Changing times: Indonesian art at Singapore Biennale 2013



Indonesian artists at the 2013 Singapore Biennale explore tradition to reflect on the changes in Southeast Asia’s past, present and future.

The intriguing, if somewhat innocuous, theme “if the world changed” asked the participants in the 2013 Singapore Biennale to bring their critique on change to Singapore. A large number of Indonesian artists and at least two curators took on the challenge of acknowledging such changes, particularly in Indonesia, which continues to foster a dynamic contemporary arts scene.

Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Rosid, ‘Lumbung Ilmu’ (‘Granary of Knowledge’), 2005. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

What do over ninety artists and 27 curators from all over Southeast Asia share? Singapore Biennale Director Tan Boon Hui says it’s “the deep wellsprings of local culture … responding to external forces.” The Indonesian artists at this year’s Biennale, hailing from Jogjakarta, Bandung and Jakarta, draw deeply on their local cultures to reflect on a changing world through architecture, video, installation and public engagement. Curators Aminuddin TH Siregar (Ucok), Mia Maria, Tan Siu Li and Fairuz Iman Ismail enabled installations of artworks throughout the city, both indoors and out, to introduce Indonesian contemporary art to the masses.

In prominent engagement with Singapore’s local architecture and meticulously landscaped gardens, Eko Prawoto and Rosid‘s works are related in sentiment but address different subject matters. In Lumbung Ilmu, Rosid contructed a lumbung, or small hut used by farmers for storage. He shares the contents of the hut in a public ode to a way of life quickly disappearing and a reference to his lineage, known in Bahasa Indonesian as anak petani, or sons of farmers.

Prawato’s Wormhole is an imposing architectural feat (ten metres tall, 25 metres long) made out of thousands of stripped bamboo skins and rounded out with massive bamboo stalks. The colonial-era National Museum next door is no match for the natural form of Eko’s work: the structures invite you inside, to look up, to sit down and experience the changing light, the pleasant smell and the spiralling walls.

Eko Prawoto, 'Wormhole', 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Eko Prawoto, ‘Wormhole’, 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

“Singapore is very well designed, maybe one of the best in the world as a man-made environment in [a] rather ‘extreme’ sense,” said Prawato, explaining why he chose to engage with the notion of change in an architectural manner. “I just want to ‘confront’ that with a different attitude, which is closer to nature. The materiality (bamboo is already extinct [in Singapore]) also gives a past reference to the site. [I] try to give a more intimate social space outside, a place to make people able to communicate, to encourage people to interact… Wormhole is an invitation to shift our current perspective in our life.”

Mahardika Yudha, 'The Face of the Black River', 2012. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Mahardika Yudha, ‘The Face of the Black River’, 2012. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Three of the Indonesian participating artists brought a powerful activist tone to their work, sharing their political views and referencing important moments in local history. Mahardika Yudha‘s thirteen-minute video captures the river in Jakarta, the same waterway that lines the many slums of the city. The “Red River” was the site of a massacre of the Chinese population by the Dutch in 1740 – a moment which was to repeat itself in post-independence Indonesia. Now the river is black with pollutants and still used by the people living on its edges. The “legislative inadequacies” in the city are what the artist is calling on the powers that be to remedy.

Iswanto Hartono & Raqs Media Collective, 'The 5 Principle No-s', 2012. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Iswanto Hartono and RAQs Media Collective, ‘The 5 Principle No-s’, 2012. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Iswanto Hartono and RAQs Media Collective together created a new world order in The 5 Principle No-s. The work investigates political ideals in Asian countries by calling to mind The Bandung Conference and its “non” promises. The hosting of the Non-Aligned Movement at the Bandung Conference is an incredibly important piece of Southeast Asian history, one of the first times countries from Southeast Asia began to unite politically.

Tisna Sanjaya also has a hand in politics in Kedutaan Masalah Dunia (The Embassy of World Problems), making a performance on video calling for a worldwide “embassy” – a place on the street or in the coffee shop where people meet to share injustices and find a union in conversation in order to inspire change.

Tisna Sanjaya, 'Kedutaan Masalah Dunia' ('The Embassy of World Problems'), 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Tisna Sanjaya, ‘Kedutaan Masalah Dunia’ (‘The Embassy of World Problems’), 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Nasirun reimagined Indonesia’s traditional wayang puppets, placing them in glass beakers and jars. Lit from below, the delicate leather puppets give off a glow that makes them look like they are dancing inside the glass. It is Nasirun’s aim to contrast the traditional form of entertainment of the puppet show versus the human obsession with the television. Biennale Curator Tan Siu Li notes that Nasirun “is best known as a painter who weaves iconography from wayang and Javanese spiritual practices with contemporary imagery and artistic approaches.”

Nasirun, 'Between Worlds', 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Nasirun, ‘Between Worlds’, 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Also lit from from below, in an elongated glass case, sat Cosmology of Life, Toni Kanwa‘s tiny statues with microscopic features balanced in fine-grained sand. These “talismen” seem to represent the spirit gods from the archipelago’s multifarious ancient practices, which engage with the cosmos through nature. Kanwa investigates these practices and channels that spiritual strength through these tiny figures.

Toni Kanwa, 'Cosmology of Life', 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Toni Kanwa, ‘Cosmology of Life’, 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Anggun Priambodo constructed a shop outside 8Q, a neighbouring building exhibiting Singapore Art Museum’s contemporary collection. Toko Keperluan is a shop of “necessity” where nothing sold is necessary to human life. As Priambodo commented, “needs or necessities that are artificial are made into a commodity, but actually our basic needs are just a few.” He satirises a population’s “need without need” by selling items he purchased in Jakarta. Some are posters to instruct young children to know their fruits and flowers, while others include a bamboo hula hoop, a minaret and a traditional Javanese papier mâché animal head.

Anggun Priambodo, 'Toko Keperluan', 2010 - 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Anggun Priambodo, ‘Toko Keperluan’, 2010 – 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Playing more with the digital and interactive concepts behind change, Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina filled a large room with four projectors, five televisions and twelve small screens documenting Urban Play, their group performance around Jakarta. Light-hearted moments include the group hopping barefoot from one scooter to another through Jakarta’s choking traffic. Outside SAM, Ahmett and Salina’s geometric mural made of tape split the path between two museum buildings.

Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina, 'Urban Play', 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina, ‘Urban Play’, 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

The photography collective KOMVNI invited the cyber public to submit photo projects, after which members of the group collaborated with the submissions, making their own changes. Not only were the photos displayed in a large sculptural book of photo frames, but the book sits in the midst of the National Library, one of Singapore’s proudest achievements in architecture.

KOMVNI, 'Change in 7 Days', 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

KOMVNI, ‘Change in 7 Days’, 2013. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale Press Office.

The artists from Indonesia and the curators who supported them successfully navigated this year’s theme, “if the world changed,” and brought to light some of the seminal moments of recent Indonesian political and popular history, from national identity to forms of popular entertainment, subsequently asking how they might influence change for future generations.

Nathalie Johnston

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Related Topics: Indonesian art, biennales, art events in Singapore, connecting Asia to itself

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