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Over thirty years ago, in the summer of 1980, I set off with a fellow university student on a backpacking adventure around Southeast Asia. As budding art historians, our main mission was two-fold: to visit traditional cultural sites and to look at contemporary art wherever we could find it. We were particularly looking forward to visiting Yogyakarta in Central Java. We knew of the city as the historical centre of Javanese classical art and culture, with some of the greatest living practitioners of batik, dance, music, and wayang puppetry based there. But we had also heard vague rumours of a burgeoning underground arts scene, and we were curious to see what we might find.
As we explored the city, we were astonished by the bohemian energy concentrated along the parameters of the old Water Castle gardens, a beautiful ruin formerly part of the Sultan’s palace. Here, scattered among a haphazard settlement of wooden dwellings and market stalls, we found not only the shops of batik artists and woodcarvers but also a scattering of indoor and outdoor ‘studio’ spaces, some of them quite makeshift in appearance, populated by long-haired, friendly artists and full of the most astonishing contemporary art, from massive installations in natural and found materials to sculptures and paintings vibrating with a kind of internal energy that seemed to emanate with a force beyond the mere forms or materials. In the evening we were invited to tag along to impromptu artist gatherings, sometimes just out on the street, involving music, poetry and an unusual breed of performance art that struck us as somehow both mystical and defiant.
The atmosphere, like the art itself, was by turns raw and spiritual, exuberant and rebellious, and completely compelling. We were mesmerized by the evidence of contemporary approaches in which we seemed to discern traces of a Joseph Beuys or a Robert Rauschenberg, but with roots paradoxically connected to something deeply visceral and unknown to us: the rich and complex cultural heart of Indonesia itself, and its beautiful, dangerous, bountiful earth.
The scene was something we would never have imagined encountering at that moment in time, thirty years ago, in a predominantly conservative Muslim country ruled by the militaristic rigidity of Suharto’s New Order politics. In our ignorance we were unaware that we were witnessing the early blossoming of a dynamic, rooted contemporary arts scene whose seeds had been planted only a few years earlier by groups of activist artists centred in the academies of Yogyakarta and Bandung. One of the most influential of these groups was the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (The New Art Movement) whose founders, including FX Harsono and Jim Supangkat, advocated an expressive freedom which was more than aesthetic and which aimed, ultimately, for a deeper connection with the reality of Indonesia—its earth, its people, and its challenges.
As Harsono has put it: ‘We decided that if we wanted to talk about Indonesia, we had to talk about the people and their condition, their sufferings because of the government; and we thought we should use the objects that we found in our daily life as a metaphor for the social and political problems.’1 Installation, performance art, graffiti, the use of found objects reflecting many levels of Indonesian reality at the time—everything from toy guns to wayang puppet masks – were embraced by younger artists such as Dadang Christanto, Heri Dono, Moelyono, Tisna Sanjaya and others, and as semiotic symbols gradually infiltrated into the vocabulary of painting, sculpture and the graphic arts as well. Boundaries between art forms were broken down and artists began to freely work across genres.
Yet even the radicalism of this period and its activist gestures was consciously rooted in the Indonesian cultural soil, echoing in many ways the mission put forward by an older generation of socially conscious artists such as S. Sudjojono and Hendra Gunawan—artists who were deeply concerned with the question of Indonesian identity in the years just before and after independence. Their advocacy of ‘truth over beauty, identity over aesthetics’ privileged an engagement with the social, political and cultural realities of the life of the people over attachment to any particular aesthetic language or form of the time. ‘Realism’ meant simply conveying ‘reality’, in whatever way necessary or possible. Thus the pluralism in Indonesian artistic practice that began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s was less informed by the West than ideologically linked to Indonesia’s own contemporary history. Some artists travelled the archipelago to explore the life of its diverse peoples and cultural and spiritual traditions; apprenticing with master craftsmen and absorbing these visual languages into their art-making; or extending the language of classical and folk theatre and religious dance traditions into performance art practice. For other artists this pluralism manifested in inventing new fusions of western modern and contemporary languages such as Surrealism, abstract expressionism, or conceptual art with a visual iconography derived from both the concrete and emotional planes of Indonesian life.
