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A Never Ending Process of Interpellation

Prof. Dr. Primadi Tabrani


The term and concept of fine art in Indonesia is something relatively new, having come from the west through colonialism, and has turned out to have shortcomings in the eyes of the Indonesian culture. First, western fine art makes a distinction between “high” or museum art and “low” or public arts, and sometimes speaks only of painting and sculpture. Second, the application of the “beauty-aesthetics-mainstream-universal” chain of though has proven to be problematic with its theoretical and absolute definitions and dominant histories.

Third, the “schools” defined within this framework of thinking become dominant histories within a linear chronology, in which a given school is automatically considered as falling within a specific period of time. For example, this approach requires that Impressionism be considered only in relation to the relatively narrow window of time in which this school or style of art emerged, and that Post-Modern (or Post-mo) trends in art can only be considered in connection with the period coming chronologically after the period in which Modernism emerged.

To say it blatantly, within this constrained framework of thought, in which everything is defined and categorized in little boxes of time, it would be impossible for elements of the Post-mo school’s thinking and style to emerge in the period of prehistory. But is this perception accurate? Conversely, in the Post-mo period, are all the art forms and styles occurring definable only within the Post-mo school? It turns out that in the midst of the Post-mo period, we simultaneously have works that better reflect the thinking or artistic stances of other schools!

The fourth shortcoming in relation to the Indonesian mindset on aesthetics has to do with the western cult of individualism that claims that creation is good, while eclecticism is bad. Fifth, the assumption built into the concept of “modern” that something new is always desirable, while tradition is perceived to be obsolete and needful of discarding. This stance has been imposed within modern chronological art histories from the period of Romanticism up to Cubism.

The result has been that once art has been thoroughly explored within this framework, the western thinkers have easily discarded their own credo by lumping the concepts of “ethnic” “period art” and the various styles of the “isms” into one type of art and labeling it “Post Modern”. What then is the period after Post-mo to be called: Post-Post-mo? Anti-climatically, it seems that what comes is just “Contemporary Art”.

Sixth, western visual art theory remains very Newtonian (a world view emerging with the publishing of Principia in 1687), while we are now in the Einsteinium era (with a new view of the universe set forth in Einstein’s General Relativity Theory in 1916).

For many thinkers, this western fine art view involving discourses, theoretical justifications, systems, and dominant histories, has become an intellectual headache. It simply doesn’t compute within the Indonesia artistic experience. So why follow this train of thought on endlessly in Indonesia? Why not look for and define our own view of the art existing and developing in the archipelago? This Indonesian visual art ”world view” would at least provide another approach, perhaps more valid and applicable, to the art happening here and now?

Indonesian Visual Art

What I mean by “Indonesian art” is the type of art produced in the archipelago from the period of prehistory to the current time. Indonesian art, in this sense, is actually a “total art”, and in this context any art form that has a visual element, can be called “visual art”. Conversely it could also be called another kind of art. Originally in Indonesia there was no painting or sculpture that stood alone as a specifically defined art form. Artistic creations were always simply part of a whole, or “total art”. For example: the Wayang puppet could be called a visual art, while simultaneously it is a part of a theater performance. In the same way, a sculpture could be viewed as an individual entity, while it almost always is also part of a temple, a building, or related integrally to some architectural structure.

Indonesia’s history of visual art is a never-ending process of interpolation. And there are numerous concepts behind this seemingly endless interpellation within Indonesian art. In this paper I will talk about several aspects of this phenomenon.

Nusantara Concept ( Wawasan Nusantara )

For hundreds of thousands of years the inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago (or Nusantara) were impacted by the oscillation of two continental plates (the Sunda Plate of Asia and the Sahul Plate of Australia), and the fluctuations and changes occurring in two seas (the Indian and Pacific oceans). During the latest Ice Age the sea and land levels oscillated up and down, to eventually create the string of Indonesian Islands that stretch from Sabang to Merauke, a distance equivalent to that between London and Teheran.

