When Tra­di­tional Trans­forms Into Con­tem­po­rary

Harper's Bazaar Art (Indonesia) - - Art Feature -

The spread of West­ern-in­flu­enced art mak­ing has un­til fairly re­cently formed the ba­sis of how the world views art. But in In­done­sia, artists like Sri As­tari Rasjid and Heri Dono went their own way some three decades ago, seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion in their own cul­ture and tra­di­tion, un­wit­tingly chal­leng­ing hege­mony of any kind. In so do­ing, they have cre­ated a unique artis­tic lan­guage that has be­come a new par­a­digm in con­tem­po­rary art. Us­ing garba as a cul­tural womb to an­swer to world ten­sions and the wayang theater as a bor­der­less art ex­pres­sion to vi­su­al­ize an egal­i­tar­ian world or­der, their com­pelling works are reach­ing an ever in­spir­ing ma­tu­rity. By Carla Bian­poen

For some peo­ple, the is­sue of con­tem­po­rary ver­sus tra­di­tional oc­cur­ring in var­i­ous dis­courses has been puz­zling, although the is­sue al­ready emerged in 1996 with the ex­hi­bi­tion Tra­di­tons/ten­sions: Con­tem­po­rary Art from Asia, which was or­ga­nized and cu­rated by the Thai art his­to­rian and critic Apinan Poshyananda. It was held at the Asia So­ci­ety, Grey Art Gallery at New York Univer­sity and at the Queens Mu­seum of Arts in New York. The art works shown were im­bued with cul­tural and so­cio-po­lit­i­cal mean­ing, quite a de­par­ture from the usual, and con­sid­ered re­fresh­ing for the New York art scene of that time.

Slightly less than two decades later, pres­ti­gious art events have em­pha­sized that con­tem­po­rary has many forms and shades, tak­ing the is­sue fur­ther while ba­si­cally re­main­ing the same, namely tak­ing the shift from for­mer hi­er­ar­chi­cal West­ern-cen­tric the­o­ries align­ing with present vi­sions for fu­ture times. In the in­ter­na­tional art world, such shifts have been prom­i­nent in the past three edi­tions of the pres­ti­gious Venice Bi­en­nale which is ac­knowl­edged as one of the most im­por­tant fo­rums of con­tem­po­rary art in the world. Far reach­ing changes be­came tan­gi­ble with the 54th edi­tion (2011) which was given the ti­tle of Il­lu­mi­na­tions. The Artis­tic di­rec­tor/cu­ra­tor Bice Curiger, known as a long­stand­ing in­de­pen­dent art cu­ra­tor, Co-founder and Chief Ed­i­tor of the in­flu­en­tial mag­a­zine Par­kett, placed se­lected art works by the Re­nais­sance painter Tin­toretto as the cen­ter of ref­er­ence, to the hor­ror of many con­tem­po­rary art afi­ciona­dos. But she in­sisted that Tin­toretto was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary in his own right, re­mind­ing us that con­tem­po­rary did not emerge from nowhere but was derived from pre­vi­ous de­vel­op­ments in the art. In the 55th edi­tion (2013) of this old­est bi­en­nale in the world, Masi­m­il­iano Gioni, the world renown cu­ra­tor of con­tem­po­rary bi­en­nales like the Gwanju bi­en­nale and artis­tic di­rec­tor of the New Mu­seum in New York, took the in­no­va­tion even fur­ther by ref­er­enc­ing Marino Au­riti’s ex­plor­ing the flight of imag­i­na­tion in all cre­ativ­ity that had emerged through­out the his­tory of art and hu­man­ity in the En­cy­clo­pe­dic Palace. The 56th edi­tion (2015) of the Venice Bi­en­nale for the first time in its his­tory of over a hun­dred years se­lected a non-euro­pean di­rec­tor, the Nige­rian Ok­wui En­we­zor, whose pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ge­o­graph­i­cal di­ver­sity, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial the­ory had been re­layed in the var­i­ous world ex­hi­bi­tions that he had cu­rated since 1996. He turned the Venice Bi­en­nale’s Euro-cen­tric prac­tice to one that in­cluded the en­tire world with the ti­tle All the World’s Fu­tures.

