When Traditional Transforms Into Contemporary
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
Jakarta based international art journalist,
Artistic Director and Co-curator of Indonesia National Pavilion for Venice Biennale Arte 2013 and 2015