19 Indonesian contemporary artists in first Australian commercial showcase – Art Radar interviews MiFA


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When most Australians think of Indonesia, tourist resorts and terrorist activities spring first to mind. In an effort to positively expand on this polarised yet commonly held view, Melbourne gallery MiFA organised the Australia’s first commercial exhibition of contemporary Indonesian art.

Haris Purnomo, 'The Pink Dot', 2010, acrylic on canvas, 150x150 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Haris Purnomo, 'The Pink Dot', 2010, acrylic on canvas, 150×150 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

“Closing the Gap”, a survey show aimed at bringing Australia and its northern neighbour Indonesia closer together culturally, wrapped up at year-old Melbourne gallery MiFA on 25 March, 2011. The exhibition, co-presented by MiFA and Anita Archer, showcased the work of nineteen established and emerging artists and was accompanied by an in-depth catalogue, educational materials for teachers, and a fundraising element.

Click here to view exhibition information and related materials for “Closing the Gap” on the MiFA website.

The artists included in “Closing the Gap” were Angki PurbandonoAy Tjoe ChristineBudi UbruxEko NugrohoEntang WiharsoFX HarsonoGusti Agung Mangu PutraHaris PurnomoI Gusti Ngurah UdiantaraJompet KuswidanantoMaria Indria SariPrilla TaniaSoni IrawanSamsul ArifinSigit SantosoTromaramaUgo UntoroUgy Sugiarto, and Yudi Sulistyo.

Contemporary Indonesian art has been doing well on the world market, I Nyoman Masriadi’s Juling sold for USD494,103 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Spring 2011 sales. How does it fair in Australia’s complex yet somewhat insular art market? Independent consultant, Anita Archer and MiFA co-director, Mikala Tai give us their views.

Ugo Untoro, 'd.h.12', 2008, oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Ugo Untoro, 'd.h.12', 2008, oil on canvas, 100 x 120 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

The exhibition is titled “Closing the Gap”. When we saw the title we thought, this is something that people haven’t addressed yet. Could you explain your thinking behind the title and how it relates to the exhibition?

AA: The Australian market is very sophisticated and operates at an extremely high level but is actually quite parochial. I think that’s not uncommon in a number of similar countries around the world, Canada for example, even maybe Korea. The reason we chose ‘Closing the Gap’ [as a title] was the play on words. Indonesia is geographically and physically close to [Australia]. There is that stretch of sea, the Timor Gap, so we were playing on that terminology. … But we’re very aware that institutionally there is a recognition of Asian art, particularly through the Queensland Art Gallery and the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT),… and yet commercially a certain group of collectors have no knowledge of this area, of the art that is produced in this area. … When we decided on ‘Closing the Gap’, [we were] talking about the phrase literally but also metaphorically, closing the cultural divide between Australia and its nearest neighbor, Indonesia.

Can you explain what sort of team you put together to work on “Closing the Gap”, given the size of the undertaking?

AA: The Indonesians made it very clear to us early on that if a number of the key artists were going to work with us, we needed to have an Indonesian curator, which we hadn’t anticipated. In Indonesia, there is a different system where artists aren’t necessarily represented by galleries. A number of the artists look after their own interests. Galleries have curators and the curators invite the artists to exhibit in a show. So rather than leaving that role to us, the artists felt [more] comfortable having an Indonesian curator who, they thought, fully understood their work and how they connected. … We were ready to embrace that.

Editor’s note: According the the exhibition catalogue, the Indonesian Consultant was Heri Pernard Art Management.

Entang Wiharso, 'Undeclared Skins', 2010, aluminium and brass cast, varied dimension approximately 100 x 100 cm each. Image courtesy MiFA.

Entang Wiharso, 'Undeclared Skins', 2010, aluminium and brass cast, varied dimension approximately 100 x 100 cm each. Image courtesy MiFA.

Did this unexpected requirement mean big changes to your exhibition plan? Did the scope and the feel of the exhibition change at all?

