While Art Jakarta unfurled at Jakarta Convention Center last Aug. 26-28, there was plenty else to see in the city. We took to the streets for more art experiences, diving down into cellars, ascending mall escalators, crashing artist parties — wherever art was back in Jakarta’s public spaces.
Agus Suwage, ‘Theater of Me’
We arrive on time for the artist party accompanying Agus Suwage’s solo show, “Theater of Me,” at Museum MACAN, but too late to enter the exhibit, which is closed off to the public. Fortunately our PR handler Shirlene Noordin manages to slip us past the velvet rope.
Inside, it’s a lot: over 80 works, much of it filtered through ever-mutating self-images of the Indonesian artist. Loaded with analogy and often black humor, his installations — of Suwage’s form hanging as a garment bag from a clothes rack, a sly grin on his face (“Heaven Follows”), or a gilded skeleton reclining in a water tub full of rice (“Luxury Crime”) — refract his own experiences through a filter of consumption, extraction of resources, and the leisure experience.
Skulls and skeletons figure prominently in the show, as in the sculpture of two skeletons boning (“Happiness Is a Warm Gun”) which museum guards insisted not be photographed; or the three Lucite guitar cases stuffed to the brim, respectively, with cigarette butts, yellow pills and compacted human bones (“Too Young to Die, Too Old to Rock N’ Roll”). Then there are the paired skulls with Mickey Mouse ears and tiaras (“King and Queen Jeff Koons”) and the skeletized duo of British artists Gilbert and George.
The YAL facility has the technical expertise to individually handle almost any artist request.
Emerging in the post-Suharto art scene amid economic reforms and global shifts, Suwage endlessly reinvents himself as a character in his work — not just in endless rows of transformed self-portraits, but in a painting of black and white figures battling for possession of his pink head (“Yin Yang”), or as Zoetrope figures, or Indonesian shadow puppets, or shrunken down to toy size (“Toys ‘S’ Us”). Indonesian culture and mythology are interwoven with global commentary and riffs on art history — what the exhibit notes call “artistic mimicry and appropriation” — all of it wrapped in wry self-refractions spanning some 30 years.
There’s much more, of course: a room devoted to large installations “Pressure and Pleasure” and “Passion Play” — reflections on the 1998 May Riots and the inculcation of militant violence into the vocabulary of daily life, on the one hand, and a sly take on the Indonesian art boom up to 2009, with figures behind prison bars representing Suwage’s dealers, curators and collectors. There’s so much here that speaks of the artist’s life, and the changes of Indonesian life post-Suharto, that one could linger for hours. And it all seems presciently right on time: in the selfie-centered existence we all dwell in, Suwage’s endlessly reinventive, whimsical, deadly on-point self-takes represent a possible future for personal/political/cultural expression: funny, scary, shocking — perhaps the best that Indonesian art has to offer.
By the end, as we’re shooed out the door by security, we don’t even end up grabbing a drink at the still-churning after party. We’ve already drunk our fill.
ROH Projects, ‘Personalia’
Over at ROH Projects (“roh” being Bahasan for “spirit”) in flea market-friendly Jalan Surabaya, young gallery owner Jun Tirtadji, still in his early 30s, continues to corral artists and themes that resist easy postable understanding, but resonate with layers of meaning — the kind of things that are universal and specific, like work’s relationship to life.
Currently taking over the gallery — a converted mid-century colonial house — is “Personalia” by the collective Tromarama, with works by Febie Babyrose, Ruddy Hatumena and Herbert Hans, three Bandung Institute of Technology graduates who focus on building generative spaces that examine our place in a digital environment — what they call the “online shadow.” The first room (Gallery Apple) is festooned with flesh-colored fingerprints; lenticular prints shift upon the gaze, and mutated images on the left wall turn out to be the three artists’ self-portraits, flattened beyond recognition; at the back an array of LED screens and wires communicate with a display of Red Bull cans — representing workers’ “energy” fed into the system. An ominous fetal heartbeat is generated through large speakers whenever #asset is typed into Twitter. The space is meant to represent the inside of a digital screen, us looking out.
