Janice Tai experiences a new vision of Indonesian art.
A DISTINCT rasping sound was coming from the inner recesses of the gallery. Assuming that it was the murmurings of the crowd gathered inside, I turned my attention back to the paintings near the entrance.
But it was hard to ignore as it went on interminably. Finding myself drawn to the source of the sound, I saw, to my surprise, strings of pearls attached to a black rattan husk, tapping rhythmically against the vibrating husk.
Such curious exhibits are aplenty in the latest exhibition held in the second week of July at the National Gallery, Central Jakarta, which showcased works from prominent local artists.
The Indonesian contemporary art scene is one of the most vibrant in Southeast Asia, so I jumped at the chance to check out the exhibition.
Titled “No Direction Home”, it is not just another stuffy and obscure exhibition. It tells of the unique Indonesian quest for identity, be it personal, artistic or national.
“It’s artists’ restlessness. Artists are constantly questioning their identity. ‘Home’ represents our origin, our history, our identity… this struggle is everlasting and not something new in this period,” said Aminuddin TH Siregar, the curator of the exhibition.
That is why the works selected for the exhibition span a period of 50 years, from the 1960s until today.
Instead of themes that grapple with its colonial legacy, the works here confront current concerns of identity amidst cultural diversity and technological progress.
For example, Gusmen Heriadi in his painting titled “Tamu” (Guest) shows a massive array of sofas, facing various directions, with lethargic hooded men sinking into them. It is perhaps his take on how the increasing affluence of the city that has resulted from the influx of foreigners has brought forth stagnancy and blindness.
This sense of aimlessness also surfaces in a painting by a renowned local artist Isa Perkasa, titled “Pemda #6” (Local Government) which shows civil servants either literally chained to a clock, flattened by a chair or eating at their desk while having foot reflexology. Astutely, she depicts the deadening monotony of life in the civil service and the brashness of certain officials who put their creature comforts as priority.
Identity is also intricately linked to language. Ugo Untoro’s “I’m Today” bears out the anxiety of Indonesians in mastering the English language. His painting shows the phrase “Yes I am getting better now” with three cancellations of the word “now” (which are messy scrawls) to finally reveal the word “NOW” in highly regular and block letters.
Ugo Untoro’s “I’m Today” PHOTO: Janice Tai
Just as Untoro’s painting is an exploration of the crossroads between language, identity and conformity, artist Arahmaiani’s series of three untitled paintings shows the devastating impact of censorship on identity.
In the first painting, we see a lady in nude, with defined breasts, waist deep in water. In the second, the lady is submerged chest deep in the water and she wears a tortured expression. The last painting shows her with water only reaching to her knees, but the outlines of her body has blended into the background, with her breasts as mere smoky shadows.
Paintings aside, the mixed media installations and audio-visual displays reflect an increasing experimentation with materials and mediums which not only enliven the exhibition, but also provide provocative commentaries.
A fascinating installation by another famous local artist Agung Kurniawan, titled “Potret Seorang Akuntan” (Portrait of an Accountant) makes use of materials like iron and spray paint.
“Portrait of an Accountant” by Agung Kurniawan PHOTO: Janice Tai
Iron rods are bent to create a picture of an accountant writing at his desk, with a typewriter placed beside him. As light shines on the iron rods, the shadow formed on the wall is a duplicate of what is seen on the rods. In this age of mechanical reproduction where art loses its identity through commoditization, the form in which this installation takes is truly an apt one.
Other artists show that identity is not an abstract concept, but one which is central to life and inevitably, death.
“Recovery prayer beads” is an installation by Astari that has scribblings like “acceptance”, “gratitude” and “vulnerability” written huge orange prayer beads. Between the beads lie body parts like the heart, brain and skull, welded in metal. It is reminiscent of the trauma that accompanies violent deaths.
Suddenly, the subdued, swishing sound of the pearls against the black rattan husk made sense to me. Titled “Dzikir” (Remembrance), the sound mimics the religious ritual of repetitive chanting.