> CP foundation main website

<< Seminar Essays List

Suwarno Wisetrotomo

A Fragile History

Our lives are complex and full of events, as well as infected with the habit of forgetting, slowly but surely, that has become a chronic disease. That we have become forgetful, or simply apt at appearing to have forgotten, it seems that this has all become a reality that is easy enough to understand. A lot of important things have passed, almost without documentation or any kind of adequate notation. So that when we wish to recall a specific event, and maybe even desire to reconstruct it, we are immediately ambushed by difficulties relating to the dearth of data and documentation. Because of this we frequently have to just "reminisce" anxiously.

That is just the way it is; our history has been built upon (and with) the debris of scattered events. Important or not important, fundamental or not fundamental, the main actors or figures, the intellectual actors or even just some happy souls, or those of some other ilk, are all mixed up together, which tends to make any view of our past unclear or unfocused. This kind of reality, whether we like it or not, has opened up the opportunity to mutually exploit this neglect in order to grab the chance and leeway to take on a specific role or position, which is seen as desirable (what is truly not important becomes important, and those who were truly only extras have become the main characters, while the actual actors have been caught up in a whirlpool, and so on and on).

The history of art in Indonesia, I guess, has also developed within a more or less similar situation and condition. Memory (or reminiscence) is truly very limited, and it is strongly possible that after a long enough time has passed some distortion will occur. Documentation and notation are the most important "implements" for avoiding the occurrence of such distortion, or, at least, to minimize the inflation or diminishing of certain things (figures, artworks, events). But, certainly, when memory is allowed unlimited space and made to become the basis for viewing things (perspective), within the context of history, it is a sure thing that the will motivate every effort possible to put forth (and to write) the "truth".

This means that memory must still be supported by numerous and various documentation (whatever the form) in order to be fully used as a source for research or tracing down the facts. The artworks of an artist can constitute the tracks of creativity whose existence can be considered as the presence of an artifact, while also containing and being present as a social fact (socifact) and a mental fact (mentifact). Such works of art constitute visual documentation that holds a number of stories behind or within them. This is where the trouble or question arises, that being how extensively any given visual documentation contains signs that can express or reveal an adequate historical background. Whether this content exists or not, what is important to consider is just how extensively the researcher or observer possesses the ability to read the meaning of or to interpret those signs. This is the complex challenge that exists within the process of reading.

The history of Indonesian art that we have know all this time could be said to have a tendency to remember (and not down) the monumental, the huge, the stars, who are considered heroes. I think it is about time that this tendency was brought to a halt through greater efforts at reading, interpreting, analyzing and writing about the ordinary man, the non-heroes, the non-stars, those who are standing in the wings, and even, perhaps, those who have lost out entirely. Noting those who exist on the edges of the mainstream, I believe, could be a very important thing within the reality of our current art which is reveling in diversity (plurality). The dynamics of the existence of our art in not only colored by, but is also dominated by those who are in the mainstream. However, on the fringes, there is a massive wave of developments that are not only immense but also highly diverse.

Thus, I think that we can start with seriously reconsidering historiography; that being the matter of recording history (the history of art in Indonesia) in writing. The problem is in the "reviving" of a string of events that can be deconstructed and comprehended as a unified whole in which the individual happenings connect with one another. Reviving an event is actually the same kind of process as tracing the connecting points within a process of change, either from the point of view of an artist"s external existence or from that of the artist"s internal life, or even from the viewpoint of the myths that surround that artist. As it turns out, myths have an important position, as has been pointed out by the historian Sartono Kartodidjo, "" to a historian the myth is a mentifact that always carried a symbolic meaning that creates an intellectual space for those who embrace that myth. In attempting to understand each historiography, this space constitutes a fundamental factor; thus, without an understanding based on that type of mindset it would be difficult for anyone to interpret any given historiography" (Sartono Kartodirdjo, 1993; 241). "The meaning of Historiography", continues Sartono Kartodirdjo, "is an expression of the awareness of both history and the intellectual space that provides the framework for it." (ibid). Historiography has become important because, besides functioning to establish facts and data about events of the past (figures and artworks), it also brings meaning. Other functions are the genetic function (as an effort to determine identity through tracing genealogy); the didactic function (a number of events as experience), and the pragmatic function (for example, legitimizing a political situation or power) (see: Sartono K., 1993; 242-43).