The migration of people from Asia to the archipelago was already happening during this period of geographic fluctuation and upheaval. In these earlier time, when the sea levels were low, the Java Sea was more like a massive river, and the people living along its banks could simply escape into the inner recesses of the various islands defined when the water began to rise. Because of this, there remains a strong bond between the inhabitants of the eastern parts of Sumatra island, northern Java island and southern Kalimantan island. It is still as if these peoples feel that there is “family” beyond the sea surrounding their individual “homelands”. And this is characteristic of the perception of the peoples of the other islands in the archipelago as well.

Over time, as the bodies of water separating the land masses became larger and more clearly defined, the perception of Indonesia as Nusantara existing from pre-historic times, modified into a view of the combined land masses as a kind of “maritime continent”. The people of the Indonesian archipelago refer to their country or homeland as “Tanah-Air”, which literally means “land and water”. So Indonesia is not only the islands, but also the sea between those islands. This is why although every local art form existing among the more than 17,500 islands of Indonesia is unique, there are many designs found in the traditional visual arts of Indonesia that are basically the same. This reality is reflected in the saying Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).

Some Basic Designs

The “Gunungan” (Mountain), or the ‘”Tree of Life” design is not characteristic of Central Java, but also of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and other islands. The mono-dualism concept can also be found throughout the Indonesian archipelago. And the “boat design” is commonly found in houses in Sumatra, the Sunda region, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Papua, and Flores, among other places. Just as the outrigger canoe is typical of the entire archipelago, the STP system of drawing and its accompanying traditional visual language are also found everywhere among the Indonesian islands.

Mono-dualism Concept

The mono-dualism concept can best be explained as a way of thinking in which contrasts are perceived as part of a whole, not as separate things: above-below, man-woman, good-bad, right-left, creativity-eclecticism. These pairs are not perceived as being opposed to each other, rather, they are seen as partners. Progress happens as a result of the working together of these dual entities within a single effort. It is not the problem of which is stronger and more powerful, or which is the weaker and which is the subject or the object. The central idea is one of the two is only complete when accompanied by its partner. This concept includes the “space” between the dual elements as another factor, a unifying agent, within the overall relationship and interaction. This whole approach to existence can thus be called the concept of mono-dualism; there are three elements which together make one whole. So within this mono-dualism way of thinking, does it have to seem strange to look for a “third element”, a “space” between relativism and universalism? In contrast to what often occurs within the framework of the western, compartmentalized way of thinking, things rarely “fall between the cracks” within the mono-dualism concept.

The thinking of the West also acknowledges dualism, but within this view, the pairs are almost always perceived as opposed to each other, and progress is achieved as a result of the tension and conflict between those opposing polls. Mono-dualism is radically different than this western concept of conflict as catalyst.

Interpellation and Hybridism

So interpellation and hybrids are a common thing in Indonesia art. The Indonesian cultural “hybrid” can be defined as follows: anything that comes from outside will be integrated until it has taken on a high level of local content. In this way we will not lose our grasp on our perception of ourselves, or our “identity”. It is as if our identity or sense of “self” has simply developed and progressed through the passage of time and the various eras without any fundamental shift in the initial paradigm. This concept of artistic or cultural “hybridism” does not fit easily into the western cultural exchange theory.

However, it should not be difficult to understand how such a mindset toward oneself or such an “identity” could develop among a people with the experiences that geography, time, and history have imposed on the residents of the archipelago. Since the Indonesian islands functioned as a physical “passageway” between two oceans and between continents, it is also reasonable to perceive the basic culture existing in the archipelago as functioning as the passageway between several religions. In the same way, it can be seen that the Indonesian archipelago also acted as the passageway for the various colonial, cultural, political and economic systems. The result of these geographic, religious, cultural and sociopolitical comings and goings has been the continuous process of interpolation, with the tendency toward hybridism being a natural outcome. Within the Indonesian way of thinking, nobody can truly create something from zero, we can only make a better use of, or develop an improved performance from what has been set out as a pattern in the past.

