apexart :: Conference Program :: Rifky Effendy

Indonesian Contemporary Art and the Development of Art Infrastructure:
Influences, Appropriations, and Tensions

Rifky Effendy

In the 19th-century Netherlands Indies, a native blue-blooded member of the élite named Raden Saleh Bustaman was sent to study painting in his dynastic realm, Amsterdam, by colonial officials. Raden Saleh (1814–1880) was a talented painter who was highly skilled in painting and copying the Western style. He was gloriously ‘found’ by A. A. J. Payen, a Belgian painter working for the Dutch colonial government. For 22 years, Raden Saleh lived and traveled to the centers of modern European culture: the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Germany, and France. There he gained a better and deeper knowledge of the styles in European paintings, like those created by the romantic artists Delacroix and Géricault. This, and his encounter with European contemporary art discourses, brought about some inner tensions within him. Upon his return from Europe, Raden Saleh became a widely influential artist, also respected by the European painters living in Java at the time. Many of his paintings decorated important colonial offices or were in the collections of high officials.

Here I wish to describe briefly — in non-academic language — the myriad influences in the development of modern art and its infrastructure in Indonesia. Such development cannot be separated from its encounter with the Western world, both through colonialism and the experiences of the pioneering artists as an initial construction in the development of awareness of the modern world. Raden Saleh became an early signpost for the existence of Western-style painting in the Netherlands Indies, a form of mimicry and an effort of appropriation on the part of the elite native aristocracy with access to Western education. During Raden Saleh’s lifetime, the natives of the colonial land had known many art forms, some inherited from earlier cultures. These art forms — wood sculpture, metal crafting, ceramics, batik, etc. — had undergone many influences from the cultures and religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, which came to the archipelago from India, Persia, and China. Aesthetically they were quite sophisticated and merged with the daily lives of the natives, especially the religious rituals or royal ceremonies of the archipelago. The influence of the art of painting brought in by Raden Saleh resided and grew only among the elite, the communities of the aristocracy and high colonial officials. Painting was in fact also used in the interests of the scientific activity or visual documentation conducted by the Dutch of the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnieen, United East Asia Companies), and, in the early 17th century, paintings had been introduced into the archipelago to be given as presents to the native aristocracy, in an effort to create and strengthen diplomatic and trade relationships.

As stated by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, nationalist consciousness outside Europe, as in Indonesia, is a fact of universal humanism, transformed ‘naturally’ through colonial institutions at the end of the 19th century. At that time colonial institutions had undergone administrative change and granted access to the modern world to the literate and bilingual native elites. One must also consider the fact that travels or ‘pilgrimages’ to the dynastic realm of the Netherlands became even more frequent, thanks to improvements in transportation. This, in turn, enabled the absorption and adoption of modernity into the lives of the lay public, which in turn created new internal tensions in the life of the nation.

The ideology of nationalism became a strong impetus for modern Indonesia in determining its artistic life. This is especially true for pioneering artists like S. Soedjojono, Affandi, and many of their colleagues. Such consciousness became the platform that then produced artists’ groups who were also involved in the fight for independence. These artists’ groups differed from the Dutch model of the ‘Kunstkringen.’ In organizations like PERSAGI (the Group of Indonesian Draughtsmen-Artists), the public would encounter the publicized political statements of the artists rather than their search for artistic or aesthetic values. Technical meticulousness and maturity were no longer the main focus; more important was emotional expressionism, which sometimes came to resembled the painterly style of European expressionists like Van Gogh. The artwork produced by these organizations served more as a tool to promote the views of elite nationalists, or even as tools for political propaganda, which then drew Indonesian modern art into the praxis of the political arena. With the paradigm of 'Politics as Commander' promulgated by Soekarno, the leader of Revolution, artists lived meagerly in groups under the shadow of politicians or political parties who served as patrons who met their daily needs. At the time of regime change toward the end of the '60s, art was came under the stigma of party ideology, and other artistic ideologies or beliefs were stifled, or even exterminated.