In the thirty years since that visit to Yogyakarta, I have followed with interest as Indonesian contemporary artists, creating very much within their own parameters and on their own terms, have increasingly caught the eye of the international art world. But living in Hong Kong, I have also faced the irony of a situation in which Indonesian artists have been prominently featured at international auctions like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, while opportunities to see their works in curated exhibitions in museums or galleries have been almost non-existent. The one and important exception, of course, has been the gallery run by the artist, designer and all-around free spirit, Sin Sin Man. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Sin Sin has herself developed deeply personal, emotional and artistic connections to Indonesia, in particular to Bali, which she considers her second home. In the past ten years, it is the shows of Indonesian art organized and curated by Sin Sin that have brought the creative energy, uniqueness and multi-faceted aesthetics of Indonesian artists to Hong Kong, and where meaningful encounters with the work of Hanafi, Nasirun, Jumaldi Alfi, S. Teddy D., Kokok P. Sancoko, Putu Sutawijaya, Pande Ketut Taman, Tisna Sanjaya, M. Irfan (all featured in the present exhibition) and other compelling artists were first made possible. Sin Sin has also been an important bridge for these artists to meet not just collectors but arts practitioners here as well. Thus when Sin Sin invited me to work with her as guest curator on the ‘Earthly Evocations’ exhibition, I was thrilled. When we travelled together to Yogyakarta on a research trip earlier this year, it was the first time I had been back to the city in three decades.
Meeting with artists like Nasirun, Alfi, Pande, Irfan, Kokok, S. Teddy and others, seeing where they worked and lived, looking at their art and being introduced to the art of their friends; visiting community centres, art foundations, and even private museums that a number of them have funded with the money their work has earned; sitting in outdoor warung, drinking coffee and talking for hours… I saw changes, of course, from the scene of thirty years before, not least in the prosperity of some of the artists. But the energy had not changed. One particularly hot day we spent the afternoon looking at the colorful explosion of paintings, sculptures and installations at Nasirun’s studio and then sauntered around his huge garden where ancient stone vessels he had collected from who knows where were juxtaposed with his own carved masks and intricately painted wooden panels, evoking some strange esoteric language of his own. In the evening we looked at Alfi’s new works, like photorealist blowups of Renaissance body parts, clinical and yet deeply painterly, and then went together to an exhibition opening of a friend and watched as a group of young artists in dreadlocks gave each other ‘traditional nail tattoos’ right next to the gallery entrance.
In Bali we went to Ubud to visit the venerable Dutch émigré artist Arie Smit, who settled in Indonesia decades before the rest of the artists in this exhibition were born. He was not well enough to see us, but we spent the afternoon with his good friend and patron Neka, founder of the Neka Art Museum and gallery, where many of Smit’s works are housed, looking at recent examples of Smit’s wonderful, faux-naif paintings of the Balinese landscape and temple scenes, in which one can still see an ongoing evolution of his inimitable colour sense.
Despite the diversity of artistic approaches and, to some degree, of contemporary theoretical orientations, the overwhelming impression I was left with, once again, was of that incredible sense of connectedness the artists have with their earth, their people, and with each other: the artist not as apart from society, but as a resonant part of society. Here freedom lies in the possibility of exploring multiple layers of history, myths, cultures, languages, traditions, displacement and belonging that make up the contemporary collage that is Indonesia: even the colonial past is not dismissed or rejected but rather taken as another seam in the earth, to be examined, questioned, reconfigured. From this deep anchoring has come the confidence and freedom to look consciously outward, to connect with, absorb and utilize any artistic language or history from the global network that resonates with the artist—be it western Renaissance painting, Japanese anime or postconceptual theory — without being uprooted.
Back in Hong Kong, I met with the artist Lie Fhung, and we started talking about the question of Indonesian identity. Fhung is an exceptional element of this exhibition in a number of ways: like FX Harsono, she was born and raised in Indonesia but is of Chinese descent. She is the only female artist in the show. She lives in Hong Kong but has primarily shown her work in Indonesia. Fhung spoke about her sense of having an ambiguous identity, of not belonging to either Chinese or Indonesian culture but at the same time belonging to both. At one point in her recent history, she questioned whether being an artist was actually too self-centred a way of life. Gradually she came to realize that accepting herself as an artist simply meant ‘being true’ to herself. Through that realization came the possibility of a delicate and deepening reconnection, to her roots, and to others both here and in Indonesia. In her recent work, Fhung evokes the sense of flight, of leaving the earth. Yet she and the other artists in ‘Earthly Evocations’ clearly understand that the freedom to fly is balanced by the physical and metaphysical connection to the earth. And when art is rooted in the ‘earth’, those roots spread underground and nourish us all.
1 Quoted in Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, ‘FX Harsono’s Rebellious, Critical Voice Against ‘Big Power’ in Indonesia’, New York Times, 12 March 2010
About Valerie C. Doran
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