed by re­for­masi , In­done­sia’s tran­si­tion to democ­racy. ‘‘ Re­for­masi gave In­done­sians ac­cess to in­tel­lec­tual think­ing,’’ Farah War­dani, a Jogja-based cu­ra­tor, told me.

Jogja’s artists were al­ready so­cially en­gaged but no one took them se­ri­ously enough to buy their work, which was al­ready con­sid­ered risky be­fore Suharto fell.

Cemeti Art House, es­tab­lished in 1998 by Dutch artist Mella Jaarsma and her Ja­vanese hus­band and col­lab­o­ra­tor Nin­di­tyo Adipurnomo, played a crit­i­cal role in fos­ter­ing th­ese po­lit­i­cally en­gaged artists. No longer for tourists, their art drew in­spi­ra­tion from the an­gry graf­fiti scrawled on city walls, was trans­ferred to gritty comic books, cir­cu­lated in crudely sta­pled pho­to­copied edi­tions of a thou­sand or so, and fi­nally ended up on the can­vases of stu­dents at Jogja’s pres­ti­gious In­done­sian In­sti­tute of Art ( ISI).

Popok Tri­wahyudi still looks like the street artist he once was. His first solo ex­hi­bi­tion, Shut Up, was held at Cemeti in 1997. His car­toon-like fig­ures de­pict grim and un­re­lent­ing re­pres­sion.

When I met Popok he was at work in his stu­dio on a car­toon se­ries on in­ter­cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ing, de­vel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a Ger­man art house. Be­fore he sold his first paint­ing in the boom mar­ket, he rented a sin­gle room; to­day he has taken over the premises and in­stalled a heavy press so he can roll off graphic prints.

A lit­tle fur­ther out of the city, near the old Dutch su­gar fac­tory, Eko Nu­groho’s mod­est lit­tle home in the mid­dle of a farm­ing vil­lage is hardly ev­i­dence of his re­mark­able suc­cess. Like Popok, Eko stud­ied at ISI in the late ’ 90s. His fa­ther was a news­pa­per de­liv­ery man for Jogja’s daily Kedaula­tan Rakyat . Eko’s first draw­ings were pub­lished as car­toons in the pa­per.

At 31, Eko’s style is dis­tinc­tive. Like Popok, he draws in­spi­ra­tion from car­toons. His char­ac­ters, usu­ally etched in black on coloured back­drops, are dis­em­bod­ied crea­tures, part ma­chine, part an­i­mal, rarely un­am­bigu­ously hu­man. By the beginning of 2008, quite mod­est-sized Eko can­vases were sell­ing for more than $ US30,000.

‘‘ It’s scary,’’ says Farah. Odeck Ari­awan, a Ba­li­nese art col­lec­tor, is also spooked by the boom. ‘‘ I have no way of telling whether what I am buy­ing is go­ing to be worth any­thing in the fu­ture,’’ he says. Farah’s frus­tra­tion as a cu­ra­tor and Odeck’s cau­tion as a buyer are driven by In­done­sia’s paucity of es­tab­lished art crit­i­cism. ‘‘ It used to take an artist 20 years to reach an es­tab­lished level,’’ Farah says. ‘‘ To­day you have young artists sell­ing their thou­sands of dol­lars.’’

Even artists are dis­com­fited. Putu Sutaw­i­jaya was one of the first young artists to see his work fetch phe­nom­e­nal prices. In April last year one of his paint­ings sold at an auc­tion in Sin­ga­pore for 15 times its ex­pected price. Looking for Wings was bid up from a re­serve price of $ S8000 to reach $ S120,000. Putu re­sponded to his sud­den wealth by rolling up his paint­ings and hid­ing them. ‘‘ I was wor­ried. I felt all this pres­sure to sell for the same high price, but what if my work is no good? . . . Be­fore, I dreamed of be­ing a well­known artist. Now I’m afraid of dis­ap­point­ment and fail­ure.’’

Valen­tine Wil­lie, a Malaysian art dealer whose auc­tions in Sin­ga­pore helped spark the boom, echoes th­ese con­cerns. ‘‘ When th­ese artists were un­known they could ex­per­i­ment. They were free to make mis­takes. Now they can’t af­ford to dis­ap­point their buy­ers.’’

