JAKARTA — Located in a large warehouse in the south of town, the Jakarta Biennale 2015, titled Neither Forward nor Back, mixes works by Indonesian and international artists, with a focus on current political misconduct and social tremors; pressing environmental issues, especially in relation to water and waste management; as well as the situations of women and LGBTQ people in Asia. The last are tenderly captured in a romantic photography series by Maika Elan called The Pink Choice (2013), featuring homosexual and transgender couples being normal and doing not much, and in a surprisingly serious video by Kolatt, “Apple” (2015), in which the Myanmar artist demonstrates different ways of eating an apple as a means of encouraging tolerance — and reminding us that homosexuality is still criminalized in large parts of Asia. A headshot-style three-channel video by Yee I-Lann from Malaysia, titled “Pontianak Chapter 1: I got Sunshine On A Cloudy Day” (2015), features long-haired women with their faces hidden, a reference to the vampiric ghost Pontianak, who became a monster after she dared to die while pregnant. The subjects here soften the horror myth by discussing the hardships imposed on women by societal norms.
Curated by Charles Esche in collaboration with six local curators — Anwar “Jimpe” Rachman, Asep Topan, Benny Wicaksono, Irma Chantily, Putra Hidayatullah, and Riksa Afiaty — the exhibition seems to do what art does best for powerless communities: promulgate tolerance and encourage the dissolution of various codes of silence. It also offers a defense of the common good in places where unscrupulous commercial interests and corrupt administrations run free. Denunciations of the consequences of this abound throughout the biennale, as in the “The House of Mother; the house of Culture” (2015), an untidy performative installation by Tisna Sanjaya that involves body prints, a four-walled plastic construction, and spices collected with local farmers from the artist’s home region of Cigondewah, West Java. Sanjaya, an established artist known for his etchings, has been in the news more recently for buying land among the former green paddy fields of Cigondewah that are being quickly turned into unregulated recycling wastelands and grounds for polluting textile factories; on his plot, in 2008, he built a cultural center.
Also engaged with environmental issues, Tita Salina’s “1001st Island – The Most Sustainable Island in the Archipelago” (2015) consists of a smelly, oval-shaped garbage construction and a video showing the artist navigating it on the sea. She made it in response to Jakarta’s controversial, several-billion-US-dollar Great Garuda land reclamation project, a gigantic seawall that’s supposed to save the city’s inhabitants from sinking and flood threats without actually fixing their causes — namely, excessive groundwater extraction and inefficient waste management.
Renzo Martens’s 2008 film Episode III runs on a similar theme of failed good intentions, or just plain disregard for the people. In it the artist documents the long-lasting exploitation of the Democratic Republic of Congo: by companies that develop the soil and keep all the profits, without transferring any technical or scientific knowledge on-site; by foreign aid agencies that employ their own workers instead of local professionals; and by foreign media that commercialize shock photography from the country’s conflict zones. The film shows that poverty can, unfortunately, remain sustainable.
While all these issues are grim, a candid poetry manages to emanate from the exhibition, partially due to the graphic aesthetics of works like “Noises for Breakfast” (2015), a colorful bricolage installation by sound collective Melawan Kebisingan Kota, and “Bhoneka Tinggal Luka” (2015), a political, cartoonish mural by Idrus bin Harun. It also comes through in the show’s constructive spirit, seen most prominently in the cathartic video “Where the Silence Fails” (2013), in which artist Meiro Koizumi breaks a Japanese taboo by showing nearly 90-year-old kamikaze pilot Tadamasa Itazu (who died last year) speaking out about his survivor’s guilt — and, as directed by the artist, impersonating his dead friend forgiving him. By contrast, Denpasar artist Jonas Sestakresna’s boyish bamboo tower opens the exhibition with a touch of whimsicality. Although the effectiveness of its homage to nature is questionable, it certainly offers a shaky outpost — the kind you can imagine ancient hunting societies used — to gaze out over the space and its contents.
The curators do flabbily follow some of the tropes of contemporary biennale presentation: showing in a warehouse, presenting large-scale bricolage installations, the repetitive use of a particular work throughout the space (here Arahmaiani’s “Petaka, The Disaster” , which consists of collected piles of clothes that appear in various corners of the warehouse, meant to mark the random outbursts of violence in Indonesia). But their slightly inharmonious exhibition nonetheless works. The absence of anti-market laments and post–Cold War theories lets the artwork and the artists’ experiences speak at length. The show abounds with meaningful ideas to be discovered, but leaves the viewer with the responsibility of forming their own conclusions (and refreshingly not with the abstract task of connecting invisible dots or making up meaning and finishing sentences). There is a strong, cohesive visual identity here that will stay with me for some time to come.
The Jakarta Biennale 2015 continues at Gudang Sarinah (Jalan Pancoran Timur II No. 4, Jakarta Selatan, Indonesia) through January 17.
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