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Jim Supangkat's Last Harbor

Arif Firmansjah
September 25, 2003

When the CP Open Biennale is opened in the beginning of last September at the National Gallery of Indonesia in Jakarta, Jim Supangkat looked very busy. He moved from one place to another, greeting the coming visitors.

In fact, Jim has been busy preparing the event since the beginning"it was thus not only during the opening night that he had been busy. Since mid 2002, the campaign for the biennale has been conducted in various cities and towns. The campaign was held to invite artists to participate in the event, and to introduce the biennale and its theme. As the result of the campaign, the committee received around 700 proposals from various artists. After the selection by the curatorial team headed directly by Jim Supangkat, 123 works are accepted to be displayed in the biennale. "The most complicated process of the biennale was indeed the curating of those hundreds of works," admits the renowned curator.

As an international biennale that carries domestic dimensions, it is indeed difficult to decide which work that could be included in the biennale. This is especially hard as the biennale is projected to be a part of the existing international biennales. Some new dimensions are inserted so that the CP Open Biennale is different from similar events in other countries. It is interesting to note that Jim Supangkat includes craft works as a part of the works displayed in the biennale. This is a bold move as in other countries craft works are often considered as having no artistic values and as being merely a part of the leisure industry.

The new works are displayed in the CP Open Biennale alongside paintings, installation works, and sculptures, which are the main "tenants" of the biennale. The bold steps are taken in line with the "interpellation" theme that seeks to break the domination of the artistic beliefs of Europe and United States. "With this event we want to offer new passions," says the tall, well-built man.

To be able to read and arrange the works in a biennale, a curatorial acumen is needed. This is important so that the lay public can rightly read the mission of an exhibition. It is a pity that such needs cannot always be fulfilled. Indonesia does not have the specific educational materials necessary to produce curators. The existing curators usually come with a background in art. "Just like myself," says Jim Supangkat.

Due to Dissatisfaction

At first, the man who was born in Makassar on May 2, 1948, was known as a sculptor. His parents had wanted him to become a medical doctor, as his father dr. Supangkat Danusaputra had been. Unfortunately, the man who liked to protest his teachers during high school found art to be more interesting. The Faculty of Art in Bandung Institute of Technology became his educational harbor after finishing high school.

His penchant for protesting found another outlet when he became a sculptor in the mid seventies. Together with S. Prinka, Dede Eri Supria, and Hardi, Jim Supangkat came forward with the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (the New Art Movement), as a harbor for artists to realize and work on ideas that are uncommon for the time. "We wanted to offer new dimension in art," he says.

Some differences that surfaced in the movement then led him to choose his own path. He found a new harbor as an art editor in the Zaman magazine until he then moved to Tempo magazine. "But my main profession was still as an artist," states the husband of Altje Ully Panjaitan. Altje Ully is a sculptor herself, and was once Jim"s student at the Jakarta Art Institute. It is while working as an art editor that Jim"s ability to read a work of art and write about it is systematically sharpened.

As an artist, Jim has produced works that are widely recognized, at least if the quality of the works are measured with the awards that he has received. In 1975, his work, entitled Torn, received the Sprenson Memorial Award from the Faculty of Art, Bandung Institute of Technology. In the writing world, his essay on architecture has won the Indonesian Architect Association Award in 1985.

His journey as an artist became even longer as his works were displayed in exhibitions in Indonesia and abroad. But the tens and tens of exhibitions he had attended raised some grave questions in himself. "I start to become dissatisfied with my works," explains the man whose full name is Jim Abiyasa Supangkat Silaen. The restlessness became stronger in the beginning of the nineties.

At the same time, Jim remembered the information he had once received about the world of art in the United States and Europe. The art world in the United States was full of upheavals in mid eighties and the upheavals gave birth to a critical attitude toward the organizational system in museums. Curators in museums served only as a bureaucratic body and were concerned merely with the administrative routines. Susan Sondakh was one of the actors who voiced the critical attitude of the artists. Such upheavals then triggered the birth of the independent curators, who were not attached to a particular museum and were free to conduct dialogues with living artists.

The upheavals in United States moved Jim Supangkat to go further. The profession of curatorship caught his interest, as he had wanted to do something new. In 1990, Jim thus declared his profession as an independent curator. His first trial was as the curator of The Jakarta Institute of Art, which was founded in 1990 but dissolved two years later, due to insufficient fund.

Like in its country of birth, the phrase "independent curator" invited debates and controversies, especially as there were no Indonesian museums that functioned just like museums in United States and Europe. Many thought that Jim was too early to declare himself an independent curator. Although becoming the focus of sharp debates, Jim was certain that Indonesia needed this profession, especially as the development of Indonesian art was sufficiently good.

To be able to know Indonesian art, the international world could not possibly relate directly with the artists. "What they would seek first was certainly the local curator," says the former lecturer of the Jakarta Art Institute and Trisakti University. It was as if Jim"s new profession received a blessing. Jim saw that Japan started to enter the Indonesian art scene with the Japan Foundation. Jim was right, as the foundation later became his sponsor to travel around Japan and visit museums in the country in order to learn the curatorial art.

"Learning by doing""that was what Jim did in order to become a curator, as there are no formal institution that prepare someone for this profession. To be able to work as a curator, a knowledge and mastery of basic art and art history are necessary. This last requirement is nowhere to be found in Indonesia. In Asia, only Japan and China have the special institutions that teach art history, their graduates earn the title of artis story. "One of the field where those graduates work is the curatorial one," explains Jim.

Jim Supangkat, who was only educated in art at the Bandung Institute of Technology, was lucky to have a distinct passion. Furthermore, his thesis on aesthetic had required him to learn philosophy for a year in Gadjah Mada University. The requirement to be able to read works philosophically has thus been fulfilled early on. Added to the passion is his interest in reading literatures that he receives from his colleagues in United States and Europe.

Jim has now become not only a masterful curator, but also a point of reference for young curators who have lately mushroomed. Just like his experience in his old days, Jim often asks young curators like Asmudjo to work together, so that everyone will be able to share his or her knowledge and experiences in order to become a good curator. It is in this last harbor that Jim finds his satisfaction.