The Safety of Objects

Kate Sutton at the 16th Jakarta Biennale and the 13th Biennale Jogja

Left: Jakarta Biennale curator Riksa Effendy. Right: Ruangrupa's Hafiz Rancajale with curators Ute Meta Bauer and Charles Esche at the Jakarta Biennale.

WITH BLOCKBUSTER BIENNIALS increasingly wedded to the galleries underwriting them, the term “biennial art”—the European second cousin of “commercial” art—no longer holds the same currency. When it comes to events off the beaten track, however, exhibitions often build credibility through following “biennial art’s” favorite strategy: Find a fresh wound from recent history, and wiggle one’s finger around in it, preferably via video installations that “challenge dominant modes of perception” and “invert expectations.”

Ariani Darmawan’s 2008 short film Sugiharti Halim manages to do both while wickedly satirizing the genre as a whole. The work revisits a moment in 1965, when the anti-Communist push of the Suharto regime saw the country’s ethnic Chinese population coerced into taking Indonesian-sounding names. Darmawan’s eponymous protagonist has been saddled with the phonetically challenged word for “wealthy” as her first name. Bemoaning her situation, she addresses not the biennial audience—unseen, but presumed interested until proven jaded—but rather a series of dispassionate first dates, who are shown toying with their noodles or staring at their straws as Halim enacts the popular tropes of the genre, at one point even producing an archival photo of her father and holding it out for inspection. Her monologue is finally interrupted by her last suitor, who questions the use of getting angry about the past. It is Halim’s turn to stare at her noodles.

Darmawan’s film was screened as part of this year’s Jakarta Biennale, which opened Saturday, November 14, in a warehouse not far from the city’s Tebet district. As Indonesia publicly grapples with the fiftieth anniversary of one of the century’s most brutal massacres, the exhibition reaffirms its commitment to the present with the title Mayu Kena, Mundur Kena (“Neither Forward nor Back”). The curator Charles Esche recruited six of his colleagues from across Indonesia—Riksa Afiaty, Irma Chantily, Putra Hidayatullah, Anwar “Jimpe” Rachman, Asep Topan, and Benny Wicaksono—to help flesh out three intertwined motifs: city and history, social behavior, and water (a particularly loaded topic in Indonesia, where water purification is the scythe to gentrification’s Grim Reaper). The team made site visits to outposts around the country, recording their findings for the biennial catalogue. While Esche insisted on denying any hierarchies among the curators, Rachman cheekily suggested otherwise, writing: “Maybe we are the shady trees that have yet to bear fruit while Charles is a lush green tree with dangling, ripe produce.”

Left: Jakarta Biennale collective Lab Laba Laba's Ari Dina Krestiawan with collector Melani Setiawan. Right: Curator Susanne Pfeffer and artist Renzo Martens.

Speaking of produce, the Jakarta Biennale signaled another important shift by trading its parking-lot venue (traffic being the bane of the city’s existence) for Gudang Sarinah, a warehouse of the Sarinah Department Store, which stocks handcrafted souvenirs and textiles made by women across the country. “We created our own little economy here too,” recounted artist Zeyno Pekünlü, who had already clocked three weeks on site. “You could see the fruit carts slowly start to catch on that we were here. Now they’re all parked at the entrance.” Pekünlü had come early to train in beksi, an art of self-defense. “When I first got this invitation, I thought about what I wanted to learn from Indonesia. In Turkey, judges look the other way for men who commit honor killings, but then throw down harsh sentences to Turkish women who attempt to defend themselves.” The artist edited footage of her training sessions to create Pretty Furious Women, a trailer for a fictional B-movie, advertised by movie posters plastered around the exhibition space. “Did you paint these or were they commissioned?” I asked. “Commissioned, of course!” Pekünlü laughed. “Look at my nose in that one!”

Overall, the biennial bristles with acts of resistance, from a recreation of Richard Bell’s Aboriginal Embassy and Bik Van der Pol’s ode to the Surabaya riverside communities who refuse to be forced from their homes to the archival photos dissolving in the whirlpool of Oscar Muñoz’s mesmerizing Ciclope, 2014, to Tita Salina’s sea-beast, an island made entirely of floating waste. Yee I-Lann mined the social repercussions of the Malaysian folk figure of the kuntilanak, the witchlike, “failed”—ie, childless—woman, while the Myanmar-based artist Kolatt offered a lithe little plea for tolerance with Apple, 2015, a six-minute film demonstrating a variety of ways to eat an apple, all with the same result. “At first glance, I thought this exhibition was really tough, but now I’m beginning to see how it is actually quite tender,” theorist Nikos Papastergiadis said admiringly.

Left: Artist Lee Yi-Pei. Right: Artists David Bergé, Melisaa Tuntun, and Arie Syarifuddin at the Jakarta Biennale.

