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  Localness Considered
By Ricky Zaelani (co-curator)

The problems of localness is a condition situated against the development of art outside the West, whether due to the principle to define mainstream art or in the situation of the currently shifting paradigms in art. This is not unlike two streams coming from different directions, converging and creating the problems of localness. Such problems do not always put art outside the West in a difficult position, but they can trap us into thinking in relativistic and particular ways, thus forcing us to exclusion.

The first stream seems to come from outside, creating “new” traditions. In this regard, one must note the influence and the development of the modern art, or the perceptions on art in the Western sense. Exhibitions, galleries, museums, biennale, criticism, and art journals, for example, are matters unknown in the traditional art. The systems in the practice and theories of modern art has been recognized and accepted in the development of art outside the West; the problem is how far these practice and theories have been conducted and whether they can be advantageous. Generally, the problem lies in the dominating presence of the traditions and the art history of the West, keeping in mind the pursuit of the standard of judgment a’la mainstream art. In mainstream art, there are distinctions between “art objects” and “non-art objects.” The hierarchy is defined based on the living tradition in the culture of the West. There are ways, techniques, habits, and certain media that are recognized as a part of the statement of high art (some examples are paintings of oil on canvasses, or bronze statues). Meanwhile, works created from glass or ceramics, for example, are defined as “non-art objects” categorized as craft or low art. The hierarchical categories differentiate the kinds of exhibitions (art or craft). The exhibitions of the mainstream art practices, like notes in the signposts of art history, are categorized as art exhibition in the high art context.

The post-modern paradigm and the development of contemporary art have destroyed the boundaries separating high art with popular art. The radical changes in the perceptions of art open up the horizon of creations and theories on art, down to the interactive forms in the daily living. This of course has also “murdered” the specific and elitist ways of Modernism. It would come to seem as if there were no longer any boundaries that separate the expressions of high culture and low or popular culture. But the changes have apparently meant more for the refinement of the high culture itself, and this refinement did not go in reverse ways. Sue Rowley notes this:

However, to the extent that postmodern notions of creativity emphasize representation over object, and bricolage over skill, these notions do not recuperate craft practice. Breaking down the opposition of high art and popular culture similarly opens up space for craft but, in fact, it is the culture of mass media, mass production and mass consumption that is the focus here. Artisant tradition and hand-technologies remain peripheral to the focal concerns of postmodern theory and practice. (13

The changes in the art paradigms in the world today explains the changing situation of the high art/high culture of the West in the project to reinvent the role and the important position of the culture of the mass media, mass production, and mass consumption, in the perception of the growth of a “global society.” The situation can be read in the development of the mainstream contemporary art. This is different with the situation of the high art/high culture outside the West. If the art development outside the West nurtures the tradition of art in the Western sense, it can be trapped into “mimicking” or being in the hegemony of the West. On the other hand, relying on the high art in the perception of the traditions (of the culture outside the West), puts this art development outside the West in the “difficult” position of the category of non-art, craft, or low culture. That way, the ceramic work of Widayanto, Narcissus, will never be able to be a part of the contemporary mainstream art exhibition. For the art public in Indonesia, however, the ceramic works of Widayanto are considered successful in reading and re-presenting the traditional values of the Javanese. This is also why the works are accepted and appreciated just like works of paintings or sculptures. Meanwhile, the influence of the 'traditional culture of the Javanese' in Widayanto's works is a part of the discourse about the other stream, coming internally and creating the problems of localness.

The cultural tradition, especially in the perception of the cultures outside the West, has evolved into an important part in creating the cultural awareness and identity. This becomes the energy to differentiate itself from the West. However, this does not mean that such cultural traditions form a guarantee for neutral and certain values. “Tradition is what is invented by a society's cultural vanguard in the course of a struggle,” explains Geeta Kapur. In tradition, there is also a set of values considered as the originary:

“It [tradition] marks off territories/identities of a named people. In that sense it is a loaded signifier drawing energy from an imaginary resource (the ideal tradition), but always remaining by virtue of its strongly ideological import an ambivalent, often culpable, sign in need of constant historical interpretation so that we know which way it is pointing.” (14

In the many changes of the material culture surrounding us, traditions do not change but instead need some interpretative acts - and some kinds of interpellative practices as was suggested by Bhabha are valid here. In their functions, the traditional values are indeed supposed to be able to define actively their relations with the changing reality and life. Therefore, they naturally have within themselves a kind of boundaries. These boundaries are defined in their structure as some forms of symbol-forming activities. Although traditions assign a “boundary”; of sorts for the cultural realm or identity of someone or some society, they do no necessarily function as fixed and absolute boundaries. A tradition lives on exactly as it is appreciated and used. It will be “owned” by anyone who respects it, even for someone who is willing to go over the cultural boundaries of a certain tradition.

Therefore, the problem of localness is not always about the problem of the usage of the traditional perspectives. In the problem of localness, interpretations on traditions become a kind of translation from a different direction (or from the reading of the direction of art in the Western sense). Traditions can indeed be read from another perspective/ethnography, for example - but this way the space of localness in the sense of the interpellative practices is not opened. The result will be different if we view this through a "translation space", such as art exhibitions. In this biennale, we can see the series of Hariadi Suadi's works, Drama of The Age of Deformity, which of course is different from the traditional glass painting we can find in Cirebon, West Java, where Hariadi Suadi came from. Hariadi's ideas are indeed rooted in his traditions. But he re-reads the traditions and places them in the contemporary space of today's living. Hariadi does not change many of the traditional symbols (in the form of the wayang), except in the usage of colors that he individually assigns. It is interesting to note that Hariadi chooses to use text in Indonesian instead of in the ancient Javanese script, as he keeps in mind the space for communication and interaction processes. In these processes, Hariadi invites and brings about the space for experiences and perceptions among the viewers (naturally those who understand Indonesian) in a kind of inter-textuality room as Julia Kristeva has once imagined.