MT: Working in countries like Indonesia you have to go in knowing that the shape of the project will change. … If you [enter into the project], especially from somewhere like Australia, the UK or America, thinking that the structure that you work with in your [own] country will work there, you’re going to get into trouble. … So the best way [for us] to do it was to … be flexible and listen to what people were saying and then try and work with how they wanted to work. It was really about making sure that everyone felt comfortable in the way they were working.

Can you define the current relationship between the Australian and Indonesian art worlds, maybe beginning with the artists and then thinking about collectors and dealers? I know this is the first commercial venture, but has there been much in the way of cross-cultural collaborations, organised by the government or other cultural institutions in either Australia or Indonesia?

AA: Well, one ‘institution’ that we are very privileged to have in Melbourne, attached to the University of Melbourne, is Asialink. They have been doing some fantastic things over the years, particularly with exchanges and residencies. So there have been opportunities … for Australian artists and curators to go to Indonesia and … for Indonesian artists to come here. … Amongst the artists [in ‘Closing the Gap’] there was already some knowledge of Australia and what is happening [here], and a real willingness to be part of this kind of exhibition.

You mention in the exhibition press information that many of the artists involved are discussing global issues but in an Asian context. Can you run me through a few examples of the issues, who’s discussing what and why?

AA: The first one that probably springs to mind for me would be Eko Nugroho. We’re very proud to have a big selection by Eko, including an embroidery work and some wooden pieces that are actually part of a commission that was originally done for the Jogja Art Fair. Now, when we talk about global issues for Eko, his background is in street art and culture. One of the key images in his work is the use of eyes…. Eko explained to us [that] he perceives his generation [to be] looking out; they have all this access to technology and they’re absorbing it all, but they’re giving nothing back. … On a global scale, I think that’s a very true observation. There is a youth culture that has a very high interaction with technology … [but] are really quite passive in their use of it.

Eko Nugroho, 'Duo Petuolong Berbulu', 2010, installation, hardboard, embroidery, 300 x 600 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Eko Nugroho, 'Duo Petuolong Berbulu', 2010, installation, hardboard, embroidery, 300 x 600 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

The exhibition is divided into three themes: Personal and Social, New Realism and New Media. Why is there such diversification? Does this work in a commercial setting?

AA: Here in Australia we’re much more familiar with artists who are painters or sculptors and [our artists practice within] fairly narrow disciplines. Now, I’m not sure whether that comes from our art education system, or whether it’s more market driven, but what I found in Indonesia is that the artists very rarely work in just one media. … Entang Wiharso uses brass and aluminum cutouts, Eko uses embroidery…. There’s a much broader, much more diverse use of medium. There’s a great use of textiles by Indonesian artists, which also reflects back on their culture and the very long tradition that they have in textiles.

Why do you think there is this diversity of media within Indonesian contemporary art? Is it due to cultural concerns? Or are Indonesian artists just more explorative than artists from other countries?

AA: All of the above. There may be a lot of reasons, financial reasons, having access to materials… [Indonesian artists are] very creative in their use [of different media and] maybe in their education system [artists are] given more opportunity to be explorative. One of the key issues that I noticed was their amazing connectedness, particularly in Jogjakarta…. I think that might give [the artists] the impetus or the confidence to use different materials, [explore] different ideas…

MT: Each artist tends to … be a photographer, a sculptor, a painter, and … they are really accomplished at each one. It’s really important to learn to [look at] what [Indonesian artists are] working with [and know that] they’ve actually explored each [material] thoroughly. They’re not just experimenting.

Prilla Tania, 'Space Within Time #7 (detail)', 2010, stop motion video, edition of 6. Image courtesy MiFA.

Prilla Tania, 'Space Within Time #7 (detail)', 2010, stop motion video, edition of 6. Image courtesy MiFA.

We noticed that, unusually, you have included a lot of market information in the exhibition catalogue. What was idea behind this inclusion?

