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A Biennale That Puts Indonesia on the Map

September 17, 2003

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Sept. 16 - Djie Tjianan, a prominent collector of contemporary Indonesian art, and Jim Supangkat, a curator, wondered: If Indonesian art was so alluring to collectors in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo, why not show the best at home?

So they created a biennale here, and after an overflow opening night this month and guests from around the region, they knew they were on to something.

Mr. Tjianan, who splits his time between Indonesia and the United States, runs a gallery, C P Artspace, in Washington that challenges the notion of the Western domination of international art. Why not, he asked himself, continue that theme in Jakarta?

The biennale, running through Oct. 3, emphasizes Indonesian artists, but displays works by artists from all over Asia (several top Chinese artists are represented) and to a lesser extent from elsewhere, including the United States and the Netherlands, the former colonial power here.

The C P Open Biennale is at the usually rundown National Gallery, which Mr. Tjianan spruced up with repainted white walls and cleaned floors. The show is strongest in painting, sculpture and drawing, although there are some video pieces and a smattering of digital art. Mr. Tjianan and Mr. Supangkat make no apologies.

"Even the new biennale in Shanghai and Bangladesh tend to show developments in Europe and the United States," said Mr. Supangkat, who chose the show's 128 featured artists from 700 entries. "We wanted to do something different."

Mr. Tjianan, 42, happily surveyed a Saturday crowd that had chosen the freshly opened biennale over the usual outing to one of this city's many shopping malls. "The international art world will probably see this as obsolete, outdated," he said of the emphasis on painting and sculpture. "We're proposing a new, old model."

But the works look far from old.

Center stage goes to one of Indonesia's best known artists, Heri Dono, who was selected for the Venice Biennale this year. Mr. Supangkat chose Mr. Dono's giant cardboard cutout of a horse and strung it from the ceiling, where it greets visitors entering the main gallery. Called "Trojan Horse," this floor-to-ceiling work, with its comic shape, sets an upbeat tone for the show.

In the next few rooms Mr. Supangkat juxtaposes works that represent some of the biennale's internal ideas. One theme singled out by Mr. Supangkat is what he calls "localness reconsidered": works that use craft techniques or hark back to traditional forms. Somewhat surprising, he has placed a cluster of F. Widayanto's decorative ceramic sculptures representative of traditional Indonesian female figures next to a contemporary mixed-media work by Mella Jaarsma. Ms. Jaarsma, who recently has begun exploring the military and its dominance in life here, devised a piece that places a human model wearing a canvas military-style uniform beside a canvas tent kitted out with toothpaste, soap and other needs of a refugee.

Many proposals submitted for the biennale were unexecuted ideas. "In many cases we just encouraged the artist to go ahead," Mr. Supangkat said. Some works turned out to be less successful than expected, he said, but for the most part his confidence in the wide array of Indonesian artists — most of whose work he knows well — has paid off. He was particularly pleased with some of the younger artists.

Yuli Prayitno, 29, promised in his proposal to blend found objects with wood. His finished work has become a conversation piece: it is a startlingly simple sculpture of a suspended enamelware teapot that pours beautifully finished blond wood into an enamelware mug.

Another work drawing attention comes from Yani M. Sastranegara, best known for her sculptures based on nature. This time she used hundreds of gray fiber stones hung individually from the ceiling by narrow thread, hovering over the water in a way that gives a sense of order to nature's disorder.

Mr. Tjianan said he was gratified that he could lure three Chinese artists, as well as Gu Wenda, a Chinese-born artist living in Brooklyn, to the show. Mr. Gu, who has made site-specific installations around the motif of the United Nations in New York, San Francisco and in Europe, was easy to persuade. "We went to New York and he felt the same way we do, that Asian things should be more highly regarded in the international art world," Mr. Tjianan said.

For the Jakarta show Mr. Gu came to install a piece made from more than 1,000 yards of human hair coiled on a gallery floor. Labels of the many countries where the Chinese diaspora live were scattered through the hair.

From Beijing, Fang Lijun, a member of the school of Cynical Realism that formed after 1989, sent two paintings showing the anomie of daily life. One canvas is centered on a nearly photo-perfect child's chubby hand, presumably from China's spoiled middle class, stretching into a blue infinity of sky, cloud and rose petals. The other shows a male, stretched out in a pool, apparently about to drown as pale blue water washes over him, leaving only his face above the surface.

As a weekend throng continued to swell, Mr. Tjianan seemed a little surprised. A real estate developer who was sent by his Indonesian family to expand the business into the United States, Mr. Tjianan said he found his true calling in the art world. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a management degree but exercised his passion for art by opening his Washington gallery three years ago.

"I firmly believe that Indonesian art is good," he said. "What is lacking is the way we present the art to the world. I believe by packaging the art, the art will get more respect."

So he considered it a coup that the biennale's opening was attended by Akira Tatehata, a professor and curator at Tama Art University in Tokyo; Kuroda Raiji, the chief curator at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan; and Kwok Kian Chow, the curator at the Singapore Art Museum.

Also pleasing was the turnout of featured artists at the opening night, a fairly rare event at most biennales. The artists' friends came, too, some of whom had spent days helping install works.

"This is almost like a relief," Mr. Tjianan said. "It means: 'Hey, we can do this. Hey, we're pretty good.' "