In adjacent Gallery Orange, a large kids’ bouncy castle is suspended upside-down, attached to pumps that inflate and deflate it at intervals; the sounds of the pump are amplified to gut-churning levels through speakers laid in inverted construction hats, also suspended throughout the room. The overall metaphor of “Personalia” is hardly playful: it examines our role in a digital world as objects responding to and activating within work modes; those time cards posted around the room, decorated with rainbow orchid stickers, show our dispensable, interchangeable nature within a space that can only simulate the natural world.
Catching up with Tirtadji outside, he notes that Indonesian art has become more inter-Asian. “We work with galleries from all around the region — Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines. So it’s about building this network.” For instance, eight years ago Tirtadji made a connection with Manila’s Silverlens Gallery and continues to recruit artists from there. “They were showing works by Maria Taniguchi then, an artist we’re still working with, and that relationship became very special. And so our idea of collaborating in Manila has been through Silverlens. We do a lot of exchange programs with artists.” He’s all in favor of Art Jakarta making art more accessible (“Glad it’s back in terms of broadening the audience; it’s so cool to see young people going to the fair”) but you can tell this young gallery upstart sees something vaster out there than Instagrammable art. “I can’t read the future, unfortunately, but what I hope for is that aesthetic awareness — why art is important — permeates through the public consciousness in a deeper way, and that this understanding of aesthetics becomes more and more.”
Rubanah, ‘Run The Gamut’
Somewhere behind a wooden cart selling bubur ayam bangudin, a kind of Indonesian chicken porridge, there’s a downstairs gallery backed by Art Jakarta artistic director Enin Supriyanto. Rubanah calls itself an “underground hub,” but its stealth is a strength: gallery directors Diana Wibawa and Grace Samboh summon the public with questions: “Does a mirror call you?” “Why would mundane objects be associated with an ethnicity?” “If one could find a waterfall in the mall next door, why drive hundreds of miles and hike?”
Inside, artist Bibiana Lee’s punching bags are decorated with punchy words: “Hate is the Virus” call outs racial attacks against Chinese during the pandemic. Artist Julian Abraham “Togar” is represented by videos, one in which his continuous drum soloing is available through headphones (“Rockers Gonna Rock”), another where his boom mike picks up the sound of rocks and leaves (“To Reduce, To Amplify”).
There’s a theme of absence here, of what isn’t said, but only picked up on special antennae: photographer Paul Kadarisman, sidelined during lockdown, offers “Wish You Were Here,” a pair of photographs notable for their public spaces completely absent of people (malls, soccer stadiums); and M. Irfan’s elaborate tapestry “Utopia Land” (red acrylic on canvas applied with tattoo gun) depicts various animals that could never actually co-exist — giraffes aside emus next to buffalo next to lions — amongst humans sitting on park benches and picnicking in a large leafy park. “It’s like doodling,” Samboh says of his lockdown approach, “but also thinking about going out again.” Something utopian there, like Noah’s Ark on a field trip, even if it’s only in the imagination.
Though based in Singapore, Gajah Gallery’s new satellite space over in Casa Domaine, Jakarta — where large, fresh-green abstract nature canvases by Erizal As currently decorate the walls — is part of a growing art network hub that also includes Yogya Art Lab (YAL), their sculpting foundry that has produced large-scale bronze and resin works for Manila artist Jigger Cruz (bronze casting reportedly helped him get through some painting issues), Suzanna Victor and Ashley Bickerton, the Bali-based sculptor whose work decorates the sculpture park outside the gallery and is avidly collected by Damien Hirst.
Gajah founder Jasdeep Sandhu explains the function of the new gallery as a showcase for emerging Southeast Asian artists while the YAL facility has the technical expertise to individually handle almost any artist request, whether working in bronze or aluminum, clay casting, intermediary 3D-printing or, increasingly, NFT production. YAL manager James Page calls it an “art laboratory” where they can cover the “full spectrum of support for each artist to produce something they couldn’t on their own.”
Like Tirtadji, Sandhu now sees the region as inextricably interconnected: “We are trying to bring the (SEA) region into Jakarta; our gallery philosophy is there has to be a lot of cross-buying amongst collectors in the region. I think it will help all of us to not just focus on one area.”
Though Gajah likes to think of itself as a carefully curated gallery that exclusively represents six of the leading Indonesian contemporary artists — Nyoman Masriadi, Rudi Mantofani, Yunizar, Handiwirman Sahputra, Yusra Martunus and Jumaldi Alfi — it is, in fact, thinking much larger.
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