The brightly colorful advertisement promises a whopping 80% discount. At first glance, it doesn’t look much different than the countless billboards on the streets of Jakarta. Only the name of the fashion company advertised provokes a double take: Fakery London. The label is an invention of Ali Akbar, one of the many artists participating in the 2009 Jakarta Biennial that have installed their work in public spaces throughout the Indonesian capital. Among the declared goals of the art show is to reach as large an audience as possible.
Jakarta is a booming metropolis; 23 million people live in the city and its environs. Yet unlike Shanghai, Beijing, and Mumbai, it’s not one of the Asian cities the western media likes to celebrate as an exciting new center for art. Although Indonesia boasts the fourth largest population worldwide, it is a blind spot on the map of the international scene. Now, the makers of the biennial would like to change this. Participants such as the British video artist Phil Collins and the Australian painter David Griggs enhance the event’s international status, underscoring the exhibition’s aim to improve connections between Indonesian artists and other countries.
For Enin Supriyanto, one of the country’s most important young curators, the relatively skimpy international attention paid to Indonesian art results from its weak infrastructure. "Contemporary art practice in Indonesia largely develops within a very limited institutional circle—art schools and for the most part commercial galleries. We don’t have museums or national galleries that operate well as public institutions serving a public understanding and appreciation for modern and contemporary art."
This is what the "Deutsche Bank Corporate and Art Day" in Jakarta sought to address in June of 2008 by showing works from some of the country’s most important contemporary artists. The exhibition, curated by Supriyanto, not only took stock of the current situation, but also, in a very pragmatic sense, performed some basic cultural groundwork to bring the Indonesian scene into contact with national and international companies.
Since the opening of its main branch in Jakarta, Deutsche Bank has presented exhibitions of Indonesian artists and has purchased numerous works of art ranging from the charcoal drawings of the sculptor Anusapati, whose work fuses the reduced formal language of Modernism with archaic elements of folk art, to EddiE haRA’s colorful pop paintings. Together with Heri Dono and Eko Nugroho, haRA is one of the artists whose works were purchased during the "Corporate and Art Day." These new acquisitions were recently shown at the bank’s Frankfurt headquarters; starting at the end of 2010, they can be seen as part of the new art installment in the modernized twin towers.
Dono and haRA belong to the generation responsible for the mood of emergence in the 1980s Indonesian scene. "Both of them arrived on the Indonesian art scene with more or less ‘rebellious gestures,’" explains Supriyanto. "Rebellious in the sense that they tried to break away from the art works, styles, approaches, and kinds of thinking that dominated art schools." Instead of orientating themselves along abstract or classical, realistic models, these contemporaries of American artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring employed a visual vocabulary that came from outside the established art world, such as graffiti, comics, and children’s drawings. They resolutely addressed the prevailing social and political issues of the time: "These artists were among the young intellectuals who started to question and criticize the Indonesian authoritarian government of President Suharto."
Dono’s unique paintings, installations, and performances are influenced both by street art and by the Javanese puppet theater, Wayang; his aim is to reach the viewer directly and include him or her in the work. Wayang: from Gods to Bart Simpson is the programmatic title of Dono’s performance of 1991, in which he combines narrative elements and mythological figures of Indonesian folk art with quotes from western pop culture. Like Dono, EddiE haRA also merges eastern tradition with a western style of life; this fusion results in paradoxical and ironic statements, such as his series Postcard from the Alps, which most of the the works purchased for the Deutsche Bank Collection stem from. And these works did indeed arise in the Alps, or at least in their shadow—in Basel, to be precise, where he has been living with his Swiss librarian wife since 1997. The artist, who loves Paul Klee and raves about Heavy Metal, works with used envelopes and postcards, covering them in slogans like Destroy Pop Art! Join the Resistance! Think Green!; adding drawings of crossbones, robots, and weird mythical animals; and adhering cut-out newspaper images and stickers to them. His greetings from the Alps oscillate between a playful reminiscence on Art Brut, Dada collage, and absurd commentaries on art and society.
Today, the movement initiated in the eighties is carried on by a younger generation. In his painting Pendatang Baru (2008), which was acquired by the Deutsche Bank Collection, the 1977-born Eko Nugroho combines urban street art and science fiction comics. Nugroho often works in the public arena—whether it be in his native city Yogyakarta or in the Wrangel Strasse neighborhood of Berlin-Kreuzberg, where he painted the façade of a neighboring building assisted by a group of local youths for the 2005 exhibition project Räume und Schatten (Rooms and Shadows) at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Like the astronaut in Pendatang Baru, the two gigantic heads adorning the Berlin building are typical examples of Nugroho’s arsenal of figures: fantasy beings comprised of human limbs and machine elements with faces for the most part hidden behind masks or helmets. The artist’s works arise in reaction to a society that is on the one hand Muslim-influenced and severely hierarchical, and on the other overwhelmed by images of globalization and western standards of values.
After Jakarta, the university city of Yogyakarta is the most important cultural center in the country. Affandi, who took part in the 1954 Venice Biennale and is probably the best-known post-war Indonesian artist, works here; important contemporary artists like Anusapati, S. Teddy D., and Nindityo Adipurnomo studied at the ISI art academy. Along with an array of galleries, a vibrant underground art and music scene thrives in this city of 500,000 inhabitants, while the Cemeti Art House, one of Indonesia’s few non-commercial art spaces, established itself here. Founded in 1988 by Adipurnomo and his wife, the Dutch artist Mella Jaarsma, the exhibition house has been one of the most important platforms for the country’s artistic avant-garde for many years now. Dono had his first one-man show here, and Eko Nugroho presented his exhibition project Hidden Violence, in which he, like Dono a generation before, explores traditional Wayang Theater.
"Local traditional art has always been one of the main sources of inspiration for modern and contemporary Indonesian art," Supriyanto explains. "For most Indonesians, it’s very hard to ignore these elements of local traditions, as they’re still surrounded by a rich arts and crafts culture. We can witness how modern and contemporary Indonesian art has these two different elements operating at once and on many levels: local traditions in art and craft, and modernization or Modernism in art. They do not necessarily get along all the time. Yet within this tension or combination, we can trace the dynamic of a society coping and shaping its own life and history. And in the end, when artists start to question their own identity in this vast global village, local culture and tradition will always be part of their quest, I think."
Yet it’s precisely this strategy that often leads to problems. This is due in part to the inflationary marketing of rapidly generated trends in the newly proclaimed Asian art centers. For instance, the mixture of western pop art and communist propaganda that characterized young Chinese painting over the past several years initially hit the western art market like a bomb, but soon fell into disrepute. Too superficial, too decorative, too speculative was the critics’ judgment. And while the western market has a constant eye out for new, "authentic" socially critical positions, this still often takes place from the more or less blatant perspective of exoticism.
This not only applies to Indonesia, but also to the so-called developing countries. When artists adopt a more traditional formal language, their works are dismissed as folklore or decoration—but they are considered imitators when they orient themselves along western styles. It seems as though the fast-paced market and art criticism pursuing these new movements are lacking in basic knowledge concerning the traditions and local value systems the artists operate within. "I mean, let’s admit that there are still a lot of misconceptions prevailing in the western art establishment regarding contemporary art coming out of a country like Indonesia," Supriyanto says. "These are probably leftovers from the domination of Modernist views among art critics, curators, and journalists schooled in the linear model of western modern and contemporary history. Once we can overcome this, as is currently happening with Chinese contemporary art, then we can gain a proper attention and appreciation of Indonesian art."