Understandably, although there are diverse ethnic roots existing in the archipelago, as a whole, Indonesians form a solidly collective society, and are not so strong on individualism. Therefore, in relation to the type of artworks traditionally developed and created by Indonesians, what occurs is usually a type of “total art” resulting from teamwork rather than individual effort. Once this is understood, then, is it really that much of a jump in logic to say that performance visual art and multimedia art are not, for Indonesian’s, contemporary art forms? This perception of art in Indonesia might also help us to understand why performance art and multimedia art are so popular in contemporary Indonesia. And it may also hold the answer as to why so many young Indonesians have made such advances and gained international recognition for their experimental filmmaking and organization of Independent film festivals.

Systems of Drawing and Visual Language

Western art in general, fine art -- painting and sculpture -- in particular, are very Newtonian. In essence, Newton “stopped” time with the idea that the moon could circle the earth if and only if the earth was stationary. Although we all know now that the earth is not stationary, it also moves, the Newtonian system and the primary assumptions about the physical world it put into place have continued to dominate human thought processes for more than 300 years (since the Principia was published in 1687). For Newton a plane is two dimensional (width and length) and an object is three dimensional (width, length, height), without any consideration of the dimension of time. Under the influence of this way of perceiving the world, was developed the most important system of drawing and sculpting in western tradition: Naturalism-Perspective-Freeze moment (NPF). Under this system, an object is drawn/sculpted from one distance, one angle and one time, much the same thing that occurs when we take a snapshot with a camera. So the picture becomes a scene on which the objects are imprisoned in a frame and can only describe the action or situation depicted in the picture. Western fine art, from the time of the Greeks up to just before Cubism, was predominantly influenced of this NPF system of drawing. Through colonialism this system traveled globally, eventually reaching Indonesia.

In Indonesia, another system of drawing developed within the perceptual context of the Nusantara culture and visual tradition: the Space-Time-Plane (STP) system. In this system, the artist “shoots” from several different distances, several angles, and several periods of time simultaneously. So not only does a drawing, or work of art, created within this conceptual framework include a recognition of the dimension of time, it deals with a wholeness, not just elements of the whole. This system allows a picture to encompass a sequence that can have several scenes and spaces, and can include repeated depictions of a given object, with the items depicted remaining unframed and free within space. What results is still definable as a picture, but it is also “alive” in that it is a “still” picture that follows or carries a story line. It is, therefore, interesting to note that this STP system of drawing, born in prehistory, falls very closely into line with discoveries relating to modern physics. In particular, the General Relativity theory of Einstein (1916) which states that, “Every object in the universe has its own time and space, that are not the same with each other, but those objects can become a part of a common theme”.

So actually Picasso’s Cubism comes closer in approach to this STP system than it does to the conceptual underpinnings of the NPM system in its conception and application. But when Picasso’s Cubistic depictions of objects move across the boundaries of the NPM system, they become increasingly difficult to recognize, whereas in the traditional drawing of Indonesia, it remains easy to recognize the depictions as representative of specific objects. So Cubism is in a sense a “hybrid” of two trains of thought or approaches, whereas the STP is a visual language. In comparison to the representative drawings created within the conceptual framework of the NPM system, drawings created within the scope of the STP mindset are descriptive explanations of that which is depicted or drawn. And a traditional drawing not only describes what is drawn, but since it has a time dimension, it can tell a story as well. This then could be understood to put the STP approach to visual art into intimate proximity with the storytelling art forms such as singing, dance, theater and literature.

Actually, within the context of mono-dualism, these two systems of drawing are not at all confrontational. There exists the necessary meeting space to see them as a pair in the effort to depict. If the exploitation of the dimension of time in an STP system drawing is kept to a minimum, it is easily perceived as a drawing created within the framework of the NPF system.

Conversely, with the advent of digital technology, images created within the framework of the NPM approach can be manipulated in such a way that they incorporate the dimension of time; meaning that this image begins to resemble more closely an image created within STP framework.

