Ronald Ventura, Bobro’s World Tour Jakarta, mixed media installation (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

JAKARTA — The art fairs of Asia aren’t for the faint of heart. These extravaganzas aim for maximum sensory impact and require a high tolerance for mingling with masses of people. Basically uncurated, they offer the visitor a comprehensive survey of the market and an opportunity to experience a wide variety of exceptional art. Art Jakarta promotes itself as the biggest art fair in Indonesia, which is the biggest country in Southeast Asia by far. The 11th edition, in the mammoth (at over 40,000 square feet) Jakarta Convention Center, was big indeed, and it attracted a big crowd.

Since bigness is one of the qualities that Art Jakarta aims for, the three-day event, which concluded on September 1, must be judged a success. Just as a car show needs a Batmobile to give visitors an exciting selfie-op, Art Jakarta had Eko Nugroho’s 16-foot-tall hanging textile “Moving Landscape,” a kaleidoscopic explosion of brilliant color with spooky hanging tentacles. (Executed entirely by hand embroidery, it must set the world record for stitching hours in a single work of art.) Wave of Tomorrow, by Isha Hening, is another crowd-pleasing work — a catwalk of glittering lights and pulsing music that evokes the entrance to a New York discothèque in the 1970s. According to the fair’s organizers, it celebrates “the advanced spirit of art and technology-based progress.” 

Eko Nugroho, “Moving Landscape,” manual embroidery, 192 x 123 in

Ronald Ventura went even bigger and bolder with his eye-popping environment, Bobro’s World Tour Jakarta, a “man-cave” complete with a karaoke room. Visitors entered through the mouth of a huge, gilded sculpture of a dog gnawing on a bone. The gallery attendant informed me that the piece was trending ahead of every other booth at Art Jakarta on Instagram; the piece appeared to have been conceived with that in mind.

Roughly half the work on display at Art Jakarta came from outside Indonesia. They range from the traditional, as in Phi Phi Oanh’s luminous lacquer panels depicting koi swimming in an aquarium, splashed with glinting gold leaf, to the austerely contemporary, such as Cheuk Wing Nam’s multimedia installation: Silence — Meditation in Blue is an interactive sound environment based upon the work of Yves Klein, steeped in Klein’s signature shade of blue.

Work from throughout Asia revealed that the fascination with Western celebrity culture has not diminished. I avoided booths with satirical or sentimental portrayals of dead icons — for example, Marilyn Monroe in a hijab, Picasso and Einstein drinking wine — although many of them had earned a red dot. The most prominent and successful galleries in Indonesia represented the same prominent, successful artists they featured in their booths at last year’s fair (in at least one case with the same gaudy, bedazzling painting).

Dede Eri Supria, “Lipstick for Mother” (1979), oil on canvas, 54 x 86 in.

One might conclude from Art Jakarta that contemporary Indonesian artists take little interest in traditional themes, but it would be more accurate to say that the works on display represent what dealers thought would pull in visitors at the fair. There were some fine exceptions, though. ArtSociates, in Bandung, presented The Renaissance of Panji, a series of drawings and paintings by the Javanese artist Eddy Susanto. The works are based on Susanto’s research into thematic connections between Western Renaissance art and the wayang, classical Javanese puppet theater, and in particular dramas from East Java that narrate the adventures of Panji, a knight errant with a complicated love life. Gallery director Ibu Andonowati ushered me into a dim room draped in black velvet hung with 16 large paintings (78 by 39 inches) that represent scenes from Western narrative painting with a cast of characters from the Panji cycle.

The artist draws his images on an ochre ground in elegant, minuscule calligraphy recalling Old Javanese script from texts of the Panji legends. The paintings are laid down over reproductions of their Western models, screened in phosphorescent ink, which glow a baleful green in the UV light. If it sounds just a bit cheesy, it is, but the surface paintings are interesting works, even without the psychedelic party lighting.

Phi Phi Oanh, “Vivarium 4,” lacquer with gold, silver and aluminum and stone pigments, on wood 10 x 16 in.

Just one booth exhibited classic Indonesian painting, but it was superb. Art Agenda S.E.A., founded by Wang Zineng, a former curator at Christie’s, presented a well-chosen, condensed history of landscape painting in Indonesia. It included a nice little Raden Saleh lion hunt as well as idyllic mountain and temple views of the Mooi Indië and some gorgeous paintings by Sudjojono and Affandi, the mid-20th-century pioneers in search of the New Indonesian Style. Two exquisite abstract canvases by Mochtar Apin (1923 – 1994) reminded me of Richard Diebenkorn, whose career was contemporaneous, but a friend based in Jakarta noted that it would be equally true to say that Diebenkorn is reminiscent of Apin. A Western eye in Asia never becomes fully acclimatized.

The ISA Art and Design booth had a little coup with the first public exhibition of Dede Eri Supria’s landmark painting “Lipstick for Mother” (1979) since it was initially exhibited at a gallery in Jakarta. Supria depicts Ibu Kartini (1879 – 1904), Java’s revered pioneer for women’s rights and education for girls, sitting under a modern hairdryer with a pistol in her hand, as a tear rolls down her cheek; a tube of bright red lipstick occupies the lower edge of the canvas. Supria (b. 1956) is a Socialist Realist painter best-known for gritty, unsentimental paintings of urban workers; “Lipstick for Mother” (often inaccurately titled “Mother Crying”) was an unusual foray into symbolism. Palpably under the influence of James Rosenquist, it was among the earliest Indonesian paintings in high Pop style, which many artists here still pursue.

Mochtar Apin, “Landscape,” acrylic on canvas, 51 x 55 inch

Jakartans are accustomed to chaos; they seem to enjoy jostling and being jostled as a friendly communal pastime, so the art fair was a whopping success with the public. The organizers created oases of calm by staging events such as charity auctions and public lectures and forums; Eko Nugroho created a workshop for children. The main objectives of any art fair were accomplished: work was sold, business cards exchanged; artists met dealers and dealers met collectors. The fair organizers must have had a lucrative weekend; every inch of space was put to use. The future of art fairs in Southeast Asia looked uncertain after the abrupt cancellation of Art Stage Singapore earlier this year, but judging from Art Jakarta 2019, the big boom is on again.

Jamie James is an American writer based in Indonesia since 1999. He is the author of Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri, The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic,...