The writing of history involving historical facts has been critically questioned by C. L. Becker thorough three interrogative points: (1) What actually is a historical fact?; (2) Where can the historical fact be found?, and (3) When does something become a historical fact? (F.R. Ankersmit, 1987; 99). Becker answers those questions as follows, "it would be good for us to understand that historical fact is always deconstructed or organized by the researcher of history" (ibid, p.100). Therefore, from that according to Becker, the answer to "where can the historical fact be found?" is something like this: "in the minds of the historian/researcher involved in the discussion of the historical facts under consideration". The question "when does something become historical fact?" is answered in the following manner: "historical fact is contemporary to the discussion that is in process about that fact" (ibid). What is needed now is a continuous effort to complete each and every existing analysis.

Thus, the historiography in Indonesian art, I think, needs to be differentiated from the practice of interpretation (qualitative) of artworks. Historiography must take into consideration the unique individual aspects and the sociopolitical, economic, and cultural complexity of society and the societal context. As well, the historiography must also provide a proportional portion and position to every individual existing within that complexity. In the end, what will emerge is an ideal history, one in which the uniqueness of the individual meets with the social, cultural, political and economic conditions of the given artist" as a contextual background, as a backdrop for the interpretation of the "meaning of artworks".

Fragile Reading

The analysis of and writing about art is the tip of the process of reading and interpretation. This is an interactive process between the practical world and the realm of theory. This kind of process is certain to encounter difficulties and complexities, among others the overlapping and overpowering of the existence of one of these elements by the other. Tension emerges when we enter the arena of the visual and the territory of meaning, while continuing to have to pay attention to a variety of other aspects and contexts. With the patience to go through this kind of process, it is hoped that we can avoid the rejection of or the attributing of meaning that tends to be absolute (that is to avoid arbitrariness).

If this type of process is an integral part of the construction of history, it seems that I need to once again quote the opinions of Sartono Kartodirdjo: "facts must not be used to support a theory, in fact the opposite is true, any theory that cannot shed light on the facts must be set aside. Never ever adjust the facts to fit a theory" (1993; 6). In other words, we must avoid the tendency toward subjectivity, and the tendency to manipulate the interaction between fact and theory or between a work of art and theoretical analysis.

In every presentation of a biennale exhibition in Indonesia there has been a major weakness in maintaining a balance from one biennale event to the one that follows (the first biennale to be held on a national scale was presented in 1974 by the Jakarta Art Council; and was followed by a biennale of regional scale " the Yogyakarta Art Biennale which was first held in 1988). One of the biggest gaps in relation to this lack of balance is felt in the dearth of historical analysis that could fill and inform the critical reading by curators of the works presented in those biennales or any other exhibition of this type. It is almost as if the curator"s analysis results in the elimination of the practice and thinking of art that continue to exist together. Frequently, which is simple enough to understand and is usually understood, the concept of the curator seems to be absolute, and because of that it is perceived as worthy of criticism, but not of completion or enrichment through constructive input.

The incidence of biennale exhibitions in Indonesia up to now has almost drawn controversy; among other things, there has emerged a tendency to doubt or even ignore the good intentions and the point of view of the curator within the midst of a wide creative field.

I would like to offer a way to resolve this; once a biennale event has reached the planning stages, a process of research, analysis and writing should immediately and simultaneously be initiated and implemented that can be used as a comparative tool in the reading of the curator"s perspective. In this way, there is a method of presenting two analyses; the first being about the ideas, perspective and viewpoint of the curator as apparent in a biennale event. The second being about the situations and conditions of within a specific span of time (spatial and temporal boundaries) which is that period of time in which the biennale event is presented. Both, together provide observations on the tendencies and developments in art over a two year span (between the biennale events), which are then presented within different (intellectual) "spaces".

If these two types of analyses could be presented (published) simultaneously, at the very least the ensuing deliberation would be more expansive, and not just become another discussion of the same old issue of who was included and why, and of who was not included and why, or of why one person was selected and another was not chosen, and so on and on and on, which tends to be counterproductive. The discussion could, rather, develop with a look at the perspective of the curator, as well as the situations and conditions of the art that are currently in sway. A layered reality could thus be set forth. In that way the issue of inclusion or exclusion would then become very clear in relation to the "selection" and the "historical reality".