This is most apparent in “digital editing” – the latest offspring of the contemporary explosion of electronic gadgetry. In digital editing, “stockshots”, whether in the form of still photos or of segments of film footage, are manipulated electronically through application of techniques such as dissolves, inserts, zoom ins and zoom outs, shifts, pans, wipes, etc. All one really needs to merge the NPM system images and this technology into an articulate whole – a finished work of art -- is simply to apply the mindset of the STP system’s visual language which allows the artist to ask and answer simultaneously: how big, how small, how far, how close? Thus the mono-dualism conceptual view enables the bringing together of the static, separate NPM stockshots in such a way that they tell a story as in the STP approach to art. Hence the thinking required of a digital editor would clearly be enhanced tremendously by studying the traditional Indonesian STP visual language.

Beauty and Communication

Anthropological studies have determined that not all ethnic cultures in the world make art for the sake of beauty. However, these same studies have come to the conclusion that all ethnic entities do make art for the sake of communication. This is especially true of cultures in which art is still deeply rooted on ritual. So, within this understanding of art as a form of communication, couldn’t installation art be perceived as a contemporary version of ritual art?

Within the scope of Indonesia’s traditional culture, the mono-dualism concept readily brings about the phenomenon of hybridism: in Indonesia, art is accepted as something beautiful as it is perceived within western thought, but it is also understood as a way to communicate or tell a story. For that reason, representative drawing as produced within the NPM system of thought and which can be readily recognized, finds acceptance among the Indonesian public. However, we don’t like abstract drawings, most of which result from a pulling away from the NPM system’s boundaries, because their content does not seem readily accessible. Indonesians value the beautiful because we don’t like to exaggerate the ugly or sad aspects of life. But we do not take the depiction of beauty to the extreme of Greek art in which a dying warrior must still have a smile on his face. Indonesians also tend to prefer typological beauty over individual beauty. The face of Arjuna (a hero from the wayang puppet theater) has the characteristics of what is perceived as princely beauty. This same preference for a generalized rather than specific beauty can be seen in a lack of close-up images and direct depictions of specific visages in Indonesian traditional visuals arts: reliefs, wayang puppets, wayang scroll paintings, etc. Indonesians communicate more through gestures than facial expression, hence the characters in Indonesian traditional drawings are drawn from head to foot. The faces of the Buddha, kings or princes in a Borobudur temple relief cannot be recognized as the visages of any particular individuals, they are recognized through their physical stances, attributes and gestures.

This is one of the reasons why creations by Indonesian artists who are heavily influenced by western theories and styles with their abstract constructs and aesthetics appear elitist and alien to the lay public. It is difficult for Indonesians to relate to western visual images. Western art or western influenced local art fails to communicate readily because it simply does not speak the same language.


From the above it can be understood that Total Art, Mono-dualism, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), the Nusantara concept, and the STP visual language of Indonesia reach back to prehistory. With a social and cultural structure deeply rooted in such concepts, this may be why, even though when, sometimes, as a people who have long inhabited a land that functions as a gateway for the world, Indonesians may feel as if they are being swept along by western concepts, they find it is simply a matter of reaching out to grasp their existing cultural heritage to regain their equilibrium and identity.

This is as true today as it was when the first travelers from western regions passed through the waterways of the archipelago. That is one of the reasons why it is so important for us to scrutinize our Indonesian art experience and analyze contemporary developments and trends in relation to our own cultural heritage. This is especially true when western theoretical justification of art styles and directions threaten to create a cultural headache within Indonesian art circles and confusion within our larger cultural environment. We must allow ourselves to step back and take a close look at the ideas of Total Art-Single Art; Modern-Traditional; High Art-Popular Art; Universality-Plurality, and Individuality-teamwork. Also, why not study the Indonesian Visual Art Concepts and strive to make them more available to the international art world as another way of seeing things?

It may just be that this is the best way to find the theoretical meeting point within the “third space” between cultural relativism and universalism.


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