As is now de rigeur, the biennial was ushered in by parallel programs, including a conference investigating Indonesia’s water and sanitation issues; “Skartefak,” organized by the newly established Jakarta Ska Foundation; and “Keep the Field,” a collaboration between a group of Polish artists (led by Ujazdowski Castle curator Marianna Dobkowska) and the Jatiwangi Art Factory, an initiative based in a West Javanese village once known for its ceramics but now struggling to establish new industries. At the biennial opening on Saturday afternoon, artist Marta Frank used the town’s famous clay to make decorative soap, which she fashioned into formidable bricks. “This way people are forced into sharing,” she beamed. While I was marveling at the heft, artist Arie Syarifuddin pressed a thimble-sized Ziploc bag in my hand. Inside was a mottled brown lozenge that looked sure to interrupt one’s grip on reality. Riding a conspiratorial surge of adrenaline, I goaded him for more instructions. “You just eat it,” he laughed. “It’s a cookie made from the clay in Jatiwangi. It’s edible.” Okay, but not, like, edible…?

As the evening picked up, White Shoes & The Couples Company serenaded a spirited crowd six thousand strong. Amid the artists and Indonesia hipsters, I could pick out international curators Eungie Joo, Ekaterina Degot, Ute Meta Bauer, Ruth Noack, Susanne Pfeffer, and Mami Kataoka, alongside local legend, collector Melani Setiawan, one of the scene’s most dedicated patrons. (Setiawan is in the process of publishing her forty-year archive, including some 700,000 photos of Indonesian artists at every stage of their careers.) Someone covertly offered me a warm beer, which, for a moment I mistook for some kind of local specialty, before it was explained that it had just overheated while being smuggled in. (Indonesia has recently cracked down on the sale of alcohol.) “It’s all very festive, especially considering there’s no alcohol,” artist Peter Robinson mused approvingly. “In Australia, people only show up to art openings for the food and drinks,” Bell shrugged. It seems wedding-crashing is more Indonesia’s speed. Gibing the popular tradition of trading sparsely-stuffed (if not outright empty) gift envelopes for access to a wedding buffet, Wiyoga Muhardanto staked out a spot right outside the biennial’s entrance and set up a nuptial tent too low to the ground to enter.

Left: Artist Marta Frank makes soap from clay at the Jakarta Biennale. Right: Jakarta Biennale's Shera Rindra.

Not to be discouraged, revelers eventually migrated to ruangrupa, the city’s freeform art space and collective, which in its fifteen years has built its own empire comprising gallery space, an archive, magazines, festivals, and even a radio station. It’s also a preeminent party spot, where Esche and his curators were up until the wee hours, libations courtesy of “this white guy on an ojek who drives around delivering beer.” Sunday night followed with a more public celebration at “Superbad!” a monthly concert series partially masterminded by ruangrupa’s Indra Ameng at the Jaya Pub, an expat bar with strong Cracker Barrel–on-(more)meth vibes. “It looks like a David Lynch film in here,” Köken Ergun observed, eyeing the stylized portraits of Einstein, Kafka, and Humphrey Bogart, alongside a poster bragging “I’m not a racist, I hate everyone.” The evening’s headliner was Arrington De Dionyso, a painter and musician whose self-taught repertoire ranged from Tuvan throat singing to wrangling sounds from what looked like a didgeridoo made out of PVC pipes. “My avant-garde is bigger than his avant-garde,” Papastergiadis demurred. But whose Uber was closer?

Monday morning would see competing biennial symposia in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, or, as it’s more commonly known, Jogja. Earlier this month, Java’s plucky second capital had launched the thirteenth edition of Biennale Jogja, marking its third collaborative outing with the Equator Festival, a program that plots out a thematic global itinerary, taking a closer look at Indonesia’s relationships with countries along the route. Having already made symbolic pitstops in India and the Arabian Peninsula, this year’s edition focused on Nigeria. As a theme, the two artist-curators, Jogja’s Wok the Rock and Lagos-based Jude Anogwih, selected “Hacking Conflict” (“hacking” here in the Buzzfeed-y sense of finding MacGyveresque workarounds for life’s little conundrums, not terrorizing Target shoppers).

Left: Artist Jeremy Millar with curator Irma Chantily. Right: Artist Kolatt.

Upon landing, Biennale Jogja’s Adelina Luft picked me up on her motorbike for a tour of the sites, starting with the Black Market Museum, which was set up in an abandoned house just down the street from the main venue at Jogja’s National Museum. Conceived by artist Olenrewaju Tejuoso and created with help from Angki Purbandono and the Prison Art Programs, the makeshift museum was filled with repurposed detritus, including a González-Torres-like pile of little plastic baggies, whose contents—dirt, tree bark, folded candy wrappers—intentionally looked narcotic. I thought back to that cookie.