No­tably, in 2011 two ex­hi­bi­tions of con­tem­po­rary art in South­east Asia re­vealed a sim­i­lar spirit of change, as The Col­lec­tors Show at the Sin­ga­pore Art Mu­seum pre­sented art works by Asian artists which had been col­lected by Asian Col­lec­tors, of­fer­ing fresh per­spec­tives in the dis­course of con­tem­po­rary art while un­der­scor­ing that the term ‘con­tem­po­rary’ did not nec­es­sar­ily ex­clude his­tor­i­cal, ver­nac­u­lar, per­sonal and aes­thetic fea­tures. The Dress­ing Ta­ble by the cel­e­brated In­dian artist Bharti Kher

for in­stance, had the ap­pear­ance of an out of this time fur­ni­ture that in­cluded bindi’s, once a sym­bol of the third eye, glued to the mir­ror as a sign of daily re­silience of the woman when start­ing her day. In­done­sia’s own Tro­marama group used batik to cre­ate 120 frames to record his­tory and is­sues with bi­nary code, while En­tang Wi­harso’s hy­brid hu­man forms in alu­minum re­called the styl­ized carv­ings in the In­done­sian tem­ple walls that also oc­cur in the wayang leather shadow plays. Later in that year, the first APB Foun­da­tion Sig­na­ture Art Prize ex­hi­bi­tion in Sin­ga­pore showed works from artists of the Asia Pa­cific, un­der­lined the char­ac­ter­is­tic el­e­ments of ver­nac­u­lar, his­tor­i­cal, nar­ra­tive as typ­i­cal of con­tem­po­rary art in Asia. The first prize ob­tained by Filipino artist Rodel Ta­paya, was a paint­ing based on an amal­ga­tion of folk nar­ra­tives and con­tem­po­rary re­al­ity within the frame­work of mem­ory and his­tory. Tan Boon Hui, then Sin­ga­pore Art Mu­seum’s di­rec­tor and cur­rently di­rec­tor of the Asia So­ci­ety Mu­seum as well as the so­ci­ety’s vice-pres­i­dent for Global Arts and Cul­tural Pro­grams, pointed out that con­tem­po­rary art from Asia had these char­ac­ter­is­tics which were dif­fer­ent from the usu­ally un­der­stood con­tem­po­rary.

In fact, in 2002, the CP Bi­en­nale co-founder and art critic/cu­ra­tor Jim Su­pangkat had al­ready dealt with this is­sue, re­veal­ing that these sen­si­tiv­i­ties were in­her­ent in ev­ery In­done­sian artist. English in coun­tries out­side the UK or the US may be dif­fer­ent but it is still English. The same can be said of art. He coined the term ‘Art with an Ac­cent’ for this phe­nom­e­non. It is in­ter­est­ing to know that long be­fore such is­sues be­came an is­sue some three decades ago, artists like As­tari Rasjid and Heri Dono were some­what ahead of the time when they took cul­ture and its in­her­ent sen­si­tiv­i­ties as points of de­par­ture for their art en­gage­ment, some­thing that has been con­tin­u­ing un­til the present time. Even more note­wor­thy is the fact that what then may have been con­de­scend­ingly looked upon as in­flu­ences of ‘just’ lo­cal cul­ture’ has gained ap­pre­ci­a­tion as hav­ing con­trib­uted to es­tab­lish­ing a new aes­thet­ics and a typ­i­cal iconog­ra­phy in the con­text of con­tem­po­rary art.

For As­tari, cul­ture has been her ref­er­ence to re­spond to is­sues of the time. She turned to the Ja­vanese lan­guage as her mode of ex­pres­sion when she started her artis­tic com­men­taries. Re­fined and lay­ered and with a sense of fine aes­thet­ics, but in­clud­ing her own per­sonal vi­sions that were in­fused with the ever-chang­ing spirit of the time. Mor­ph­ing Ja­vanese phi­los­o­phy with myth­i­cal be­ings and the revered God­dess she be­lieves dwell within her, she re­claims the woman’s place that has for ages been ne­glected in the male-writ­ten his­tory of mankind. With a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on the ten­sion be­tween male and fe­male en­er­gies, which she also viewed in the con­text of mod­ern and global cul­ture, she found re­sponses in garba (the Ja­vanese word for womb) which she be­lieves is the place from where both men and women were equally born. She has worked with var­i­ous ma­te­ri­als to elab­o­rate on her vi­sion. While de­vel­op­ing an im­pec­ca­ble style for her paint­ings, she went on with sculp­tural works, pho­tog­ra­phy, theater, video-map­ping, dance and Ja­vanese chant­ing, es­tab­lish­ing a unique artis­tic lan­guage in the process and in­fus­ing a new par­a­digm in the devel­op­ment of art. The mid 1980s to the present time­has shown her amaz­ing path of devel­op­ment in her art go­ing hand in hand with her be­com­ing a woman in her own right.

