I must admit, contemporary art is something I have never been able to truly enjoy. Its propensity toward anything “out of the box” which requires deep contemplation to “understand” it rarely inspires me. Of all the artworks that fall into this category, there’s one particular example with which I struggle the most to see its artistic value. It’s a white canvas “painting”, or just white canvas if you will. If nothing is painted on it, why should we even call it a painting? Many cultures around the world treat their traditional cooking as art, but I believe no one would call something with only water as its sole ingredient a proper dish.
However, my skepticism toward contemporary art was completely shattered when I went to ARTJOG 2019 (officially ARTJOG MMXIX), this year’s edition of a month-long showcase in the city of Yogyakarta (also known as Jogja) which was inaugurated in 2008. From an art fair, this annual event has evolved into one of Indonesia’s most prestigious festivals for the country’s biggest talents and art enthusiasts. The choice of Jogja, a city of 422,000 that is also the capital of an eponymous province with more than 3.5 million people, as the host of this important event is largely due to its position as one of Indonesia’s leading art and culture centers, with Bandung in West Java as its main rival.
On our visit to the Jogja National Museum – the location of ARTJOG 2019 – in early August, James and I were accompanied by Liesha, a fellow trainee at my first company who went with me to the Tidung Islands back in 2011, herself a fan of modern, quirky art. The entrance to the venue was a white panel with square patterns underneath a lofty white architectural skeleton which shone brightly against the blue sky. As we entered, a large hole in the ground resembling an archaeological excavation site welcomed us. It was Handiwirman Saputra’s work, created to question our modern penchant for a “green lifestyle” reflected in the aesthetics of a garden, which ironically shows our obsession for anything artificial.
In the next outdoor section of the exhibition was Andrita Yuniza Orbandi’s Whirlwind of Time, made from hundreds of fallen tree branches which were assembled to create the physical representation of a storm. Its eye was an empty space with one small shrub right in the middle of it, symbolizing how pressures in our lives are caused by our own actions and thoughts. Farther on was a dark room where visitors could watch a sobering video about the state of our oceans through a half-dome metal sculpture with patterned teak-leaf shapes welded onto it. After the end of the exhibition, this work by Teguh Ostenrik will be submerged in the waters of North Maluku in eastern Indonesia to make a home for corals and fish, creating a new underwater mini-ecosystem. For the artist, this project was his small effort to make sure that art could directly contribute to the conservation of nature.
Just inside the main building of the museum was Ugo Untoro’s petrified horse skin punctured by stainless steel darts forming the symbol for infinity, then, in a separate chamber we came across Lifepatch, which presented narratives surrounding Dutch colonialism in North Sumatra. Collectively, the artworks in this section attempted to convey the message that history is never singular for there will always be multiple perspectives depending on who we ask. In the next chamber were visual arts inspired by Indonesian folklore, including one from Yamdena, a remote island in Maluku, eastern Indonesia. The local islanders believe that a long time ago, there was a princess called Lamditi who was famous for her beautiful voice. Her love affair with Egel, a slave, enraged the king and his eldest son who then conspired to make Egel vanish by sending him off into the open ocean. Devastated, the princess who was already pregnant went out to sea hoping to reunite with her loved one. Both of them were never found, but now the locals believe that the princess has reincarnated as a whale whose singing can be heard in the depths of the ocean, hence the customary prohibition to hunt female whales who are pregnant or nurturing their calves.
In the subsequent chamber were Riono Tanggul Nusantara’s works, depicting skinned animals hung in the forest. This is an allegory of human greed which encompasses all aspects, including in the field of art which has now become a competitive world, ready to claim victims whenever it desires. Crossing the corridor, the three of us entered a room where a robotic arm moved along a horizontal axis to paint the canvas green while going up and down from left to right in a repetitive manner. It was connected to a palm tree through wires that transmitted the plant’s organic electric current, processing it into signals that regulated the machine’s movements. Bandung-based Bagus Pandega and Tokyo-based Kei Imazu collaborated to create this spectacularly haunting artwork that highlighted the destruction of Indonesian forests by the palm oil industry. Educated as an engineer, I was astonished by the idea behind this piece of work and its execution which combined technology and art.