AA: [In Indonesia,] the auction houses play the role of a primary market. So the artists will … sell their work directly through these houses. In Indonesia, as I said before, there’s not the same system, where an artist is represented by a gallery and that gallery will nurture that artist’s career year in, year out. … From my perspective, I feel that the art market is actually a fundamentally important part of the artistic development of [Indonesian] artists. They appear to be quite market-driven in a way that is distinctly different to artists who practice in a more Western environment, your [typical] American or Australian environment. That’s why we felt that the [market] information was quite relevant; it is directly relevant on the practice of the artist.

If that is the case, do you see Indonesian artists tailoring their work toward what collectors are currently interested in?

MT: Artists don’t live in vacuums; they’re influenced by everything. I think there’s always been a certain … awareness of the market. Whether the artist makes [for] it or against it, … [or] just decides to ignore it, there is a decision making process going on that relates to how they view the market.

AA: And [in Indonesia] you don’t have that intermediary. [The artists] don’t have that gallery director [acting as] intermediary that we would certainly find in Australia or in other environments.

So you could say that Indonesian artists need to know more about the market than artists from other countries…?

AA: Well, they’re directly exposed to it in a way that other artists possibly aren’t.

Ugy Sugiarto, 'Muse', 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 150 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Ugy Sugiarto, 'Muse', 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 150 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Do you see that in any of the artwork in “Closing the Gap”? Do you see any influence of the market there at all?

AA: Possibly, I think possibly in some of it, say for example, our artists who work in a new realist style. Their artworks do have an affinity with works that are [currently selling] in the Chinese contemporary art auction market. … So I think there’s definitely some influence and awareness there.

“Closing the Gap” is a commercial showcase. What expectations did you have in terms of buyer interest? Is there a large market for Indonesian art in Australia? Is Indonesian contemporary art well known there?

MT: We’re the first gallery dedicated to commercial art from Asia-Pacific. In Melbourne, we’re the only body that actually displays Asian art all the time. Queensland has APT and the Queensland Art Gallery, and Sydney has Sherman [Contemporary Art Foundation] and White Rabbit…. So for us, the most important thing about the show has been education and contextualising the works. … It’s been really important to have the artists out here, have them talking, have a symposium, have the local academics here involved in the conversation, and give people as much information as possible. This is a new market and as Australian collectors start looking elsewhere, we want them to look north as opposed to looking east or west…. We’d like them to stay within the region.

Why would you like Australian collectors to buy within the Asia-Pacific region?

MT: Because Australia is so close to Indonesia, number one, but also to [the rest of] Asia. We’re in the same time zone. … Business-wise, connections tend to happen in this direction, but the [Australian art world] still seeks connections with Europe or America. We’re still chasing those historical ties.

AA: It’s a very much a narrative here. Post the global financial crisis, a dialogue that we were hearing all the time on the news was, what a successful Western economy Australia was, how we were one of the most successful Western economies to come out of the global financial crisis. And you know, the thing we always say here is, What map are you looking at? Because we’re over in the East. … There’s certainly some exposure now, particularly with [events] like the Hong Kong [International] Art Fair, and now Art Stage Singapore. So the timing [of ‘Closing the Gap’] is perfect. People here are really interested. What we’ve found is that there’s a real thirst for knowledge and [for] the opportunity to see this [artwork] firsthand. … And there’s been a lot of surprise. … You know, most people [in Australia] wouldn’t even be able to name one [Indonesian artist].

MT: [The] main reaction [we’ve had] has been people coming here and saying, ‘This isn’t what I expected [art from Indonesia] to look like.’

Ay Tjoe Christine, 'Study of First September Doll', 2010, mixed media on canvas, 150 x 125 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Ay Tjoe Christine, 'Study of First September Doll', 2010, mixed media on canvas, 150 x 125 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Do you think this reaction points to a lack of education, that people are not looking outside Australia when they’re buying or when they’re learning about or talking about contemporary art?

MT: Yes, but it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the way that things have developed. As things have changed, with all the big banks opening up in Korea or in China or elsewhere in Asia, Australian businesses are recognising that we need to move into Asia to be successful. It’s only natural that [the art market] will follow.

