Malcolm Smith

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The Beresyit
Ipeh Nur and Enka Nkomr

(This essay accompanied Ipeh and Enkah’s exhibition at Krack Studio, Yogyakarta from 19 August to 17 September 2016) more info

The things we fear the most are the things that can’t be named. The drive to categorise and understand our world masks our persistent anxiety about what can’t be named and what we don’t understand. In Ipeh Nur and Enkah Nkomr’s slippery, creepy, ambivalent images, all those nameless things we try to repress behind the tidy boundaries of modern life come back to terrify us.

This presents a problem for me. My job, as writer and ‘interpreter’, is to provide you with an understanding of their work; to resolve its ambivalence. But what if the whole point of their work lies in its ambivalence? How much should I attempt to translate, and how much should be left ambivalent?

Ipeh and Enkah are young artists from Yogya in the final year of study at the (in)famous Institute Seni Indonesia, Yogyakarta. Both were born and grew up in and around Yogyakarta. Both Ipeh and Enkah’s works have been exhibited in respected Indonesian surveys of young Indonesian artists. Ipeh is a member of the all-girl collective “Tulang Rusuk”. Enkah is also active as a street artist in Yogya.

In this exhibition, Enkah’s work is a series of posters for largely fictional events. There are references to real life musicians, movies, and events, but nobody commissioned these posters – they’re more like pop culture re-assembled by Enkah’s unconscious. Nothing is sacred; Religious dogma, Javanese mysticism, horror, porn and popular culture all clash and compete for our attention.

Enkah describes his work as Horror. In classic film theory, what always underscores the horror genre is “the return of the repressed”. The central characters struggle to defend their nuclear family values against an immoral, inhuman threat that they’ve locked in the basement. Horror films provide a release valve for our societies to name and face their darkest fears. In a similar way, Enkah opens the door to the basement; to all the things that make us anxious; the irrational, transgressive, incomprehensible threats that we try to lock away from the regulated spaces of contemporary life. As much as his works are creepy, mystical and malevolent, they are also funny, ironic and critical.

Ipeh’s work relates to the story of “Goyang Penasaran”, an Indonesian horror story written in the 1970s by Abdullah Harahap, that has been reinvented many times in popular culture, most recently by local writer Intan Paramadhita. This is Ipeh’s retelling of the story. In the original story, the central character Salimah was a young woman who was well loved by the people in her village for her beautiful voice. She is a dangdut singer – a deeply sensuous popular music that is sung with the whole of the body. Salimah’s talent is so prodigious that she arouses the desire of many men in her village, but also the condemnation of the local Imam, Haji Ahmad, who eventually gathers the men in the village and expells her for inciting ‘zina mata’ (literally; adultery of the eyes). After several years away she returns, now wearing a long white jilbab. The local head of the village wants to marry her but Salimah knows that what really motivates him is his unrequited lust for her former self. She agrees to marry him only if he gives her Haji Ahmad’s eyes as his ‘dowry’.

Salima’s story can be interpreted in many ways. Abdullah Harahap’s original story is typical of Orde Baru popular culture which always tried to reinforce the importance of Indonesian family values, and the terrible things that happen to those who place their individual desires before it. Intan Paramadhita rewrites it as a critique of religious conservativism, and as a feminist parable. Ipeh’s revisioning avoids narratives that are redemptive. Like Enkah, her interest is in the visceral fears that drive us unconsciously; how shame feels, the power that comes from shaming others, the hypocrisy of virtue, the fallibility of humans, the bad choices we all make, the desire for revenge, suffering, destruction, horror.

Ipeh and Enkah often collaborate. In one of their collaborative works, Ipeh and Enkah have provided instructions for how to have sex. These instructions are overly detailed, sometimes moralizing, other times pornographic, and also funny. Theirs is not a redemptive vision of sex; it is neither an activity undertaken to make families, nor is it an identity legitimized by rights. For them, sex is the messy, wet, awkward slapping of bodies, or our shapeless anxieties of what the other person will think; am I clean? am I dirty? what is expected of me? should I shave my pubes? should I leave the light on?

Their works make liberal use of texts in Bahasa Java, Bahasa Indonesia, English, Arabic and other languages, including made-up ones. No matter what languages you speak, you are never going to understand all of these texts. And the point is not what you do understand, but how much always lies outside of what can be translated.

So; to return to my problem with translation and ambivalence. The myth that justifies ‘cosmopolitanism’ is that the whole world can be Google-translated, and that all forms of difference can be compartmentalized, redeemed and enshrined in rights. Contemporary art claims to be ‘global’ because now at every art fair and biennale there are identity-based works from every minority on the planet. But in reality only some work can be Google translated, and it’s usually the kind of work that reaffirms what we already know.

Identity politics since the 1980s has challenged the privileged, white, middle-class West to broaden its definitions of what it means to be normal and to provide opportunities and security for marginalized sections of the community. Overall, that’s been a really good thing.

But identity politics (and curatorial writing) also tends to work like Google Translate; they can only translate into a form and language that we are familiar with. So for example, in Ipeh’s retelling of Salimah’s story the jilabab is often featured but its meaning is ambiguous. All at once it’s a garment, a fashion accessory, but it’s also a symbol of purity, and of religious devotion. But then it shifts at times into a symbol of coercion, a signifier of Islamic women’s resistance to western liberalism, but also resistance to male sexual violence. It can be read as a symbol of fallen grace, of hypocrisy, shame and for sure many other things. Identity politics has always struggled with the Jilabab because, like Google Translate, it can’t cope with this kind of ambivalence, because ambivalence is precisely what translation attempts to resolve. In clearly defined and regulated notions of identity there is security. In ambivalence there is anxiety.

Liberals (and I grudgingly include myself among them) tend to believe that if we continue to patiently and forgivingly Google Translate every irregular form of humanity on the planet, give them a name, frame them within rights discourse, and invite them to a biennale, then eventually everyone will be… what? happy?

This reminds me of those Nineteenth Century naturalists and their portfolios of carefully drawn specimens. Despite their incredible attention to detail those images always seem so lifeless. In the same way that they turn venomous snakes and lethal spiders into objects of benign interest, identity politics today has a tendency to package ‘difference’ as another new commodity that’s been certified safe for our consumption.

But what is required is more than simply ‘tolerance’ of difference. In our encounter with difference, we also need to be open to the possibility of our own transformation.

So the story of Salimah can equally apply to us ‘liberals’ as it can to the conservative men in her village. The world will always be more complex and more confusing than the tidy ideologies by which we comfortably compartmentalize our lives. And there will always be those who exceed those boundaries. We can allow these encounters to transform us, but if not, then don’t we deserve the same fate as Haji Ahmad? What use are eyes if we don’t allow them to see?

In unleashing the monsters in our basements, Ipeh and Enkah invite us to revel in the insecurities, uncertainties and ambivalences of contemporary life. Its good to get used to them, to laugh at them, and even embrace them. A changing world will always invoke our insecurities and our fears, but a world that refuses to change is ultimately more terrifying.

Malcolm Smith