The art is los­ing its po­lit­i­cal edge, too. Popok’s so­cial tableaus seem more op­ti­mistic; Eko’s fan­tas­tic au­toma­tons are be­com­ing less men­ac­ing and cud­dlier, set against warm pas­tel shades. Agus Suwage’s early work was in­tended to shock, like his in­spir­ing in­stal­la­tion The Fi­nal Jour­ney which fea­tured pigs’ skulls on roller skates. To­day his themes seem al­most sen­sual: a foot-suck­ing self-por­trait in pink. The art is also grow­ing in size. Col­lec­tors like to buy big and the painters are oblig­ing, with Mas­ri­adi’s, Agus Suwage’s and Putu’s can­vases of­ten more than 4sq m.

Flip­ping through Dag­ing Tum­buh, a bian­nual art jour­nal Eko founded to of­fer strug­gling young artists a place to show­case their work free, brings home an­other stark re­al­ity of the art boom: in a coun­try re­garded by most out­siders as slid­ing in­ex­orably to­wards Is­lamic con­ser­va­tive rule, the young artists of Jogja are mov­ing in the other di­rec­tion. Their art chal­lenges one’s knowl­edge of Ja­panese and West­ern pop cul­ture more than the finer points of Mus­lim cul­ture; it is more Ul­tra­man than Mo­hammed.

Then there are those artists on the way up. I ar­rive at Ste­fan Buana’s mod­est home on the out­skirts of the city. Can­vases lit­ter ev­ery room and an as­sis­tant is busy stretch­ing fresh can­vas on wooden frames. Ste­fan has a show in a month and is fever­ishly fin­ish­ing a new col­lec­tion of paint­ings. The West Su­ma­tra-born painter has spent a long time toil­ing for suc­cess. Now his



for paint­ings fetch enough to pay for his col­lec­tion of an­tique Har­ley-David­son mo­tor­cy­cles.

Pol­i­tics is an en­dur­ing theme for artists like Ste­fan, whose stu­dio is lit­tered with the broadly smil­ing vis­age of for­mer In­done­sian pres­i­dent Ab­dur­rah­man Wahid. Ste­fan beats old fry­ing woks into the for­mer pres­i­dent’s round faced im­age be­cause, as he puts it, ‘‘ Gus Dur be­lieved in equal­ity and wel­fare for all.’’

For­mer pres­i­dent Suharto is an­other sur­pris­ing theme. Putu Sutaw­i­jaya is plan­ning a se­ries on the dic­ta­tor, who died in Fe­bru­ary last year. Ste­fan Buana has cre­ated a 2m high sten­cilled im­age of Suharto by punch­ing through a 2.5cmthick iron sheet with a blow­torch.

There is more, much more to see in Jogja; daily ex­hi­bi­tions and per­for­mances are an­nounced on no­tice boards at Cemeti or Kedai Ke­bun, where Agung Kur­ni­awan has his space. All this ac­tiv­ity has gen­er­ated a need for man­age­ment. Most of the artists are ei­ther too young or too over­whelmed by rapid suc­cess to fig­ure out the com­plex­i­ties of com­mis­sions and han­dling their col­lec­tors or dealers.

Help is on the way. In a back room of a spa­cious house in the south of the city, sev­eral young boys are at­tach­ing brightly coloured lace bro­cade to small fi­bre­glass repli­cas of Michelan­gelo’s David . It is la­bo­ri­ous work and for Ti­tarubi, the Bandung-born artist who calls her show Sur­round­ing David, it ap­pears to rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant state­ment on man­hood. When not wrap­ping David in coloured fab­ric, Ti­tarubi — who is mar­ried to Agus Suwage — is set­ting up iCan, Jogja’s first arts man­age­ment com­pany.

The real test of this art will be how many of th­ese artists are hang­ing in na­tional gal­leries and mu­se­ums in a few years. The dealers and col­lec­tors I meet sug­gest that only a hand­ful, no more than five of the 50 or so now en­joy­ing suc­cess at auc­tion or through gallery sales, stand out as artists of last­ing value.

Jog­jakarta may be a city of 10,000 artists, but five is not a legacy in a coun­try of more than 230 mil­lion peo­ple. Ex­tracted from Grif­fith Re­view 23: Es­sen­tially Creative ( ABC Books), out on Fe­bru­ary 20. www. grif­fithre­view. com Michael Vatiki­o­tis is cu­rat­ing Ste­fan Buana’s solo show in Sin­ga­pore next month.

Car­toon-like fig­ures: Popok Tri­wahyudi in front of one of his works

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