Malcolm Smith

Copyright 2007-2012
Built with Indexhibit

Driving in an Indonesian Art Jam
Art Monthly
Oct 2011, Issue 244

It’s weird being in Indonesia and looking at art without a native understanding of the political, social, visual or historical context. Sometimes it makes no difference at all, sometimes it makes all the difference. If I'm really intrigued by an artist’s work I might have to go back decades, explore the work of other artists and examine shifts in social attitudes to find the clues that will eventually unlock an image. So for me to write an article about contemporary art in Indonesia is a bit like the blind leading the blind, but I can relate some of the conversations I've had in the past year that have provided me with the clues to understanding Indonesia's lively and slightly overwhelming art world. I'm particularly grateful to Aminudin (Ucok) TH Siregar, Asmudjo Jono Irianto and Sujud Dartanto for the long and very insightful conversations I've had with them about the Indonesian art world and its colourful recent history.

In 2005 I did a rambling, eight-month Asialink Arts Management residency in Indonesia, exploring the fledgling world of media art in artist-run spaces around the country. The last exhibition I attended was OK Video in Jakarta, a biannual festival of video art presented by uber-artist-run space Ruangrupa. It was a great show, with an enormous amount of work presented in a sensory-overload, ramshackle way. OK Video 05 was subtitled sub/version, and focused on piracy, authenticity and ownership, and included works like the Kingpins’ Appetite for Dysfunction (2005) which actually could not be screened at the time in Australia due to copyright laws. The piracy theme was so perfect for Indonesia; as the rest of the world grappled with their consciences over the sacred old cow of copyright, Ruangrupa’s rock’n’roll attitude (as well as their excellent foresight) strategically positioned them at the forefront of the burgeoning video art scene in Southeast Asia, if not the rest of the world.

Six years later I’m back in Indonesia and am confronted with an entirely different story. This year a major work by seminal media artist Jompet was exhibited as part of the Venice Biennale, Anggun Priambodo's Sinema Elektronik won the coveted Rp100 million (AUD$11,000) Bandung Art Prize, and pioneering video artist Krisnamurti was one of two artists commissioned to create new work for Art Jog 11. Video art is quite fashionable here at the moment, and includes an audience of young, upwardly mobile collectors looking to get in early on what they think could be the next big art boom. In recent months I’ve had numerous discussions with collectors and artists about editioning, formatting and, heaven forbid, the risk of pirated copies in the marketplace.

What happened between 2005 and 2011 was the now infamous art boom, no doubt well-documented elsewhere in this journal. During that time I was working in Sydney and I’d hear breathless tales from friends in Yogya about artists who were buying houses and forty-two-inch flat-screen TVs. From the perspective of my government-funded arts management position in Sydney I was, of course, deeply concerned about the deregulated nature of the Indonesian art market, the possible ethical infringements that may have been going on and, worst of all, the impact all of this must have been having on notions of purity and authenticity of the artists’ practices. As it turned out I was right on all fronts ... sort of.

Indonesia embraces risk like nowhere else I've ever worked. The same peaks and troughs that Australia so carefully avoids are here seen as an opportunity, not a weakness. Negotiating the art market here is a bit like driving on the streets of Jakarta; you ease yourself in wherever there's a gap, you never look back, and if you take a few scrapes in the process … well, that's life in the big city. Away from risk-averse, over-weening Australia I've come to see it as kind of cool, if a little hair-raising at times. In preparation for this article I talked to a lot of Indonesian artists and curators and they all agreed that, for better or for worse, the commercial art market is where all the interesting stuff is happening at the moment.

Earlier this year I visited the exhibition Kidult by Bandung wunderkind collective Tromarama, at Tembi Contemporary in Yogyakarta. With the explosion of YouTube in the past five years, it's no longer enough to make a quirky single-channel video, put it on an LCD screen and call it art. To get me to come to a gallery to watch a video, I need at the very least a new gadget, interactivity, or an immersive experience. In Kidult, Tromarama did that and more. Their works are playful and lighthearted on the surface, but at a deeper level present an interesting critique both of video art as a medium as well as its relationship to the marketplace.