Among her iconic works is her self por­trait Tem­ple of Ef­flo­res­cence in which she crit­i­cizes women’s op­pres­sion in the Ja­vanese cul­ture. But avoid­ing open at­tacks, she diplo­mat­i­cally ap­plied sym­bolic ges­tures, such as a straight gaze in­stead of look­ing down, open hand palms in­stead of closed in a fist, and the Borobudur tem­ple as a sym­bol of the womb and wom­an­hood. In the same vein the bri­dal cou­ples in cer­e­mo­nial at­tires, seem­ingly

with­out emo­tion, but with an added im­age in-be­tween them fea­tur­ing a fum­ing vol­cano on the point of ex­plod­ing. Iconic sym­bols in­clude the tra­di­tional ke­baya which has be­come In­done­sia’s na­tional cos­tume for women, oc­cur­ring in her oeu­vre as a kind of barom­e­ter of mood and sit­u­a­tion both re­lated to gen­der as well as the coun­try (Pret­ti­fied Cage 1998), pon­der­ing life and death and the fal­lacy of make believe (Aban­don­ing Viril­ity 2002), seek­ing pro­tec­tion for the soul (Ar­mors for the Soul 2011), and the lib­er­at­ing (Ar­mor for Change 2015).

The lat­ter was cre­ated when a new era in the na­tion had set in and Pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo had ap­pointed an un­prece­dented num­ber of four women cabi­net min­is­ters, while her own ap­point­ment as the first fe­male am­bas­sador with an artis­tic back­ground was forth­com­ing. Sim­ple, loose and mor­ph­ing batik Cire­bon mo­tifs, with the only ac­ces­sory be­ing a huge but­ter­fly brooch, it con­veys a sense of lib­er­a­tion and bold­ness amidst the chang­ing tides in the na­tion. Her ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion Yang Ter­hor­mat Ibu (Dear Mother) in Fe­bru­ary 2016, was a trib­ute to her late mother, and to wom­an­hood and the re­lated womb, that gave birth to hu­man­ity, cul­ture and all cre­ativ­ity. Garba is my cul­tural womb, she states. Her work for the In­done­sia pav­il­ion in the 55th Venice Bi­en­nale (Danc­ing the Wild Seas) in the form of a Pen­dopo re­turned in her ret­ro­spec­tive show as the womb where her newly cre­ated dance per­for­mance Tari Garba pre­sented the ten­sion be­tween mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine en­er­gies.

The French in Bali re­sid­ing art critic and cu­ra­tor Jean Couteau has right­fully stated, “As­tari is a rare phe­nom­e­non in the In­done­sian and East Asian art world. As she was ap­pointed as Am­bas­sador for Bul­garia, Mace­do­nia and Al­ba­nia, one may re­call her speech as the Chair­per­son of the Or­ga­niziang Com­mit­tee of the Non-aligned Coun­ties con­tem­po­rary art ex­hi­bi­tion in 1995 when she pointed out that ‘art can­not be sep­a­rated from hu­man­ity, and there­fore, cre­ativ­ity and con­struc­tive ways to up­hold art also serves to en­hance our hu­man aware­ness."

Heri Dono too turned to cul­ture and the wayang theater as a means of mak­ing in­di­rect and al­lu­sive sug­ges­tions with art. Adopt­ing the mode of the en­dear­ing demi god-clown Se­mar whose com­men­taries on cer­tain sit­u­a­tions are al­ways in­fused with a touch of hu­mor, Heri be­came a sort of Se­mar him­self.

Ini­tially Heri was in­spired by the sto­ries of an­gels who could fly freely wher­ever and when­ever they wanted. This matched the spirit of car­toons that he found fas­ci­nat­ing for their bor­der­less and of­ten fu­tur­is­tic imag­ing, and he be­came aware of the sim­i­lar­ity with the man­dala of the Hindu be­lief per­ceived hav­ing nei­ther sub­ject nor ob­ject. Heri’s oeu­vres of over three decades have been en­com­pass­ing dozens of in­ter­na­tional bi­en­nales con­sist­ing of paint­ing, in­stal­la­tions, video art and per­for­mance. He was the first In­done­sian artist to break ground in­ter­na­tion­ally, also the first con­tem­po­rary In­done­sian artist to have been in­vited in the main ex­hi­bi­tion of the Venice Bi­en­nale. Hov­er­ing be­tween fright­ful and witty, satir­i­cal and mock­ing ap­pear­ances, his bizarre, grotesque im­ages have been com­men­taries on so­cial and po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions, his an­gel se­ries liken­ing jour­nals of po­lit­i­cal ac­tu­al­i­ties hap­pen­ing in the coun­try.

