Indians, Indonesians Meet in the Art World
A blurry video in a darkened room, a small ficus bush and a partially obscured screen. Akiq Aw’s exploration of the shadowy world between faiths is both haunting and yet strangely banal as a nondescript and unremarkable man recounts his personal journey from Islam to Christianity. Later a woman describes her path in the opposite direction.
In another room, similarly darkened, the artist Krisnamurti has placed a hijab-wearing woman on the floor. A video is projected across her body. We look on as the ebb and flow of the tide appears to course over her silent, unmoving form. Meanwhile, the near-deafening soundtrack of water crashing on the shore is likewise mesmerizing.
In yet another room, the Indian artist N.S. Harsha has splattered paint on the raw concrete. It’s a diagonal gash that seems to represent both an artist at work (pace Jackson Pollock) as well as Creation itself, as the Big Bang unfurls across the cosmos.
Contemporary art biennales are often an exercise in confusion and dysfunctionality: strange installations, incoherent videos and ugly paintings, reveling in their manifest lack of artistry. But while the recently-opened Jogja Biennale, Yogyakarta’s 11th, has its fair share of non sequiturs, the event is held together by an unflinching curatorial focus, namely the decision to highlight only two countries — India and Indonesia — and one theme: religiosity.
The ensuing result is an exciting and eye-opening survey of art and contemporary concerns from two of Asia’s largest nations: one predominantly Hindu, the other Muslim, and both avowedly secular.
Interestingly, the art from both countries is resolutely centrist and plural. Fears of and concerns about extremism and bigotry are interspersed with pleas for tolerance and mutual understanding with a sideways glance at the gradual erosion and disappearance of the traditional, local myths and folklore. To my mind (but maybe I’m biased since I’ve long been one of the Biennale’s supporters) the ambition and sheer bravado of the venture are quite enthralling.
I like the way that artists, writers and curators from both countries have come together, dispensing with the accepted metropolitan centers of validation and supposed excellence. London, Paris and New York are forgotten as the art displayed creates its own intriguing linkages and juxtapositions between Yogyakarta, Jakarta, Mumbai, Mysore and Delhi.
According to the director of the Biennale Foundation running the operations, the next Biennale will focus on an Arab nation. As Egypt goes through the throes of its own reformasi, I only hope that it’ll be the chosen country, providing a fascinating counterpoint to Indonesia.
Of course, the bonds between India and Indonesia will be hard to equal. The ties between the two are profound and deep — deeper indeed than the bonds that link Indonesia with China. Moreover, on the south-facing plains of Central Java with Mount Merapi as a silent sentinel, the historical and cultural traces of the relationship — Prambanan and Borobudur — remain as haunting presences of an interaction that has spanned the millennia.
In more modern times, India and Indonesia supported each other’s independence movements. Furthermore, in the 1950s and ’60s, Sukarno and Jawaharlal Nehru were the twin pillars of the Non-Aligned Movement. Now, after decades of less intense relations, India and Indonesia are fast regaining interest in each other, as the Biennale demonstrates.
While I’m not sure if the artists themselves realize it, the Biennale suggests that India and Indonesia mean to also assert themselves both culturally and economically. This is going to be the beginning of a marked increase in engagement between the two Asian giants. Recognizing this trend, the Biennale’s organizers made a big point about stressing the documentary aspects of the collaboration and the need to increase Indonesian understanding of India.
Still, the real surprise was the enormous number of art lovers at the Biennale’s opening night. With literally thousands of people cramming into the Jogja National Museum (most of them young students) the city displayed its dynamism and openness to the arts. As the Indian co-curator Suman Gopinath told me, “The sheer number of people is amazing. Besides that, the Biennale shows what you can achieve with limited funds and infrastructure.”
The Jogja National Museum is not the Guggenheim or the Tate Modern. Nonetheless, it has both the art and the audience, an audience that believes in the centrality of human expression and creativity.
(Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.)