Angki Purbandono, Open Diary, 2019, mixed media. Installation view. From the Biennale Jogja XV.

Angki Purbandono, Open Diary, 2019, mixed media. Installation view. From the Biennale Jogja XV.

Biennale Jogja XV

Biennale Jogja

Even as its political borders remain in flux, the fraught geographic construct of “Southeast Asia” has recently proven quite a useful tool in the globalized art world, offering a foil for the hegemony of Western artistic discourse, aiding the purported decolonization of cultural institutions and providing a conceit to harness the proliferation of national, ethnic, and religious formations existing within the region. The Biennale Jogja XV mobilized these contested boundaries to explore what it means to be peripheral.

This was not the first time the biennial looked to the so-called margins. The Biennale Jogja XV, curated by Akiq AW, Penwadee Nophaket Manont, and Arham Rahman, was the fifth iteration in the platform’s “Equator Series,” a decade-spanning endeavor that prospects alternative cartographies via exhibitions juxtaposing works by artists from or around Yogyakarta with those of artists living in various equatorial regions, which have ranged, in past years, from the Arab Peninsula to Brazil. Under the ludic title “Do We Live in the Same PLAYGROUND?,” this edition’s regional focus—Southeast Asia—remained local, even as it encompassed disparate and diverse sites, ranging from Isan and Pattani in Thailand and Polewali Mandar in Indonesia’s West Sulawesi, to the borders of Vietnam and Cambodia. The biennial also hosted a number of parallel programs, including residencies and pavilions located in contested sovereignties, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese colony that broke from Indonesia to declare its independence in 2002. Such projects demonstrated the biennial’s investment in the decolonial, highlighting practices and concerns that exist beyond the artistic modes that dominate in the West and even in the region. The Timor-Leste pavilion, for example, sidestepped the more spectacular or highly mediated works typical of this circuit in favor of ethnographic and documentary productions. Inasmuch as the central exhibition in Yogyakarta had a palpable sense of unevenness or rawness—as in the site-specific installations by the Thai collective Khonkaen Manifesto—it also evoked a sense of patience and an attentive generosity for more soft-spoken works, like Yosefa Aulia’s delicate terra-cotta models of everyday objects or Meliantha Muliawan’s sculptural renditions of Indonesian postcards.

As a whole, the curators wove the exhibition with empathy, featuring works that shared the common aspiration to realize the world’s potential as a community. Moelyono, known for his socially engaged art, here staged a memorial for Marsinah, a labor activist killed in 1993 under President Suharto’s brutal Orde Baru (New Order) regime. Titled Pembangunan Taman Monumen Marsinah (Construction of the Marsinah Monument Park), 2019, the installation featured a shrine mounted with a monitor playing an archival video of Marsinah as she ferociously talked back to the establishment. Elsewhere, the Yogyakarta-based trans artist Tamarra’s documentary Menelusuri Bissu, 2019, addressed the life and survival of the bissu, one of the five genders of the Bugis people in South Sulawesi. The video played in a dark room alongside a fabric reproduction of a scroll that had been given to the artist by members of the bissu and that offers a more intimate account of the community’s history. Viewers had to use a flashlight to see the scroll, proceeding slowly from section to section as if performing a ritualistic passage. Meanwhile, the artist Suvi Wahyudianto—a member of the Madurese ethnic group—visited Sambas, an area in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan Province that had been the site of interethnic riots that had displaced his community two decades earlier. The resulting artwork, Catatan hari berkabung, dan satu mata sapi yang menyedihkan (Journal of Mourning Days, and One Sad Cow’s Eye), 2019, couples pages from his journal with a video and an installation that capture the artist’s discomfort and release as he tries to grapple with this ancestral trauma.

The span of situations engaged by the biennial—from histories of ethnic violence, ecological crises, historical and mythological erasures, and religious conflicts, to contemporary issues of labor and biopolitics—testified to its earnest impulse to understand the world and, perhaps, intervene. As such, the exhibition resisted what the curators call “cosmopolitization,” instead reimagining a Southeast Asia animated by the prolific potentials of the peripheral.