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The New Global Spectacle: A Show at Play
By Shin-Yi Yang

            Recent discussions of urban culture have focused on urban identity in terms of community, gender and kinship. Those move away from earlier discussions of urban features such as architecture and city planning are the result of the impact of globalization on urban life and urban residents. Several biennale exhibitions have already addressed the globalist  force and the manner in which it has shaped the social class hierarchies and landscapes of particular cities. For instance, the 2002 São Paulo Biennale in Brazil explored the metropolis as a source of creative energy for contemporary artists . Its theme, Metropolitan Iconographies, suggested that the social transformation of a city naturally influences artists’ creations. The 2002 Shanghai Biennale in China explored Shanghai as both a newly emerging  globalized  city in China and a global city as part of the world. Its theme, Urban Creation , explored China’s rapid move toward global capitalism and the manner in which those move has changed the landscape of Shanghai, transforming it into a metropolis.
            But what about Jakarta? The landscape has been altered here, and globalization has also certainly increased social unrest, but this is only part of the story. Global transformation of a Third World  city often results in social class upheaval, and this is also true of  Jakarta.
            The 2005 CP Biennale held in Jakarta, however, distinguishes itself from the others in that it also addresses urban culture in terms of ethnic and cultural  diversity. This theme of diversity appeals to me because of my own background. I grew up in Taiwan, but I have been educated in the United States. I have lived in New York for the last nine years, and this urban experience has framed my newcomer’s perspective of Jakarta’s urban identity.


Heterogeneity in Urban Life

            The increase in Jakarta’s urban population and the accompanying economic growth over the last decade are the result of global capitalism. This metropolitan capital of Indonesia has a population of 8.7 million and is the largest city in the country.
Skyscrapers have been built to house transnational corporations. Visitors note that these global icons jut out from a skyline that used to be nearly unbroken by tall buildings. Jakarta was recently connected with satellite cities in the surrounding areas and the geographic territory of the metropolis  has expanded into that of a mega-metropolis. Its suburban areas are becoming more populated. The metropolitan area also includes Thousand Islands, located north of the city. Like other global cities, Jakarta  is both a financial and a political center. Scholars of Southeast Asian urbanism Hans-Dieter Evers and Rüdiger  Korff note that the metropolis has developed into a “showcase of global modernity and expression of national self-consciousness”
            If the urban identity of Jakarta seems identical to that of other global cities, does this imply that we can think of Jakarta as we think of New York or London? Evers and Korff argue that globalization  in a city such as Jakarta is marked by both local flavor and great diversity in population. According to them, the diversity found here is more pronounced than in other global cities.
            Globalization theoretician Sakia Sassen, discussing the ethnic diversity in urban culture, notes: ”When we focus on place and production, we can see that globalization is a process involving not only the corporate economy and the new transnational corporate culture but also, for example, the immigrant economies and work cultures evident in our large cities.” Her observation applies to ethnic communities such as Chinatown or Jewish communities in New York. According to this observation, we might say that in metropolises such as Jakarta and New York, urban culture is very much associated with cultural and ethnic diversity. We can thus view urbanism as a way of life and as a way of culture, á la Sassen, rather than noting only physical infrastructure generally associated with it.
            Like New York, Jakarta no doubt is a city of heterogeneity; its residents include a variety of religious groups such as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians, and ethnic groups such as Javanese, Chinese, Westerners, Arabs, and so forth. J.S. Furnivcall describes this cultural diversity as central to a “plural society” in which diversified ethnic communities coexist Manuel Castells uses the term “dual  city” to characterize the cultural diversity of the city in which rich and poor, First and Third World, coexist. . However, unlike Furnivell and Castells, I am concerned with how these diverse groups interact to form this urban culture.
            Generally speaking, two models of cultural diversity exist as revealed in the multiculturalist concept : one is “melting pot” (which was stereotypically associated with New York and the other critics pointed out that it did not accurately describe the nature of diversity in New York) and the other is “cultural mosaic” (which has been used to describe Ottawa.) Terry S. McGee, the prominent scholar on Southeast Asian urbanism, argued in 1967 that “the Southeast Asian city is a mosaic of cultural and racial worlds, each invoking the memory of other lands and people”

According to him, the urban culture in Jakarta is more inclined to the “cultural mosaic” rather than the “melting of the pot” model of diversity. Is McGee’s 1967 observation still relevant?
            An argument can be made for Jakarta’s “cultural mosaic” as a coalescing unity of its separate groups. Evers and  Korff  point out that globalization contributes to the rise of nationalism in shaping the characteristics of this city and serves to unite its multicultural features.  For instance, in the miniature amusement park in Jakarta there is a miniature landscape of Indonesia that symbolizes the unification of its heterogeneous ethnicity.
On the other hand, the establishment of a national or state-run museum in the city icreases the public and collective space in which Indonesians can acknowledge their ethnic and religious heterogeneity. Furthermore, these museums are colonial structures built by the Dutch during the 17th century, and this Dutch tradition might account for the persistence of separate ethnic communities in Jakarta.