It was only with the advent of formal art education that the development of an artist could occur in more organized and systematic fashion, and in greater numbers. As for scope, artists were no longer limited to the art of painting. Graphic art and lithography, sculpture, fiber art, and curricula in graphic, interior, and industrial design were also introduced. In formal art institutions, emerging artists could find much needed information on international developments in art, especially those originating in the Western world. In the academic realm students were encouraged to analyze the workings of art, its stages; they learned how to work with material and process, with matters of forms and composition. There, students were also encouraged to explore and experiment, to develop a critical attitude. Abstraction of form became the dominant tendency in the works, and they even produced radical formal abstractions of their own.

A major milestone was the emergence of an art-education institution in Bandung, a brainchild of the colonial academia of the 1930s. Its Eurocentric model was different from the art-education institution in Yogyakarta, where local content was much more significant, and whose teachers were taken from the myriad art studios in the town. This difference became even more pronounced when the seat of government of the young republic was moved to Yogyakarta. Bandung, as a colonial town, was relatively free from the pull of the Revolution, and had an atmosphere of modernity that could accept and absorb calmly the teachings of the European masters. In 1954, several painters from the art academy held an exhibition in Jakarta. There were artists like Ahmad Sadali, But Mochtar, A. D. Pirous, Mochtar Apin, and Kaboel Suadi. The exhibition generated strong reaction and criticism from the artists and art critics of the time. Trisno Soemardjo, a nationalist artist, reacted even more strongly, declaring that the artists of the exhibitions had no national identity and were mere servants of the 'Western Laboratory.'

Debates about this 'National Identity' invariably took place at every stage of national development. Another typical case was Soedjojono's strong criticism the painters of the Mooi Indie style in the 1930s, denouncing them as leaning toward the West. Such a representation of the 'East'--'West' dichotomy was vividly demonstrated during the Japanese occupation, when the Japanese colonial government developed the cultural institution of Keimin Bunka Shidoso, giving full support to artists for exploring Eastern identity in their work. But this attitude on the part of the Nationalists, with its reluctance to look to the cultures of the past, could obviously not be restrained as the drums of revolution grew louder and louder. It was quite different for artists on the island of Bali, who decided to give ample room to cultural dialogue in their work. Cross-influence between the cultures of European visitors and local artists produced imaginative artistic forms full of surprises. The nurturing of the art world in Bali, in a more prosperous and comfortable environment, owed much to the development of its fabled tourism. There the drums of the Revolution were barely audible.

However, the most recent development in Indonesian contemporary art practice in has been dominated by artists trained at institutions in Bandung and Yogyakarta. These institutions were created in the shadow of nationalism, which created ideological platforms. But the isolation of Indonesian modern art from the international art circuit is something that must be addressed on a higher and broader level of discourse. This isolation is mainly due to the slowness of government art institutions during that time in adapting to change. Those art institutions have been more focused on protecting the fine arts, especially ancient art. Other factors are an absence of museums of modern art, an absence of courses of study that produce art historians or critics and a lack of art journals that publish historical and critical analyses and essays. Taken together, all this in turn creates a situation of impotency, where art is incapable of defining its modernity to a wider public.

The revolt of younger artists, as with the New Art Movement (Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru, the GSRB) of the early ’70s, was a clear example of the restlessness of part of these artists with respect to the status quo in the art sponsored by governmental and educational institutions. This status quo was a product of the cultural politics of the Suharto’s New Order, where the trauma of left-wing art like that espoused by LEKRA (the People’s Cultural Institution, a cultural institution of the Indonesian Communist Party) has been kept alive. LEKRA artists, who dominated the scene from the 1950s until the ’60s, were then faced with the fact that the political atmosphere during the Cold War had turned in the other direction, which tended to stifle artistic creativity. Much of the work by these artists was destroyed; some was saved and hidden by supporters. Many of the artists were marginalized, incarcerated, or even killed; some fled to other countries. At the same time, many parties (as always) took advantage of such conditions. One of these was the artists of the Bandung school, who mostly created artwork tending to formal and abstracte artistic forms that were considered neutral.