The artworks displayed in the next area were no less intriguing. At first glance, one was just a painting of tropical fruits. But upon closer inspection, a blue label on a banana said “Pssst! I’m full of colonial sins.” Jogja-based artist Elia Nurvista who’d found her interest in critical discourse and narratives about food put up thought-provoking pieces reminding the public about how a multitude of food ingredients traveled across the world thanks to European colonialism. Today, while “exotic” fruits are widely welcomed in Europe, the same case does not apply to the people who come from places that produce them.
On the second floor of the venue were some endearing artworks by Robet and Olga, a couple from the city of Solo, not far from Jogja, which stole Liesha’s attention the most. Directly across the corridor was a showcase of a completely different kind called Pest to Power. Created by Natasha Tontey, a young Indonesian artist known for her penchant for controversial themes, the video installation criticized the human judgment toward cockroaches thanks to the idea of a “proper lifestyle” which puts a huge emphasis on living in a hyper-sterilized environment. The animation of a naked man hugging a giant cockroach, followed by footage of a real cockroach laying eggs, then the man being spanked by a bearded, long-haired trans woman wearing a tight striped pink outfit and high heels was among the most surreal, yet provocative things that I have ever witnessed.
Another artwork that stole my attention was a series of three paintings depicting how ecological changes in Indonesia are very much determined by the dominant power order, in this case the rise of Islam. Enka Komariah, an artist from Klaten, Central Java, highlighted how a spring in his village ceased to exist when a mosque was built on its location with the pretext of destroying places that are considered idolatrous and heretical. Another painting depicted how an old Dutch fort in his hometown had to be demolished to make way for the construction of a mosque. What I found impressive was his courage to raise this issue amid growing concerns toward an overall slide to conservatism in a country long known for its own inclusive and moderate version of Islam.
To the right of Komariah’s showcase was a room with dark walls where copper plates with different random patterns on them were hung and a round platform with a rotating salt-scrapping blade sat in the middle of the chamber. Bandung-based Etza Meisyara attempted to search for forms of communication in the universe through sound and materials. She created this art installation through a process that started with sprinkling salt on a copper plate which was then vibrated by a sound through a loudspeaker. The sound itself was obtained by recording the ambient noise at places deemed daunting or calm, including forests, mountain valleys, and a geological fault. The copper plate was then etched with liquid ammonia and salt containing sodium chloride which together “locked” the ambient sound’s frequency into a non-geometric visual pattern.
On the third floor, through his series of paintings collectively called Totem, Balinese artist I Made Djirna appealed to visitors to contemplate the reduction of the value of cultural artifacts in modern society into mere objects. In the past, such heritage was often created with noble intentions and deep philosophical meaning. But today in the era of Instagram, paintings, sculptures and other artworks have simply become backgrounds for those “perfect” photos with ourselves as the protagonists. Ironically, this very situation the artist tried to criticize was unfolding right in front of my eyes. A handful of visitors, none of whom could be seen reading the explanation of Totem, were busy posing and taking photos of themselves in front of Djirna’s paintings. However, on the other hand, exposing contemporary art to a broader audience, whether they’re actually interested in the art or not, helps organizers hold events like ARTJOG to provide artists with a platform to showcase their creations, which in turn encourages more local talents to go down the path many Indonesians still deem not promising in the future.
Another highlight of the third floor was the artwork created by Riri Riza, an Indonesian film director whose journey to the Indonesian island of Sumba had inspired him to make this animated work. Increasingly popular among tourists, Sumba (also called Humba in the local language) with its unique culture and beautiful landscape is facing new challenges in the form of consumerism and people migration to find a better living. The video installation, however, focused on the island’s indigenous belief called Marapu where death is central to the local people’s lives.
I completed this tour of ARTJOG 2019 feeling inspired, intrigued and excited like never before. It was the first time in my life I thoroughly enjoyed an event with contemporary art as its main theme and soul, which made me wonder why this was the case. Probably the four and a half years I spent in college studying a broad range of subjects from computer programming to sensor technology, acoustics, optics, and lighting helped me appreciate those works which combined art and technology to convey the artists’ messages. Some other art installations that raised issues I’m deeply concerned about also resonated with me. In the end, I realized that art is a very subjective matter. Those who find beauty in a plain white canvas probably perceive a rectangular wooden frame on which a durable plain-woven fabric is stretched and coated with gesso as a piece of art that has a profound meaning, something I am not yet able to see.