Among his early iconic works is Wayang Le­genda (1988-1992) in which he in­tro­duced non-ja­vanese sources into the shadow play, such as Batak sto­ries, sig­ni­fy­ing his vi­sion of In­done­sia as a larger than Java en­tity. In 2000, in

the wake of dis­in­te­gra­tion of cen­tral­ized power in the post-suharto pe­riod, the leg­end was rein­vented as Wayang Le­genda : In­done­sia Baru, fea­tur­ing the is­lands of the archipelago as wayang pup­pets rep­re­sent­ing is­lands of the In­done­sian archipelago. Some works evolve with chang­ing per­spec­tives, fol­low­ing the chang­ing tides of the time. His An­gel Se­ries be­came a sort of barom­e­ter of re­pres­sive poli­cies and re­al­i­ties, their free fall in 1996 were soon fol­lowed by their flight be­ing caught in a trap, locked in a co­coon, and even bro­ken to the core, then freed again and look­ing to the fu­ture, all in par­al­lel with the ups and downs of free­dom of speech fol­low­ing so­cial and po­lit­i­cal so­cial sit­u­a­tions in the coun­try.

Other works in­clude Watch­ing the Mar­ginal Peo­ple, fea­tur­ing 10 wooden heads of ter­ri­fy­ing mon­strous crea­tures with vi­cious teeth and bulging eyes, that he cre­ated in 2000 re­turned in 2014 at the Pull­man Ho­tel’s Art Night in Fe­bru­ary, with mov­ing beaks look­ing down from the wall. Heri said it re­ferred to the mar­ginal peo­ple in Kal­i­man­tan where he was in­volved in a devel­op­ment project. But above all, Equi­lib­rium has been a ma­jor con­cern, which cul­mi­nated in his solo show for the In­done­sia pav­il­ion of the Venice Bi­en­nale 2015. Themed Voy­age-troko­mod, this site-spe­cific work was a fu­sion of the Tro­jan Horse and the In­done­sian Ko­modo dragon, shaped as an am­phibi­ous hy­brid “an­i­mal” of 7.5 x 3 x 3.5 me­ters. With this hy­brid 've­hi­cle' en­com­pass­ing his en­tire world vi­sion where East and West merge, he ex­plored the state of the world, at the same time defin­ing his place and the coun­try's in the global con­stel­la­tion of na­tions. “In­done­sia has for most of the time been a blank spot on the world map,” he as­serted, “now is the time to speak up.” Troko­mod's voy­ag­ing through his­tory and ply­ing the oceans be­tween cul­tures is the cul­mi­na­tion of his crit­i­cal views about global and lo­cal cul­tures, about po­lit­i­cal, geopo­lit­i­cal and so­cial sit­u­a­tions at home and in the world, and about West­ern hege­monies that he used to re­veal with a lot of hu­mor and a touch of hu­man benev­o­lence. Troko­mod, how­ever has added an itchy touch. Yet a con­cern for the hu­man con­di­tion con­tin­ues to be tan­gi­ble in his most re­cent works fol­low­ing his res­i­dency at STPI. Con­tin­u­ing a mode of folly rep­re­sent­ing the poet Rong­gowar­sito’s po­etic pre­dic­tions of Za­man Edan, the tem­pered col­ors and the use of batik merged into prints along with other new medi­ums de­note a pon­der­ing on a new cul­tural re­al­ity. -------------------------------

Tem­ple of Ef­flo­rescense, by As­tari Rasjid, 1996, mixed me­dia oil on can­vas, 200 x 100cm

Ev­ery­thing Su­per­man Can Do, Petruk Can Do Too, by As­tari Rasjid, 2010, acrylic on can­vas

Aban­don­ing Viril­ity, by As­tari Rasjid, 2002, stain­less steel screen and mixed me­dia in­stal­la­tion

Eling (Be­ware), by As­tari Rasjid, 2012, mixed me­dia sil­ver plated, each bead call­ing to shun neg­a­tive prac­tice

No Man's Land, by Heri Dono, 2015. Par­ody, live per­for­mance ad­dress­ing imag­i­nary in­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion of An­i­mals

Ar­mor for Change, by As­tari Rasjid, 2016, alu­minum cast, 250x168x100 cm

Heri Dono’s Troko­mod and Spirit Boats in the in­done­sia Pav­il­ion, 56th venice bi­en­nale 2015. The Hunter in the Work­shop Ma­chine, by Heri Dono, inkjet and screen print on can­vas, 100x67x3cm

Wayang Le­genda by Heri Dono, 1988 - 1992 Za­man Edan: The Fly­ing Dog, by Heri Dono, 2015, batik tech­nique on fab­ric

Carla Bian­poen

Jakarta based in­ter­na­tional art jour­nal­ist,

Artis­tic Di­rec­tor and Co-cu­ra­tor of In­done­sia Na­tional Pav­il­ion for Venice Bi­en­nale Arte 2013 and 2015

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