Jogja on My Mind

Kate Sutton at the 2013 Biennale Jogja

Left: Jakarta Biennale curator Ade Darmawan with Biennale Jogja curator Agung Hujatnikajennong. Right: Biennale Foundation Chair Yustina Neri with Biennale artist UBIK.

“SO, HOW WAS the Singapore Biennale?”

“Oh, I’m doing that next! I just came from Jakarta.”

“Oh, so you saw the Jakarta Biennale?”

“Well, thaaat, but also the South East Asia Triennale.”

The conversation would be enough to induce biennial fatigue in anyone. All the more so given its setting: a VIP welcome luncheon for yet another biennial, Biennale Jogja, which opened November 16 in venues across Yogyakarta, Java’s effusive second capital. Nestled amid active volcanoes and ancient temples, Yogyakarta—known affectionately as Jogja (Jhog-jha)—is experiencing a major surge in its contemporary art scene, as more and more traffic-weary take refuge from the packed roads of Jakarta.

Though perhaps less known than some of its counterparts, Biennale Jogja debuted in 1988, long before biennials for Singapore or Jakarta. It hit some financial obstacles in 2008, when organizers resorted to selling works to recoup expenses. But the biennial soon regrouped, making strides toward sustainability with the 2010 formation of the Yogyakarta Biennale Foundation. One of this new institution’s first acts was to chart out a course—quite literally—for the biennial with the launch of the Equator Festival. The ten-year platform sends BJ around the globe to examine Indonesia’s relationships with five regions along the route. For the first stop, Biennale Jogja’s 2011 curators Alia Swastika and Suman Gopinath looked at the exchange between India and Indonesia, with an eye towards “religiosity, spirituality, and belief.” This year’s stop? The Arabian Peninsula.

Left: CCA Singapore founding director Ute Meta Bauer and curator Alia Swastika. Right: ArtJog Director Satriagama Rakantaseta.

Biennale curator Agung Hujatnikajennong has his work cut out for him. Indonesia boasts the world’s largest population of Muslims, a faith imported from Arab traders in the eighth century. Religious pilgrims aside, for decades Indonesia has exported a steady supply of goods and labor to the Gulf. For his installation at the National Museum, artist FX Harsono neatly summarized both the religious and economic ties with an installation of souvenir teapots that bear images and inscriptions from the Haj but which were produced on the cheap in China or Indonesia. “My mother used to do all her souvenir shopping once she returned home,” Hujatnikajennong remembered with a smile. “Globalization creates a new locality.”

Hujatnikajennong recognizes the obstacles to fitting this “new locality” into the old molds of traditional geography, but, as the curator reasons, “If you’re going to ask criticism for gimmicks or simplifications, best to get some mileage out of it.” Titled “Not a Dead End” the exhibition thematizes “mobility and migration,” two concepts which in effect evacuate the “geographical” conceit. The result is something of a cul-de-sac: no hard turns, but plenty of room to double back.

Originally, Hujatnikajennong envisioned pairing off artists from each region to create collaborative pieces, but, in short: “That didn’t work.” Instead, the biennial made the most of existing residencies in Yogyakarta, Sharjah, and Cairo. Even then, location did not lend itself to cohesion. Dubai-based artist UBIK prowled the secondhand markets of Indonesia to recover relics of the country’s suppressed communist past, while Dina Danish taught herself the Javanese techniques of batik. Residencies in the Arab countries produced a variety of results as well: Prilla Tania found herself entranced with the labyrinthine architecture of Sharjah, while in Cairo, Vincensius “Venzha” Christiawan was busy investigating reports of paranormal activity within the Pyramids. “One thing is certain. Something not human was found there,” he warned us, in an artist’s talk that careened from Area 51 to the Large Hadron Collider to Keanu Reeves and the Illuminati—Google it—to Christiawan’s own work, a machine that replicates the sensation of immortality.

Left: Artist Angki Purbandono. Right: ROH Projects’ Junior Tirtadji, RogueArt’s Adeline Ooi, and collector “Dr Oei” Hong Dijen.

Quite surprisingly, the Arab Spring was all but invisible within the exhibition, save for one potent reference: Magdi Mostafa’s Transparent Existence, a black box full of tear gas, which left viewers half-blinded, gasping and stumbling in pain and confusion. After questioning the ethics of such a gesture, however, I was informed that the piece actually consisted of a sophisticated sound-and-light installation, and that all the stinging and burning was merely the result of concentrated, unventilated paint fumes.

But back to the welcome luncheon, where I was lucky enough to grab onto the coattails of jet-set veterans Ursula Krinzinger and Sabine Vogel. “We’ve got the best guide to Jogja,” Krinzinger bragged. That would be “Seto,” otherwise known as Satriagama Rakantaseta, director of the artists-only fair ArtJog. While motorbikes are Jogja’s transport of choice, I would soon find that there was almost always an extra SUV seat to spare. Within hours, we had blitzed through biennial venues Taman Budaya, the SaRang Building, and the Langgeng Art Foundation, before making the rounds at Cemeti Art House, Studio Handiwirman, and the impressive new outpost of Jakarta’s Ark Galerie. At every stop, directors would greet us warmly, laying out extensive plans for promoting the arts, which never failed to conclude with “…and an artist’s residency,” until we began to jokingly end our sentences with the phrase. “When we started our residency it was still a rare thing,” Krinzinger reflected later. “Now I guess everyone has one?” She paused to consider this: “That’s probably a good thing.”

