Malcolm Smith

Copyright 2007-2012
Built with Indexhibit

SURVIVE!: Attack
Catalogue Essay
Newsagency Gallery exhibition

June 10 - 30, 2012

In order to understand contemporary art in Yogyakarta (usually referred to as Yogya, and pronounced Jogja) you need to roughly understand the history and movement of its artist communities. Belonging to a community involves endless late night sessions drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and formulating the group’s collective take on “What’s wrong with Art” and “How we are going to change it”. While it might be difficult for an individual young artist to be taken seriously here, audiences, gallerists and collectors actively seek out new communities with a fresh perspective.

I first met Bayu Widodo in 2005 when he was a younger member of the Taring Padi collective, but even back then his work had a dark charisma that separated him from his peers. Today Bayu enjoys a pretty solid career as an artist in his own right and has undertaken residencies and exhibited in Australia, France, Czechoslavakia and across Asia. He’s also the Godfather of a collective of artists who operate out of a small but compelling community in Yogya called SURVIVE.

SURVIVE was founded in 2004 and opened its own space – SURVIVE Garage - in 2009. SURVIVE houses a small gallery as well as a shop that sells t-shirts, accessories, local music, do piercings and other stuff. They have a printing studio, a big art studio, and they regularly hold loud, crowded, rambling parties with live music and lots of beer (and another alcoholic drink called Arak that I recommend you don’t try)

Looking at the SURVIVE artists work in this exhibition highlights for me a really important shift that has happened in Indonesia over the past few years. Artists from the previous generation, such as Taring Padi, made work that spoke about “Us”; the politics, identity, and ideals of the Indonesian people. That generation attracted the attention of international curators who were keen to bring “the Voice from the Periphery” to their international biennales.

For this new generation, the need to represent Indonesia does not seem to be such a driving concern, and they tend to make work that speaks about “Me”. Bayu Widodo and Bonky Irrenius for example, create intense psychological landscapes populated by ambiguous, troubled figures. Their images to me seem to be driven not by ideology, but by the dark internal conflicts of the individual.

In my opinion, the shift of focus from “Us” to “Me” reflects a growing confidence amongst artists here that they are no longer interesting to the rest of the world simply because of their “Indonesian-ness” (eg: the Voice from the Periphery) but actually are good artists in their own right. And more broadly, I think Indonesian art no longer operates peripherally to the rest of the world, but actually is an emerging centre in its own right; with its own heated critical debates, a very strong local art market, and a huge audience of young, digital-native, globally aware Indonesians who are knowledgeable and discerning about where the cutting edge lies.

Many of the artists in SURVIVE are also street artists, adding further complexity to my argument. Back in the beginning, street art meant writing your name on someone else’s wall, and while things have since become more nuanced, street artists have always had an excellent capacity for building and maintaining the credibility of their Brand. No-one says “Me” better than a street artist.

Here Here’s giggling man, Methodos’ scary birdman, Love Hate Love’s bearded giant, Tuyuloveme’s forlorn ghoul and AntiTank’s propaganda posters are instantly identifiable on the streets of Yogya. But while it’s easy to spot their work, they are more than just names on a wall and often make pointed commentary about the daily life of the city and its denizens. So it’s not just about “Look at Me”, its also about “Listen to Me”.

Contemporary Art has been trying to make Street Art its whore for years, but has never fully succeeded. Good street artists always manage to take the money and run. I love the fact that in this exhibition you can buy one of Bayu’s works on canvas for $550 or you can buy the same image on a t-shirt for $40. That sums up what’s so cool about the SURVIVE crew. They have one foot in the art world, one foot on the street, another in fashion, another in activism… At the end of the day, what counts is staying true to the authenticity, originality and credibility of “Me”.

And if Contemporary Art has been trying to make Street Art its whore, its only because it knows that if it fucks itself for too long it will produce inbred babies. Contemporary Art needs dangerous hybrids like SURVIVE in order to keep the bloodline vigorous.

Malcolm Smith is an Australian artist, writer and curator currently living in Yogyakarta.