Tromarama's video Borderless (2010) is a two-and-a-half minute video animated from around 500 hand-embroidered (EMBROIDERED!) canvasses. The video was presented alongside an installation of each embroidered 'frame' in the animation. There's nothing easy about Tromarama’s video art which is literally video made from art. An earlier work, Serigala Militia (2010), was animated entirely from carved woodblocks and subsequently travelled to the Singapore Biennale and more recently to the Mori Museum in Japan. Their very cute Psilocybin (adoption series) (2010), was a stop motion animation made of 120 individual acrylic paintings on wood, set to music by Abi Raditya.

Without the luxury of funding bodies who can pay for them to make video, Tromarama sell their videos through Tembi Contemporary in editions of five. Collectors receive an elegantly boxed DVD as well as one or two embroidered 'frames' from the video. The whole art/video/concept/commodity is so neatly packaged it's hard to tell if they are being ironic or straight-up. Either way, to my mind, Tromarama are the quintessential 2011 Indonesian art experience. They do biennales, they're funny and charismatic, but their work also has rigour and depth. And they’re highly collectible!

When I returned to Indonesia this year it took me several months to refocus my eyes to appreciate what I was seeing in galleries. At first it seemed the art world had become grossly commercial and was slavishly putting money before critical concerns. But I've come around to seeing the boom (and its ongoing aftershocks) as not simply about making money; it's also about a shift in Indonesia's 'brand' internationally. I Nyoman Masriadi is the poster boy for the recent art boom not simply because his works fetch the highest prices at auction, but because his story and his images so well reflect the Zeitgeist of the new generation. His iconic image of superman and batman sitting in toilet cubicles smoking cigarettes is a great metaphor: worldly bordering on cynical, thoughtful bordering on neurotic, ambitious but not excessively so.

There are many advantages to working in the arts in Australia, chief among them being arts funding. But for me the wildly deregulated, high-risk and slightly anarchic art world of Indonesia offers an interesting challenge. Its great seeing the huge number of art initiatives that run on no budget but abundant enthusiasm. I'm always overwhelmed by the numbers of people who turn up to openings and the level of critical debate that exists here. I meet passionate collectors, dealers and gallerists who are committed to developing, promoting and preserving the nation's creativity. And while there may be no centralised arts bureaucracy, there's no bureaucracy either.

On the other hand, even in the rarefied world of art I'm periodically confronted by the challenging realities of this country and the ethical dilemmas that accompany them. For example, in the absence of a government-funded alternative, how do artists feel about sponsorship that largely comes from Indonesia's big tobacco companies? How do curators maintain their critical integrity and still get paid to write (read: pimp) for commercial galleries? What care is taken to give young artists time to adequately develop their practices before they are set upon by the market? And can a commercially driven marketplace support a diverse range of artforms or will it ultimately only favour painters?

Looking to the future, opinion is divided here as to whether the critical mass that currently surrounds the art market is a good or a bad thing; an historical blip or a long-term reality. A coalition of curators around Indonesia are currently lobbying the government to establish a local version of the National Endowment for the Arts, pooling money from public and private sources to support artists to develop their practices before being subjected to the ravages of the marketplace. At Bandung Institute of Technology, Aminudin Siregar is running a class for his students called 'The Art Market'. The course is not, he assures me, to teach them how to be players in the market, but to help them to survive it.

The reality today is that, for better or for worse, we live in a world that increasingly favours 'brand' over skill, innovation, ideas or politics. If the way to establish brand is to keep on doing the same thing over and over again, those who have achieved phenomenal success recently in Indonesia have done so because they have artfully negotiated the way 'brand' works in their own practice. Artists would do well to remember, however, that their greatest commodity is authenticity, and that the market, the curators and even the funding bodies need artists more than artists need them.


Malcolm Smith is an arts manager and curator currently based in Yogyakarta. He is the curator of the touring exhibition Certificate no. 000358/ ;The ongoing impact of nuclear accidents in Russia, 25 years since Chernobyl, by Robert Knoth and Antoinette De Jong. The exhibition is sponsored by Greenpeace Asia Tenggah – Indonesia in collaboration with Sangkring Artspace, Yogyakarta and Galleri Soemardja, Bandung