Left: Dealer Ursula Krinzinger and artist Entang Wiharso. Right: Biennale artist Venzha Christiawan.

It was technically time for the official opening ceremony, but Seto took one glance at the sky and declared, “It’s going to rain.” This seemed a sufficient alibi for the crowds gathering instead at the private exhibition space of Tom Tandio, founder of IndoArtNow, an online repository for all things Indonesian art–related. A deft and dapper host, Tandio took obvious delight as his guests giggled at Traumarama’s animation of Indonesian currency crooning along to Sinatra, or stepped appreciatively around the floorpiece by Albert Yonathan Setyawan. “This is my space,” he said, casually lighting a cigarette. “It’s not really for parties, just a place where friends can gather.” Friends seemed to be something the young patron had in droves: from RogueArt’s Adeline Ooi, in from Malaysia, to Hong Kong–based magazine editor Cristina Sanchez Kozyreva to legendary collector Oei Hong Dijen (“Dr. Oei”), who runs his own museum of Indonesian art in the nearby city of Magelang.

When our group hit critical mass we piled back into our cars and set off to SaRang, where Agung Kurniawan was midway through a stomach-churning performance on the corrupt former president Suharto’s dirty dealings with Monsanto. Punctuating the work was the figure of a great, lumbering ass that would have resembled Ronald McDonald’s cohort Mayor McCheese but for the black bean slop it kept excreting, in a revolting visual metaphor for the country’s Big Food fuckery. It was hard to think about eating after that, but thankfully my hosts for the evening, Swastika and Junior Tirtadji (of Jakarta’s ROH Projects), had provided plenty of good company for a cozy dinner served on the terrace of Omah Dhuwur, in the old town’s silver district. Artists Wimo Bayang, Jompet Kuswidananto, and Melati Suryodarmo; dealers Edouard Malingue and Michael Janssen; Kadist Foundation’s Xiaoyu Weng; Sotheby’s Galuh Sukardi; and Gwangju Biennale associate curators Emiliano Valdés and Fatos Üstek (chief curator Jessica Morgan was “stuck at a fancy dinner”) clustered around the long table, trading itineraries as waiters brought out steaming bowls of tofu stew and skewers of sate kotagede.

Left: Critic Hendro Wiyanto. Right: Singapore Tyler Print Institute’s Rita Targui and Hannah Chung with artist Takashi Kuribayashi.

By the time we made it to the official BJ party at Taman Budaya, the majority of the crowd had already motored over to Oxen Free, the bar where Tirtadji was throwing a dutifully raucous afterparty. Unaware of this alternative, Singapore CCA curators Ute Meta Bauer and Anca Rujoiu stood at a loss in the center of the near-deserted exhibition space. “We thought we would make a big entrance, arriving on a becak”—think a bicycle with a human-size basket in front—“but we got here and everyone was gone!”

The pair would be right on time the next morning, however, when their 4:30 AM sunrise tour of the Borobudur temple ended up delivering a perfect view of Mount Merapi erupting. “I didn’t understand what had happened, why there was all this black smoke,” Bauer recalled later. “I just thought to myself, ‘There is so much to look at all around us, why is everyone just staring in one direction?’ ” An infinitely applicable conclusion.

Left: Office for Contemporary Art’s Jumaldi Alfi and patroness Melani Setiawan. Right: Kadist’s Xiaoyu Weng with curator Alia Swastika.

Left: IndoArtNow’s Tam Tandio. Right: Artist Jean-Baptiste Maitre with Biennale artists Dina Danish and Tiong Ang.

Left: The SaRang Building. Right: Artist Arahmaiani with curator Suman Gopinath.

Left: Biennale artist FX Harsono with his installation at the Jogja National Museum. Right: Art historian Farah Wardani leads discussion at the SaRang Building.

Left: Opening performance by Agung Kurniawan. Right: Curator Rifky Effendy.

Left: Dealer Michael Janssen and Singapore Art Museum’s Susie Lingham. Right: Artist Melati Suryodarmo.

Left: PaperMoon Puppet Theater’s Iwan Effendi and Ria Tri Sulistyani introduce one of their characters. Right: Sotheby’s Galuh Sukardi and 2014 Gwangju Biennale associate curator Emiliano Valdés.

Left: De Appel curators-in-training Kris Dittel, Renata Cervetto, and Aneta Rostkowska. Right: Biennale artist Magdi Mostaga.

Left: Biennale artist Prilla Tania with MapKL’s Ong Jo-Lene. Right: Biennale artist Tintin Wulia and art historian Farah Wardani.

Left: Artist Eddi Prabandono. Right: Artist Sonja Dahl.