The Suharto government created many new cultural institutions, like the Cultural Parks that sprung up in the capital cities of the 27 provinces, with their headquarters in the office of the Ministry of Education and Culture in the capital city of Jakarta. In 1972, Taman Ismail Marzuki or Ismail Marzuki Cultural Park was built in Jakarta, on land owned previously by the painter Raden Saleh. The cultural park was intended as a meeting place for artists from various fields, and also as a place where these artists could conduct their activities. There was a performance center, a gallery, and a cinema, managed by the Jakarta Board of Art under the local government of Jakarta. This board also funded the activities and the programs of the cultural park. Nearby, the Jakarta Art Institute (IKJ) was built to counter-balance the established institutions of Bandung and Yogyakarta. The Suharto government also created art-educational institutions more focused on teaching, in almost all the major cities of Indonesia. North of Jakarta, in the tourist area of Ancol, the government, in order to provide a place for studio-based artists, worked together with business people to develop an art market. All these cultural institutions were developed in an effort to produce and nurture certain patterns of art under ‘guided democracy’ Suharto-style, which then strove to promote official practices of art and culture. Art forms that were strongly critical or sensationalistic, portraying the ugliness of the nation or desecrating the state, or which displayed the social-realist tendencies of LEKRA or had the ‘potential to divide the unity of the nation,’ were ignored by the government and tended to be viewed as marginal by the public.

The members of New Art Movement (GSRB) were of the generation who first experienced contacts — directly or indirectly — with contemporary international art movements, especially those from the United States and Western Europe Pop Art, conceptual art à la Joseph Beuys, or Fluxus. The members of this movement had read about the movements in magazines and books from aboard, whether in libraries or from their colleagues who had made the 'pilgrimage' or were studying on scholarships in the art centers of the world. The first exhibition of the New Art Movement was held in the Ismail Marzuki Cultural Park in Jakarta in 1974, and was a clear sign of the societal tensions inherent in the fact that the culture of the people was in direct opposition to art as it was regarded in the cold schoolrooms of the elite. The seepage of mass culture and of cultural and political facts into the spaces of the elite was represented in installation works, performance and happening art, and in art using assemblage, found objects, and mixed media. The subjects of the work were political power, militarism, the environment, or the people's woes. The symbols were taken from the ordinary lives of the people, using photographic realism or borrowing forms from past cultures or popular local icons. The exhibitions of the New Art Movement invariably created debate among critics and art observers, focusing mainly on the attitudes displayed their work: coarse, vulgar, reckless, not contemplative, with no cultural roots. The main concern among academics, on the other hand, was that the atmosphere of the sixties might come back.

Like many art movements before it, the New Art Movement disbanded after its last exhibition in 1979. But the discourse espoused by the Movement created the seeds of change for later art practice, and for the birth of a new generation, especially after its members published their manifesto, along with a collection of their writings in the form of a book. The movement was born of a cultural elite, but it had at least made people realize that the highly pluralistic lives of Indonesians had also created a wide diversity in their understanding of art. Here was where cultures past and modern, West and East, were juxtaposed and influenced each other. The great paradox of the Suharto era was that cultural life was forced to certify the existence of 'cultural peaks', while the capitalist economic model had given rise to a myriad of popular cultures from America, which undermined local cultures and the Indonesian-ness of people’s lives.

The Indonesian economy sky-rocketed through the '80s until the mid-'90s, and raised the lives of some to a high social and economic level. Skyscrapers went up, and the number of luxury urban residential complexes and high-class shopping malls steadily increased. Along with such growth, the need for luxury objects like cars and artworks arose, as, on the other hand, poverty became widespread. There was also a sharp increase in the demand for paintings, and as a consequence many commercial art galleries sprung up. There was a ‘boom’ in painting, and the many exhibitions held in commercial galleries in Jakarta or in high-class hotels seemed to confirm the view that owning an artwork or painting was now considered a mark of prestige enabling someone to move up to a higher social level. Many businesspeople started to become interested in art, especially in painting, to achieve a well-rounded social standing. Naturally, the kind of painting that grew out of this situation was very specific, dominated by a formalistic and decorative style. Automatically, more ‘experimental’ art forms did not receive sufficient appreciation, and (once again) only lived within academic circles. This atmosphere was strongly criticized by many, especially by the art critics and academics who tended to view the market for painting as something negative.