Living in a Colonial Universe.
            In addition to skyscrapers, contemporary Jakarta is dotted with colonial buildings. The wealth of colonial architecture here is associated with Jakarta’s colonial history. In the 17th century, the Dutch tried to remake Jakarta in the image of cities in Holland. After defeating a local Javanese kingdom, the Dutch East India Company constructed forts and captured the city. According to Berner and Korff, during the colonial period, “Batavia (Jakarta’s earlier name) was a place for entrepôt trade location selected due to its value for navigation.” It is consisted of “inland states dominated by landed elites, and commercial cities dominated by traders.”

            The Dutch called the area “Batavia” after a type of ship used by the early colonialists for discovering “the new world”. “The new world” they found in Jakarta attracted numerous laborers, local elites, and adventures. Colonialism in Batavia quickly amplified the city’s heterogeneous qualities. As James Cobban points out, in the first part of the seventeenth century the city was “heterogenetic with regard to cultural change…”
            Batavia served as an essential seaport and terminal in the early stages of “globalization” in the 17th century. The Dutch East India Company orchestrated a great deal of importing and exporting, which included trading goods between Europe and Asia. Ranging from Holland to Batavia, in Southeast Asia, to Formosa (Taiwan) and Nagasaki in Japan, this global treading route was vast. The Dutch colonized south Formosa for thirty-five years, during which time they set up a trading center and built castles and forts. The Dutch were also allowed to trade on the island Dejima in Nagasaki Bay, the only window to the outside world in Japan during that period of time. This trading thus shaped a new global topography in the 17th century. Batavia was essential, as it was the capital of the larger colonial territory. Migration (forced and voluntary) and colonial expansion (with the accompanying influence of the mother culture) were historically prominent in forming the communities in Jakarta and in creating a culturally heterogeneous community.
            The Dutch colonial occupation ended in 1949. After the Japanese occupation during World War II, Indonesians fought for their independence and renamed the city “Jakarta” (associated with its original nama  “Jayakarta” meaning “victorious” and “prosperous” in Javanese). Robbie Goh and Brenda Yeoh point out that nationalism in contemporary Jakarta is still, however, associated with its colonial heterogeneity. Thus, the nationalism shaping the city’s current urban culture needs to be addressed in light of its colonial history.
            With strong ties to its colonial past, the contemporary urban culture of Jakarta might be understood as a postcolonial culture. The economic growth of Jakarta into a global metropolis has increased the discrepancies in income and life style between various groups; Berner and Korff would call this phenomena a “metropolitan dilemma”. This uneven development can be seen as an effect of global capitalism, amplified by the country’s colonial j\history. Jakarta’s postcolonial condition thus renders it different from other cities in Indonesia. Tensions may occur as a result of class differences and a multiplicity of ethnic group coexisting in Jakarta. During the colonial period, social groups were strictly separated, and this separation seems to persist in present-day Jakarta. The separation thus implies Jakarta’s urban culture as “cultural mosaic”.

The Urban Playground
            The 2005 CP Biennale takes place at the Bank Indonesia, a colonial building constructed in 1828. As a bank, it can be seen as a symbol of global capitalism, yet its material base is colonial. The dual nature of Jakarta itself is revealed in this building. The fifty Indonesian artist participating in this exhibition are of diverse ethnicities and religions. This particular exhibition can thus be seen as a mirror of Jakarta itself, with it blend of colonial past and global present and it dramatic diversity of population, reflected in the diversity of the exhibiting artists. In this exhibition, the question of Jakarta’s urban identity is explored.
At times wee Jakarta, after a period of globalization, as having “melted” or merged into the one global  mega pot. At other times, its many groups seems to have remained distinctly diverse and separate. Thus, we might suggest that the urban identity is fully complicated and mysterious; on the one hand, the diversity is merged by the energy of global culture. Yet on the other hand, it remains to supply global transformation. Thus, globalization can be seen as a vertiginous force in formulating the diversity of the urban identity in Jakarta.
            It is interesting  that several international artists participating in this exhibition respond to the effects of global capitalism in their homes in similar ways. Yang Zhenzhong (b.1968) and Xu Zhen (b.1977), whose works express their “playful” experiences and critical attitudes toward Shanghai’s transformation into a newly emerging global city, are represented here. In his video work Light and Easy (2002), Yang literally turns the landscape of  Pudong  upside down, appearing to support the tower of East Pearl, the signature of Shanghai’s global capitalism with his finger. During the span of a minute in his video, we see him moving in and out of the frame to carefully---acrobatically---maintain his balancing of the tower. This performance appears playful; he turns the landscape into his playground. However, it also expresses his struggle---his very being is engaged to balance this global symbol. In the video work Shouting (1998), Xu Zhen addresses Shanghai’s growing urban population after its move to global capitalism in late 1997. In his video, we see crowds of urban residents in constant motion, urban patterns of transportation setting their rhythm. Suddenly, however, we hear shouting and see the urban flux abruptly suspended. People appear confused, disoriented. A few seconds later, people begin moving again. Xu thus hijacks the usual urban pattern to emphasize how central it is to the city’s functioning.
            Xing Danwen (b.1976) and Kuang-Yu Tsui (b.1974) treat the city as a playground. Xing’s series of photographs, Urban Fiction (2004-2005), portrays this female artists melodramatic life as it I splayed out in various villas in Beijing, China. The villas form a kind of  Westernized community decorated with colossal columns and low relief; their luxurious appointments symbolize the status and privilege of the higher social classes. Beijing actually has numerous villas, which can be seen as symbols of global capitalism. In the photos, we see surrealistic scenarios of a murder, a bride running away from a wedding, and so forth. Xing uses the female perspective to express the impact of the villa on private life. In The Shortcut to the Systematic Life: Superficial Circumstance Superficial Life . (2002), Tsui himself performs various roles in the urban environment of Taipei, Taiwan. In one segment, he walks into a parking lot and masquerades as a parking attendant. In another segment, he goes visits a park and sees people practicing Kung-fu; he then changes his clothes and joins them. His mimicry reveals his identity as an intruder in public life. Both artists use a playful strategy to express their urban identity; Xing emphasizes gender, while Tsui keeps things gender neutral. This “playing” suggests that in the new “global playground” these artists must assume a dizzying array of new roles, even though the whole “play” may seem unreal, and even surreal, at times.
            These artists take masters into their own hands. In the face of the many changes wrought by globalization that they experienced, these artists actually enter into the ever shifting scene, construct and, in a sense, manage their own scenarios, These scenarios characterize the features of urban culture in the global cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Taipei. And the exploration of urban culture in other cities will help us understand Jakarta’s scenarios both specifically and globally.

