Malcolm Smith

Copyright 2007-2012
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Realtime Traveller - Yogyakarta

July 3, 2012

Throw a stick in Yogyakarta and chances are you’ll hit an artist. Throw a couple more and you’ll hit a foreign artist here on a residency, exchange program, research grant or just escaping the winter back home. The relaxed pace of Yogya, the city’s reputation as the cultural heart of Java, the fact that it’s home to one of the country’s largest art schools, and the cheap cost of living have made it a magnet for creative people. You can immerse yourself in art here for a few days, or if you have the time, set up a studio and let the city work its magic on you.

Located in the centre of Java, Yogyakarta (usually referred to as Yogya, and pronounced Jogja) is surrounded by the ancient Borobodur and Prambanan temple complexes in the East and West, the active volcano Mount Merapi in the North and the fabulous beaches of Parangtritis and Wonosari in the South. In the centre of town, amongst centuries-old palaces, rambling marketplaces and narrow streets there is also an ever-expanding range of contemporary art spaces.

The venerable Cemeti Arthouse should be the first stop on your Yogya Art Tour. Cemeti opened in 1988 and ever since has played a key role in the development of contemporary art practice in Indonesia. A short walk away are Kedai Kebun Forum and Langgeng Art Foundation, both of which host exhibitions by local and international artists, as well as regular seminars and performances. Ten minutes to the West is Sangkring Artspace, a complex of enormous spaces that host some excellent shows. Taman Budaya Yogyakarta and Jogja National Museum are public venues that regularly host contemporary art events, including the Yogya Biennale and Art Fair Jogjakarta. The next ArtJOG12 will run from 14 – 28 July.

For those with more specific interests, there is a proliferation of small collectives and artist-run spaces. As in any city, they tend to come and go, but some that have lasted several years are House of Natural Fibre, aka HONF (for science/art projects), Mes 56 (photography), Survive Garage (street art), Kunci (Cultural studies / theory), Paper Moon Puppet Theatre, and Theater Garasi. The Indonesian Visual Art Archive houses a vast library documenting art practices over the past decades and is an excellent resource for curators and researchers. You can pick up a great map of Yogya artspaces from IVAA or Kedai Kebun, or download it here.

If you are planning a trip to Yogya I recommend you do a little research and contact one or two of the above organisations. Artists are warmly welcomed in this city and well looked after (if you get a chance, you can return the favour one day). Giving an artist talk or a workshop would be a great way to meet the locals, make friends, and get access to a side of the city most tourists never see.

There’s very little public transportation in Yogya and the streets (like every Asian city) are swarming with small 150cc motorbikes. If you are prepared to brave it, they are a great way to get around and can be hired for about $4 per day. Otherwise you can hire a bicycle for about $2 per day, or hail a becak (rickshaw), but remember to negotiate the fare before you climb aboard.

For accommodation, the Prawirotaman area is close to all the galleries and good restaurants. Hotels range from $10 - $40 per night, but paying more doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better experience (or even a clean bathroom). Some of the smaller homestays offer much better value. ViaVia Homestay or Rumah Eyang have small but clean rooms in a good location with friendly staff for $15 - $20 per night. If you are looking for a bit of luxury in the midst of the sawah (rice paddies), D’Omah Retreat in Tembi is unique and indulgent. Their rooms range from $60 - $100 per night.

Javanese culture goes back a couple of thousand years and contemporary society reflects the complexity of its history. The Javanese are famous for being excessively polite but at the same time are very laid-back. Service is slow, rules are more like recommendations and if you ask someone for directions they will always stop and help you, but there’s no guarantee they understand where you want to go, or how to get there. Most of the arts community here speak English, but the rest of the population probably don’t, so learning a few basic phrases of Bhasa Indonesia and taking an interest in the history and culture of the place will open doors to a world that is endlessly interesting and surprising.

Malcolm Smith an artist, arts manager and curator who lives and works in Yogyakarta. Before moving to Indonesia he managed exhibition programs in contemporary art spaces around Australia, including the Australian Centre for Photography, Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design, and 24HR Art, the Northern Territory Centre for Contemporary Art.
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