The emergence of 'alternative' spaces began in the nineties. The existence of art spaces the Cemara 6 Galeri and Galeri Lontar in Jakarta, Galeri Padi in Bandung, and especially Galeri Cemeti (currently named Cemeti Art House), born in 1988 in Yogyakarta, have created much-needed space for artists of various styles and tendencies, and working with painting, sculpture, mixed-media art, installation work, found objects, and performance art. Galeri Cemeti functioned as a mediator between artists and the broader public, whether in Indonesia or abroad. Cemeti was considered an answer to, or resistance against, the situation of the boom era that had almost created stagnation in the development of art, a condition that almost even spread to the academic sphere. Cemeti has played a significant role in creating a strong foundation for Indonesian contemporary art, especially its political art. Criticism, conveyed through art, of the hegemony of the Suharto regime in power at the time had been started by young artists like Heri Dono, Marintan Sirait, Agus Suwage, F. X. Harsono, Arahmaiani, and Tisna Sanjaya. Furthermore, Cemeti also made a significant contribution by empowering an art infrastructure, thus enabling serious discussion about the form of art institutions in Indonesia. This was done through the creation of the Cemeti Art Foundation in 1995, an institution active in documenting developments in Indonesian art; providing information in the form of books and research; creating artist exchanges (in the form of residency programs) and workshops; organizing exhibitions of Indonesian artists abroad; and publishing journals and books. Cemeti Art House is the brainchild of the artist couple Nindityo Adipurnomo and Dutch-born Mella Jaarsma, the couple who has been the motor and brain behind the activities at Cemeti. After more than 15 years of its existence, Cemeti Art House has proven that artist-run spaces — which in the beginning served only a certain community — could influence the wider art community in its artistic practices. Its influence could be felt not only in Yogyakarta, but also nationally. Activities in the Cemeti Art House continuously create dynamic motion by displaying the latest tendency in art. Cemeti has even spread an awareness of the need to develop communal spaces with specific interests to younger artists. All this was done despite the constant difficulty of finding adequate financial resources.

The period of the 1980s and '90s was also marked by the emergence of various foreign cultural institutions, especially from countries with political and economic interests in Indonesia, among them the Netherlands (with Erasmus Huis), Germany (with the Goethe Institut), France (with the Centre Culturel Français), and Japan (with the Japan Foundation). These cultural institutions became actively involved in the cultural activities of the major cities on Java by holding theatrical performances, exhibitions, or artist exchanges. Their influence was often obvious, especially among younger artists or art student. Japan is one of the countries that has paid the most attention to artistic and cultural life in Indonesia (and even before independence, through the Keimin Bunka Shidoso). The Japan Foundation has been actively bringing in traveling exhibitions, inviting curators from museums or independent curators to do research or surveys, give talks, or hold workshops. The Foundation has also been inviting local curators to participate in their exhibition projects. As an 'agent' of art development in Southeast Asia, the Japan Foundation plays an important role in introducing modern Asian art into the international circuit, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Meanwhile, Australia under the leadership of Paul Keating, who brought in a cultural policy that tended to lean toward Asia, began to exhibit and collect modern Indonesian and other Asian art through the Asia-Pacific Art Triennials in 1996, 1999, and 2001 in the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Meanwhile, in the social realm of the art world in Indonesia itself, this relationship brought forward various opinions, some of which viewed the Indonesian art exhibitions in Australia as representing an ‘orientalistic’ point of view. The discourse developed during these exhibitions focused more on the post-colonial social and political narratives of Indonesia, which occurred almost without resistance, rather than giving birth to a discourse on the development of art through more constructive platforms. This was especially true when the political upheavals in Indonesia became the focus of media attention in Australia.