This exhibition features metropolitan areas, which include São Paulo, Caracas, New York, Johannesburg, Istanbul, Beijing, Tokyo, Sydney, London, Berli and Moscow. A twelfth metropolis is referred to as “utopia city”.

Hans-Dieter Evers and Rüdiger Korff point out in the opening of their book Southeast Asia Urbanism: The Meaning and Power of Social Space: “It is common knowledge that Southeast Asia is currently passing through a period of rapid change. In terms of economic growth, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have shown astonishing growth rates of the GDP and the countries of Southeast Asia are either on the threshold to becoming NIC (Newly Industrialized Countries) or can be defined as such.” See Evers and Korff. Southeast Asia Urbanism. 1.

According to a 2004 study.

See more discussion of landscape of Southeast Asian cities in relation to global capitalism in Evers and Korff.2.

Further expansion on the meta-metropolis can be found in Ginsburg N., B, Koppel, terry G. McGee eds. The extended Metropolis: Settlement Transition in Asia.(USA, Hawaii: U of Hawaii P, USA, 1991). Terry G. McGee eds. G. McGee, I.M. Robinson eds. The Mega-Urban Regions of Southeast Asia.  (Canada, Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1995).



Sakia Sassen. Cities in a World Economy. (London and New Delhi: Thousand Oaks, 1994).7.

American urban sociologist L. Wirth emphasizes urbanism as a way of life. See his classic discussion of urbanism in “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” In Richard Sennet ed. The Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities. (USA, New Jersey: Appleton-Century-Crofts,1969).

J.S. Furnivcall. “Plural Societies”. In H.D. Evers ed. Sociology of Southeast Asia: Teachings on Social Change and Development. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1980).86-96

See more discussions on multiculturalism in David Theo Goldberg ed. Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. (UK, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994).

The term “melting pot” is first appeared in Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot performed in Washington, DC in 1908. The term of “cultural mosaic” is attributed to Canadian scholar John Murray Gibbons in his book Canadian Mosaic in 1938.

McGee.The Southeast Asia City: A Social Geography of the Primate Cities of Southeast Asia. (London:G.Bell,1967).24

Evers and Korff.2.

Benedict Anderson’s reading of nation as an imagined community might be discussed in relation to this issue. See his Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (USA, New York: verso, 1991.)

See a case study in this subject matter in Kathleen M. Adams. “Museum/City/Nation: Negotiating Identities in Urban Museums in Indonesia and Singapore.” In Robbie B,H, Goh and Brenda S.A. Yeoh ed. Theorizing the Southeast Asian City as Text. (USA, New Jersey: World Scientific Publishers, 2003). 135-158.

See a brief description of Batavia’s development from a small sea village to a global capital in Berner and Korff.34-35.

Berner and Korff.37.


James L Cobban. “Geographic Notes on the First Two centuries of Djakarta.” In Y.M. Yeung and C.P. Lo eds. Changing Southeast Asian Cities: readings on Urbanization. (UK, London: Oxford U P, 1976). 55

It is important to keep in mind that there are two types of colonial cities in Southeast Asia. One is the seaport related to trading, such as Batavia. The other is the inland city related to sacred rituals, such as Angkor. See more discussion on this in Evers and Korff.30-31.

Goh and Yeoh write: “What is clearly needed are similar (and also different) theoretical endeavors to be undertaken for contemporary Southeast Asian urbanism, accounting (among other things) for the role and function of heterogeneous racial, religious and linguistic conditions in the construction of nationalism after colonialism” In Goh and Yeoh.4.