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
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