Over at the National Museum, the façade had been blocked off by Ace House Collective’s National Committee for the Purification of Art, an objectively terrifying faux bureau replete with control booths, waiting areas, and curtained-off stalls. Visitors had to queue up to hand over passports and submit to ritual cleanings of their eyes and ears. Sure, it was just a metaphor, but I fled all the same. Inside, Joned Suryatmoko’s piece had a visually-impaired tour guide lead blindfolded visitors through the exhibition. Even without the impediments, I got the distinct impression I was missing something. Most of the display was dedicated to props or costumes—from Punkasila’s black patched jumpsuits to Emeka Udemba’s clan hoods, tailored from West African wax print fabrics—left over from the performances, artist’s talks, concerts, and workshops animating the spaces daily. Rather than reinforce national distinctions, the exhibition was structured to foster an environment of collective creativity, inviting the Nigerian artists in residence —Udemba, Ndidi Dike, and Victor Ehikhamenor, among them—to make collaborative work with local talents. Luft told me that many of these visiting artists “found a lot of similarities in terms of climate, landscape, food, and general mentality.” These moments of overlap crystallized in “Changing Cities, Shifting Spaces,” a parallel video workshop orchestrated as an extension of Anogwih’s activities with Video Art Network Lagos, in collaboration with artist Wimo Ambala Bayang and the Jogja-based collective Ruang MES 56. The films played on loop upstairs at the National Museum, but next year, with support from KFW Stiftung, they will travel to Lagos, where they will be screened as part of the city’s Videonale.

Left: Artist Reza Enem. Right: Jakarta Biennale curator Benny Wicaksono at Ruangrupa.

“Translation puts a text into movement, which is the most beautiful thing you can do,” curator Nicolas Bourriaud told us bright and early Tuesday morning at the Taman Budaya cultural center. Bourriaud’s keynote kicked off Jogja’s Biennale Forum with a frank assessment of object-oriented ontology and its beef with relational aesthetics. Bourriaud was hesitant to accord OOO too much credit. (“I would like to agree with much of their thinking, but they do not account for language, which is a mistake. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in the same year DNA was discovered, Lacan theorized that the unconscious takes the form of language.”) But the curator did admit that relational aesthetics as he defined it in the 1990s no longer applies. “There are more machines on the Internet than human beings. What’s more, these robots and algorithms can communicate with one another without the presence of humans. Human beings are reduced to the status of personal data, to be used by corporations as the motor of today’s economy.” In this sense, object-oriented ontology’s terms mimic those of capitalism: “Humans are easier to control after they have been reduced to objects.”

After the lecture, Biennale Jogja director Alia Swastika and the curator of its last edition, Agung Hunijatnika, convened on stage with Bourriaud, artist Antariksa, and Equator Symposium curator Enti Supryanto. Antariksa led the charge, lambasting “the penetration of Western philosophy as a new kind of colonization” and venting his frustrations that existing trends in Indonesia were retroactively understood as “relational aesthetics.” Bourriaud seemed game to the challenge: “Let’s not replace one ethnocentrism with another,” he chided. “A theory is not a discovery. It’s a way of telling things.” He then added: “The only condition for a dialogue is the end of paranoia. Just bring whatever you have on the table. That’s it.”

That night, Bourriaud led by example, laying out all he had on the table as DJ at an impromptu party. “I think it was my most significant contribution to the Indonesian art scene so far,” the curator joked. No objections here. After all, wasn’t he just talking about how putting something in motion is the most beautiful thing you can do?

Left: Curator Eungie Joo and artist Zeyno Pekünlü. Right: Jakarta Biennale director Ade Darmawan with curator Charles Esche and artist Tisna Sanjaya. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

Left: Artist Tita Salina and Maciej Siuda. Right: Artists Asena Hayal and Köken Ergun.

Left: Ark Galerie's Arsita Iswardthani at the Biennale Forum in Jogja. Right: Curators Haruko Kumakura, Grace Samboh, Mami Kataoka, and Alia Swastika, director of the Biennale Jogja.

Left: Punkasila's Danius Kesminas with Biennale Jogja curator, artist Wok the Rock. Right: Curators Nicolas Bourriaud, Agung Hujatnika, and Enin Supriyanto with collector Natasha Sidharta.

Left: Dealer Michael Janssen and Bazaar Art Jakarta director Leo Silitonga at the Jakarta Biennale. Right: Artist Peter Robinson

Left: Artist Robert Kusmirowski and Ujazdowski Castle curator Marianna Dobkowska at the Jakarta Biennale. Right: *Artists Budi Santoso, Setu Legi, and Ari Aminuddin at the Jakarta Biennale

Left: Artists Dan Perjovschi and Farid Rakun. Right: CCA Singapore's Vera May, artist Yee I-Lann, and Anca Rujoiu

Left: Artist Richard Bell. Right: Artists Bron Zelani and Dwi “Ube” Wicaksono Suryasumirat.