Art

Centering the Equator in Global Conversations About Art

With its focus on art from Indonesia and Southeast Asia, this year’s edition of the Biennale Jogja offers a fresh take on discussions of centers and peripheries.

Moelyono “Pembangunan Taman Monumen Marsinah” (2019) (detail), mixed media, video, installation, dimensions variable (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic, unless otherwise noted)

Among the various biennials and triennials, the Biennale Jogja, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, has set itself apart with its curatorial focus and timely, urgent artworks. Under the artistic direction of curator Alia Swastika, the Biennale brings together a new cohort of curators every two years to contemplate artistic production along the equator. Positioning the equator as central to global conversations about artmaking in spite of whether or not these geographies are perceived as “central” to the mainstream arts world — the Biennale has, over its last five iterations, explored the specificities of art being made there.

This year, the Biennale focused on art from Indonesia and Southeast Asia with curators Akiq AW and Arham Rahman from Indonesia, and Penwadee Nophaket Manont from Thailand at the helm. They delivered a complex, multi-layered exhibition that lives up to its claims of centering artists working “on the periphery,” inviting many artists who live outside Indonesia’s artistic hubs to spend time in Jogja (shorthand for Yogyakarta, often spelled Jogjakarta) to make work on-site in advance of the exhibition. This practical solution to the problem of limited shipping funds added to the Biennale’s sense of immediacy, with individual works confronting questions of how artists negotiate gender equity, labor and economic hardship, human rights violations, and religious and race-based discrimination. For while discussions of centers and peripheries have long been part of discourses across the globe, this biennial, offers a fresh and urgent take, featuring 52 artists, and an array of working styles, materials, installation experiences, and performances across 52 sites.

What follows are a few highlights from the exhibition:

Moelyono “Pembangunan Taman Monumen Marsinah” (2019) Mixed media, video, installation.

Behind the main exhibition venue at Yogyakarta Cultural Park stands an outdoor pavilion in which artist, Moelyono has created the new work “Pembangunan Taman Monumen Marsinah” (2019), which comprises a central pyramidal plinth encircled by soil, fenced with corrugated steel panels. The plinth is decorated with a floral wreath and a plaque and video screen featuring documentary footage, all in memorial to laborer and activist, Marsinah, who was brutalized, raped, and murdered in 1993 by the Suharto regime for her organizing efforts. The steel panels circling the plinth bear her effigy, which the artist created at the time of her death, along with posters protesting her murder at the hands of the dictatorship. Her death remains unacknowledged by the government. Given the seemingly provisional methods and materials used to construct this memorial, perhaps the artist intends this work as a “draft” of what the state’s monument should look like to honor Marsinahs legacy.

Christina Quisumbuing Ramilo “Forest For the Trees: Peri-Peri Library” (2019), mixed media, room-scale installation.

Amidst the rapidly changing nature of Yogykarta, with new construction on every corner, this library full of “books” actually recycles wood blocks from old homes and past projects by artist Christina Quisumbing Ramilo. Each book can be taken from the shelves and named in honor of stories, real or imagined, that visitors wish to include in the library. The space will also be used for a range of workshops with librarians, archivists, and other local groups.

Citra Sansmita “Timur Marah Project” (2019) Five painted scrolls, turmeric, mixed media.

“Timur Merah Project” (2019), Citra Sansmita’s new work for the Biennale questions the primacy of Javanese canonical texts, challenging their dominance by re-envisioning them on the scrolls she paints in a traditional Balinese (Kasaman) style. The artist transposes all the male characters to female in her re-casting of the Kakawin Ramayana, and writes her own text, appropriated from various Balinese kakawin, or narrative poems. Rendered in turmeric on the floor, they fill the room with the spice’s earthy fragrance.

Still from Vandy Rattana “Monologue” (2015) Single-channel video

In his film “Monologue” (2015), Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana offers a moving elegy to a sister he barely got to know; she was murdered by Khmer Rouge forces when he was a small child and buried in a mass grave at the foot of two mango trees. The artist used a map provided by his father and the help of a village elder to find these mango trees, which have grown from saplings into tall, mature trees. The overwhelming poignancy of this film resides in the intimate tenor of the artist’s voice as he speaks to his sister in voiceover, the constancy of natural processes, and the material reality of trees grown from the ground fertilized by the victims of a brutal regime. 

Dian Suci Rahmawati “Apakah Tubuh: Sebuah Ladang di Dalam Rumah” (2019) Acrylic on transparent fabric.

Dian Suci Rahmawati created “Apakah Tubuh” (2019) by repeatedly painting a brick pattern on dozens of identical silk screens. The work highlights the tedious labor women often do at home in Indonesia to supplement family income, such as packaging item after item or applying labels to products. The women who do this work are often hired at lower wages, and do not have access to the relative safety and health insurance that working in factories provides. In addition to her Minimalist installation, the artist has presented a video on a small screen adjacent that records the artist in the midst of this repetitive task.

Abdoel Semute “Ruwat Kampung Mbangunrejo Surabaya” (2016 and 2018; reproduction 2019) Mixed media.

Abdoel Semute‘s “Ruwat Kampung Mbangunrejo Surabaya” attempts to reclaim the vibrancy of Javanese culture, particularly the traditional religion of Kejawen, which has been increasingly marginalized by Indonesia’s Muslim majority. Dragon puppets and oversized figures imitate Indonesian shadow puppets at a larger-than-life scale. The artist worked with the people in his village near Surabaya to construct and perform with these figures. The use of contemporary dress for the human puppets signals an attempt to rebuild lost connections between indigenous religions, traditions, and knowledge, and society today.

The author with Ratu R Sarawati’s “Silih” (2019), durational performance, goat skin (photo by Mira Seo)

In “Silih,” a participatory performance by Ratu R Saraswati, the artist employs a goat skin as a mediating barrier between two strangers. Saraswati’s interest in diverse religious rituals’ attempts to connect with the divine is translated here into the intense experience of gliding one’s hands in tandem with the artist’s on opposite sides of a taut goat skin. In a surprisingly intimate manner, the animal hide transmits the pressure of each touch, as well as the body heat and the friction of movement. Participants are invited to sit with the artist as long as they wish.

Angki Purbandono “Open Diary” (2019) Photography, scanography.

A site-specific installation featuring blown-up pages of Angki Purbandono‘s diary, written during a 10-month period he spent in jail for smoking marijuana, “Open Diary”  invites visitors into the artist’s unfinished thoughts, partially conceived artworks, and anxieties. Here, what might typically be dismissed as incomplete is centralized in the work, elevating the disjointed thoughts of an incarcerated individual to artistry.

The Jogja Biennial Equator #5, Do We Live in the Same Playground is on view at various locations in Yogyakarta, Indonesia through November 30, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Penwadee Manont, Akiq AW, and Arham Rahman.

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