A look at the event of the cp open biennale Exhibition 2003 indicates that a gap continues to exist. The curators" perspective as seen within the curatorial process and aspects, became the sole perspective (and, as such, the only reality or context for the practices and thinking in art that had been going on over the past two years). To me, the curators" effort at dissecting the main theme of Interpellation for the biennale presentation into three sub-themes, those being Changes Interpreted, History Translated, and Localness Reconsidered, was an interesting step that bears further observation and consideration. This appears to me to be a significant embryonic framework within which to trace the relationships between the visual and the context, which could be of tremendous assistance in the analysis of art history.

All of these efforts are carried out in connection with achieving an understanding of the relationship between an artwork and its meaning, as well as between a work of art and the public. I think that there certainly should be a satisfactory explanation available for the above mentioned; for example, in connection with the relationship between the social, cultural, political and economic background, and the works and creativity of an artist. What we have seen so far is the domination of critical analysis of an artist"s creations. This means the more basic aspects of continuity (survival) and change within a body of artwork as a whole, whose relationship to various meanings/purposes (social, political, economic and cultural) has not yet been expressed comprehensively. I think that this matter is thus "a joint project", meaning that this is not only the task of the curator within an isolated/individual event.

In several important art exhibitions in Indonesia (biennale, triennale, or others), both of these things were apparent although not in a balanced manner. The critical evaluation of the artworks became the main focus of attention (on the part of the curators and critics, as well as of the observers), while matters related to the larger context and meaning of the artworks almost entirely escaped attention (what has occurred recently is the emergence of a number of writings or observations that are full of derision, without offering any solution or alternative).

Noting What Exists on the Fringes of the Mainstream

One thing that requires another look is the social role of the artist in the midst of the complexity of social phenomena. Within the context of the global interaction we are experiencing now, discussing art (as an element of culture) cannot be avoided even though this brings us face to face with the art institutions (infrastructure) and hegemony of the international discourse.

Artists, in cannot be denied, are faced with numerous challenges relating to how capable they are of developing a good network within the local as well as international discourse and infrastructure. This is because the opportunity and the space between the international and the local are realities that spread out before our eyes. Then, just how capable are the artists of interpreting, entering into, and becoming involved in the global-local dynamics. And, finally, how capable are the artists of maintaining or achieving social capital, and cultural capital, in the form of the possession of a strong work ethic, a critical attitude, the ability to keep commitments, and to present oneself through confident performance. And, from the institutional point of view, just how capable are the artists of continued professional performance. Analyzing and writing within this type of environment, along with the presentation of events like biennales (including the cp open biennale), I guess are ways to "interrupt" the idea of "interpellation" that arises within every artist. I think that this "interpellation", or, perhaps also "subversion" toward oneself, should become an awareness and a desire for everyone. In that way, who knows, the awareness of oneself (not pseudo or pretentious) could infect everyone, and wisdom could become our main partner in dialog.

References Ankersmit, F.R., Reflexi Tentang Sejarah, Pendapat-Pendapat Moderen tentang Filsafat Sejarah (Reflection on History: A Modern Philosophy of History) trans. by Dick Hatoko, Jakarta: Gramedia, 1987.

Kartodirdjo, Sartono, Pendekatan Ilmu Sosial dalam Metodologi Sejarah (Social Science Approaches in Methodology of History), Jakarta: Gramedia, Pustaka Utama, 1993.

Vatitimo, Gianni, The End of Modernity, trans by Sunarwoto Dema, Yogyakarta: Sadasiva, 2003.

Viswanathan, Gauri (ed.), Kekuasaan, Politik, dan Kebudayaan, Wawancara dengan Edward W. Said ( Interview with Edward W. Said: Power, Politic and Culture) trans. by Hartono Hadikusumo & E. Setyawati Alkhatab, Yogyakarta: Pustaka Promethea, 2003.

Suwarno Wisetrotomo is an art critic, independent curator work besed in Yogyakarta. He is also a lecturer of the Indonesian Art Institute, Yogyakarta.