At the turn of the century, the penetration of information technology in the lives of the people in major Indonesian cities has created access to a global network. The cultural network is accordingly no longer limited to 'official agents' like the government-run cultural or educational institutions both of which had dominated cultural promotion during the '70s and '80s. The global network started by 'marginal' groups immediately took over as the motor of international art developments, which now no longer believed in the idea of ‘peaks of culture,’ as evidenced by the KIAS exhibition in the United States in 1990–1. Such marginal groups concentrate more on the contemporary problems of their immediate public, and are aware of current discourses. Taking advantage of the Internet, these groups establish contacts with diverse organizations and individuals, artists or curators, in many countries. Groups like the Ruangrupa in Jakarta; Mess 56, Apotik Komik, and Taring Padi in Yogyakarta; the Bandung Center for New Media Art, Jejaring, and Rumah Proses in Bandung; and Klinik Seni Taksu in Bali, develop and grow from a network with more specific and contextual discipline and attitude. The Ruangrupa group, for instance, has successfully entered the international network and provides space for artists in Jakarta who are interested in new-media art. The group has tried to develop a new platform for supporting the growth of new-media art on the Indonesian art scene; however, there are still many doubts as to how they can survive, given their limited infrastructure and support. So far they live only on funds from donor countries. There are not many galleries or art spaces that can provide the necessary infrastructure or give financial support to such activities. This new generation of artists are urbanites that have grown up in a time of major political changes (and economic ruin) in their country. The air of freedom that they inhale cannot guarantee that there will be change on the part of government-run art institutions and their related departments, and in the museum and educational system. Meanwhile, private museums constructed by senior artists sprang up in various places, for example the museums of Nyoman Gunarsa and Neka in Bali; the museums of Widayat and Affandi in Yogyakarta; or the Barli and Jeihan museums in Bandung. They often seem not so professionally run and to have no long-term program, and the public seldom visits them. This is probably why the latest breed of artist-owned spaces use young curators and managers to plan and run their programs. Sometimes even the naming of such places reflects the progressive stance of the institutions, as with the Selasar Sunaryo Artspace, owned by the artist Sunaryo, in Bandung, which has added much color to the Indonesian art scene by holding curated exhibitions of young artists.

However, there has also been a spread of the symptoms of neo-liberalism among Indonesian urbanites, as the market and capitalism become more important pillars. This is more profoundly felt during today’s enduring economic crisis, when there has ironically been a second painting boom. It is probable that economic tycoons will take over and become the patrons of art. This is apparent in the case of the tobacco merchant in Magelang, Central Java, who became a major art collector with a certain power to affect the value of a work of art and direct the artistic career or development of an artist. There are other groups that are ‘advantaged’ by the economic crisis. ‘Connoisseurs,’ which consist mostly of dealers, often openly use the National Gallery and the curators as a space of legitimation. There are also the Pelita Harapan Museum and the Circle Point (CP) Foundation, founded by Indonesian entrepreneurs with American educations. These two institutions try to adapt events on the North American art scene to Indonesia. This is especially true of the institution founded by Djie Tjian An, who has operated an ‘outlet’ for Indonesian art through the CP Artspace in Washington, D. C. since the year 2000. In collaboration with the senior curator of Indonesia, Jim Supangkat, they held the CP Open Biennale in the National Gallery of Indonesia, Jakarta, in 2003. The exhibition had an international scope and proved that such an ambitious contemporary art celebration could not take place without the involvement of a huge sum of money, especially when it is organized with the intention to ‘promote’ the Indonesian art scene abroad, and with the ambition to create a new platform with a more pluralistic discourse for the international art scene. The question remains as to whether the CP Open Biennale can be consistently held and be able to provide a response to the challenges ahead, as is happening in Gwangju, South Korea, and Shanghai, China. The problem is that biennales like these have not been sufficiently appreciated by the public, in part because of the insufficiency of the infrastructures, the lack of art management, and insufficient public education. Such problem have often been encountered in the organizing of various Indonesian biennales.

Lastly, it is important to stress that Indonesian contemporary art, as a part of the dynamics of the development of world art, has its own characteristic way of handling the problems encountered along the journey, as is common in the different art scenes of developing post-colonial countries. Modern or contemporary art grows from the social and political construction of the public and the economy created by people, projected by communities of artists or the various groups that continually develop their institutions. Although they no longer invariably copy the development of art infrastructures in the developed countries, appropriation is continually occurring to find the best solution for the development of art within the country, and to support the country’s participation in the broader artistic circuit.