Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmerman, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
In the final throes of the Suharto era in the 1990s, the underground art scene in Indonesia incubated alternative spaces repressed in the rest of society. Art, politics, and activism commingled. And now, thanks to the Indonesian Visual Art Archive, this history will be accessible online.
This combustion between artistic necessity and historical urgency propelled one of the most exciting national art movements of the last 15 years. By 2010, Indonesian art—painting, performance, installation, DJs, sound artists, new media collectives, video, documentary—populates galleries and festivals from New York to Singapore to Dubai. And these works command high prices from collectors eager to invest in this vibrant southeast asian art movement.
The history of Indonesian experimental and visual art did not start with reformasi, the people’s movement that brought down the Suharto regime in 1998,although it was intricately linked with these politics.
In the 1970s, Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement), inspired by Fluxus, sought to make breakthroughs in contemporary art through performance,video and installation through the use of everyday objects and concepts. The movement rejected Western ideas about art and sought an Indonesian artistic identity. A key figure of this period –and a towering figure in contemporary Indonesia art--is F X Harsono, recently featured in a large, stunning major retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum in a show entitled Testimonies.
But Indonesian art involves a much more complex history than the 2002 art boom or the current international auction market eager for new discoveries.
Enter the Indonesian Visual Arts Archive( IVAA), founded in 1995 as an outgrowth of the Cementi Art House galleries in Yogjakarta. Despite the explosion in art practices, no institutions in Indonesia were archiving these movements for the historical record. Artists also were not documenting their work with photos, reviews, and other written materials.
IVAA set out to retrieve and archive these materials ranging from letters, catalogues, publications, proposals, posters, pamphlets and audio interviews. Researchers, students, and artists use the archive to learn the complex histories of Indonesian contemporary art. The board of directors is composed mostly of artists, including Agung Kurniawan, Mella Jaarsma, and Yustina W. Nugraheni.
I met up with Farah Wardani, executive director, and Pitro Hutomo, the archivist mounting IVAA’s digital archive, on a recent trek down to Yogjakarta. After a 20 minute taxi drive through streets crammed with motor scooters in black, purple, red, and green, I ended up at their office on Jalan Patehan Tengah. It’s a quaint street with low rise, open air shophouses and lush tropical greenery in the district surrounding the Kraton, the Sultan’s palace. Entering IVAA’s office, the first thing I noticed was floor to ceiling plain bookshelves crammed with art books. Various Asian art magazines and journals perched on the large tables.
It seems logical that IVAA is located in Jogja, as the locals call it. Jogja is the center of the arts culture in Java. Rather than marginalizing artists, traditional Javanese society accepts artists as part of their culture. Javanese are not confrontational with modernity; rather, according to Wardani, they blend with it but do not forfeit their values of respecting the land. A smaller city than Jakarta, it is cheaper for artists to live and work in Jogja.
According to Farah Wardani, who has lived through and participated in the turbulent politics and arts movements of the last two decades, the period of the 1990s propelled a very politically driven artistic practice. The Suharto regime was very repressive, the media were controlled, and the right to assembly restricted. Art functioned as a safe zone where people could gather. An artistic language rich in metaphor developed as a way to circumvent repressive measures and constrictions. Art—and the spaces that emerged around it—gave space to make statements prohibited—and dangerous—in Indonesian society.
In 2006, another boom in Indonesian art erupted. According to Wardani, it got ugly: the heartless, acquisitive art market exploited young Indonesian artists. They were not prepared to mount their portfolios for the international market—many did not have a resume nor had they saved reviews and catalogs of their work.
IVAA helps artists by maintaining the historical record, as a throughline, a touchstone, and a community. And , because the universities do not engage art or visual theory, IVAA also functions as an alternative learning center for theoretical work. For 2010-2011, the archive will focus on four key areas: women and gender in art, environmental issues in art, urban marginal communities, and mapping the creative industry in Yogjakarta. The archive is also reaching back to collecting materials from the 1940s, the period of the Indonesian “old masters” of contemporary art.
Archivist Pitra Hutomo, with help from Engage Media, the nongovernmental organization in Australia and Indonesia working to making new technologies accessible, is the behind-the-scenes expediter of the online archive which features documents, a library and video.
As we drank thick, black and complexly flavored Javanese coffee, Pitra and Farah explained the differences between the artists from the reformasi period of the 1990s and the younger generation raised in a more open society with more access to technology. The younger artists (which Pitra, younger than Farah, identifies with) see the older generation as too didactic. The older artists view the younger generation as not sufficiently engaged with politics. The younger generation embraces new technology, pop references, and urban culture. Urban art activism in places like Jakarta proposes to make social interventions into urban space.
IVAA sees arts education, dialogue and convenings as important fulcrums for the development of arts discourse and community. More than just a repository for exhibition catalogs, reviews and other documents, the archive also programs discussions, workshops, and seminars on Indonesian contemporary art.
In 2009, IVAA published video activist and artist Krisna Murti’s Essays on Video Art and New Media: Indonesia and Beyond, an absolutely essential book for anyone wanting to understand the context and debates in Indonesian new media in a more nuanced way. Describing numerous new media collectives like the House of Natural Fiber, Bandung Center for New Media Arts, and ruangrupa and various festivals in Indonesia with their myriad contentious debates, the book jolted me into the rather discomfiting realization that so much scholarship on documentary, video art and new media operates on a latent and rather unexamined Euro/American axis.
Even though FLEFF has programmed several small political documentaries on environmental issues about the pollution of the coasts from chemicals and overfishing over the years, the gaps in my knowledge led me back to the IVAA website and archive for repair and rehabilitation.
CODA: Farah and Pitra will be presenting about IVAA at the Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia sessions I've helped to curate for the International Communication Association conference at the end of June here in Singapore. See you there!