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A Fight From Gambir

Seno Joko Suryono
TEMPO
September 21, 2003

The six old, faded suitcases are lying on the floor. Stickers with flight bar-codes from Cathay Pacific and other airlines are attached on them, making us assume that the suitcases have all gone a long way. And in silence, we see an old, rusty suitcase that opens and closes slowly by itself, looking like a mouth trying to say something. This is thus the work of Herman Radjab a work that somehow reminds us to the figure of an artist as an art actor in the contemporary era, who is like Ashaverus the character in Greek mythology. Like Ashaverus, the artist has the chance to be "condemned" to do cross-cultural travels.

The biennale, held by CP Gallery has the theme of "Interpellation." We know that this idiom has a political connotation, as it refers to the right of members of the Indonesian Legislative Assembly to ask questions or demand explanations about certain policies of the government"such right has been very well used since the fall of the New Order regime. Jim Supangkat, the curator, uses the idiom to express certain political cultural attitudes. This has to do with his anger with the mainstream (conventional) thinking in the art world which says that a work is recognized as having an international quality when the work is included in biennales in Europe and United States.

The tradition of biennale or triennial is indeed European. However, people can assume that behind such thinking might lurk the arrogance of a Hegelian "ideology" of the 1830s, which believes that the history of the world"s aesthetic after Egypt, China, India, and Andalusia ends in Europe. It is in Europe, so the belief goes, where the "absolute spirit" realizes its highest aesthetic and spiritual attainment as a whole (Hegel came to this belief without having traveled to the East).

Lately, international biennales have been held in Thailand, South Africa, China, Korea, and Bangladesh, to counter such bias. And now, an Indonesian named Djie Tjianan, the owner of a gallery called the CP Art Space in Washington, brought up the idea that Jakarta should have its own international biennale. Indeed, there has been local biennales such as the steady Yogyakarta Biennale. But an international biennale is necessary so that, together with other non-European and non-American biennales, Jakarta can assert that internationalism can arise from areas that have different problems from the West. This is more or less what he intends to do. "This is a new experiment in the tradition of the world"s biennale," says Jim Supangkat, the curator and one of the founders of the CP Foundation.

Consider the work of Mizuho Matsunaga, a guest artist, titled Stories under the Same Sky. The woman from Aichi, Japan, disagrees with Samuel Huntington"s thesis about the clash of civilizations. She installs a tent made from mosquito nets. We are invited to enter and lie on the mat inside the tent. Above us are tens of wind chimes with smiling pictures of various people from all over the world. We gaze on the different smiles and listen to the tinkering sound of the chimes, "ting" ding" ding""

On the other hand, Symphony in Black: The Global Orchestra by Setiawan Sabana, an artist from Bandung, betrays a gloomy mood. Before us stand 26 metal holders for musical scores. It seems as if an orchestra is ready to perform"only here the holders do not hold musical scores; instead, they hold burnt books, and are complete with infusion bottles filled with black liquid, the bottles" catheters wrapping the holders.

At the front row, roughly at the place where the orchestra"s conductor is supposed to stand, lies an open black umbrella. On the floor, a sharp needle is ticking and an open book displays the phrase: "The Outbreak of War." The sentences on the open page are full with underlines and strikes, as if the sentences have been taken up and digested wholly by someone. The work exudes a strong chilling aura. Similar case is found with the sculpture of Budi Kustarto, an artist who graduated from the Indonesian Art Institute, Yogyakarta. The sculpture shows someone with a hollow neck sitting down. The head is lying on the floor next to the feet; the hands are still busily tying up the right calf.

Several of our artists use natural stones as their material, as if they are showing that the stones on the street"yes, even the most real aspect of the locality"can become intriguing sources for creation. As soon as we enter the National Gallery, we see that at the left-hand side of the gallery"s terrace a huge wooden plank is installed; the plank seems burnt, there are holes on it, huge river stones and rocks are scattered around and on it, as are coconut fibers and bamboo stalks. This is Stone Heart by Hendrawan Riyanto. The curves of the bamboos"spiralling around, protruding here and there, crisscrossing each other"create an atmosphere of chaos that appears wild and violent. This is unlike the effect we get as we look at the work of Yani M. Sastranegara. The artist, who has studied at the Jakarta Art Institute, hangs small and big stones, making them appear as if floating in midair. She seems to have intentionally chosen stones that have elliptical shapes. The strength of Yani"s composition creates a surrealistic image, especially when the stones are moving on their own.

Our artists with a penchant for self-portrayals also receive their due places. Although the works are not displayed in the same room, it is interesting to compare them. Agus Suwage as usual shows his self-portraits in extra-large sizes, but this time he appears chewing frogs. FX Harsono portrays himself lying down, with needles raining down. Meanwhile, Gde Mahendra, the youth from Bali, is protesting about the fact that women always become the object for nude paintings. He therefore is portraying himself naked, without covering his penis. However, his gestures are far from erotic. Meanwhile, Wimo Ambala Bayang from Indonesian Institute for the Arts, Yogyakarta, is questioning the gender issues. There is a picture of him, showing him looking at a mirror in a toilet, wearing bras. We see that social changes trigger people to make new identifications with their own bodies.

The Time magazine in its August edition presented its main report titled "The Asian Journey," the story of young Asian thinkers who form diaspora communities in various countries, and who then reflect back on their roots and their homes. It is a pity that there are no artists who talk about the Asian artists traveling abroad to search for other Asian experiences.

Consider the work of Midori Hota, a woman born in Nagoya who has been living in Bali since 1996. She is interested in wings. Wings are a symbol of another world"perhaps a godly one. She bought a little toy showing Buddha meditating on a lotus leaf. The toy self-rotates while giving out the sound of spiritual songs. Hirota also keeps her family"s memory between the wings. Or look at Gu Wenda"s work, A Thin Line: A History of Chinese Diaspora. The man traveled to myriad towns and cities in the world and always asked for a bundle of a friend"s hair. It resulted in his owning a total of a thousand meter long Chinese hair, and he arranged the hair on the floor in continuous circles resembling the milky way.

From 126 artists who attend the biennale, 20 per cent are guest artists from Japan, Italy, The Philippines, China, and The Netherlands. Jim Supangkat admits that the first international biennale is actually still "national-plus." Continuous negotiation is necessary to widen the network. Of course, it is not done in order to find an Asian identity, but to search for new visual refreshment. In Jakarta, we have the Jakarta Film Festival, an international film festival that once was able to present Jafar Panahi, director of the movie The Mirror. Art Summit, an international performance art forum, once presented Kazuo Ohno, Sankai Juku, and Chandralekha, the masters in the world of performance art. It is normal, therefore, if in this biennale people expect to see in the future new works from various countries (or at least from Asia) that are considered surprising or problematic. The biennale can then also serve as an event to measure and evaluate how far our artists have actually gone.