AA: For better or worse there are really two quite polarised views [of Indonesia]. There’s that fantastic holiday environment and there’s also that terrible threat of terrorism. … There’s such a wide gaping chasm in [Australia’s] understanding of its northern neighbor that it really is fundamentally important to do this [exhibition].

MT: What’s been very interesting for us as a commercial gallery is that the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has been really interested in the show. … [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) travel warnings for Indonesia] have prevented a lot of people from travelling there, people that work in really important [Australian] institutions and who would love to do work in the area. … So [it’s left to] commercial or artist-run spaces [to] pick up that discussion.

As a commercial gallery, do you place as equal a value on art education as you do on the sales?

MT: Probably even more.

AA: More.

MT: [We have one person with the gallery] who is dedicated to working with public programs, and another dedicated to education programs. We produce education packs that get sent out to high schools…. Some of the best discussions that have happened in the gallery [during ‘Closing the Gap’] have been with school groups that have come in. And by having these works contextualised for them – people that are 15, 16, 17 – they’re connected with it forever. It’s a very important age group to have access to.

What is the place of art in challenging these misconceptions between Indonesia and Australia, or between Indonesia and other Asian countries? Do the artists themselves challenge those in the art that you have selected or was that not a particular consideration?

AA: I don’t think it was a driving factor. But it is part of a much bigger puzzle and we play our small role in that puzzle, hence the importance of education. We can’t bear the weight of that responsibility, and I don’t think it’s our place to, but anything that we can do to contribute to that dialogue we will absolutely do.

Soni Irawan, 'Come to Me #2', 2010, oil bar, acrylic and marker on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Soni Irawan, 'Come to Me #2', 2010, oil bar, acrylic and marker on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

There is a fundraising element attached to “Closing the Gap”. Is that common for an Australian exhibition of international contemporary art? Would you normally see that level of involvement?

AA: I don’t know. I mean, would Australian galleries? No, I don’t think so. But I think that we’re working in such a unique area and on so many different levels that it all contributes to relationship building and to education.

MT: For us, this exhibition, and other survey shows of this size, [functions to] kickoff a [continued] relationship. We hope every year to have an Indonesian show, whether it be a solo, a thematic or a medium show….

AA: Our interest in Indonesia and in Indonesian art is long-term.

What direction do you think “Closing the Gap” will lead the artists in terms of their interaction with Australia?

MT: I really hope that some of the artists that came here [will develop a long term relationship with Australia]. For example, Melbourne’s known for its street art and we really would love to be able to work with Eko Negroho so he could do some of his work here and be a part of the Melbourne street art community, showing Australian artists that the art form is being produced in places like Indonesia.

The exhibition catalogue for “Closing the Gap” is bilingual. Is it meant for an Indonesian audience as well as an Australian one?

AA: Yes, absolutely, and that was a very important.

MT: All of our catalogues are bilingual, whatever country we’re focussing on.

Why does MiFA choose to create bilingual exhibition catalogues?

MT: Both Anita and I have been working in the academic realm and we found that, for example, Indonesian [art] writers are [prolific] and really important in Indonesia. But their works aren’t available in English. … To be able to ‘close the gap’ people need to be able to access ideas from both sides, so it’s really important that everything is available in both languages.

Yudi Sulistyo, 'Memonry WWI', 2010, PVC pipe and cardboard pulp, 270 x 135 x 210 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Yudi Sulistyo, 'Memonry WWI', 2010, PVC pipe and cardboard pulp, 270 x 135 x 210 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

We can see that “Closing the Gap” is not just a title.

MT: No.

What challenges did you face when selecting artists for “Closing the Gap”?

MT: We had a really big wish list, but I think that what a lot of Australians have realised is that Indonesian artists are international artists. … There are a few artists, of course, that we would have loved to have been able to include in this show but we couldn’t due to restrictions on time and other issues. We thought about who is important in respect to Indonesian art, who is up-and-coming and emerging and really important, and who we could fit into our themes.

“Closing the Gap” seems to have received a lot of attention from the general public, as well as from the Australian art world. Was this expected?

MT: It was actually quite overwhelming. The last two months of our lives have been all about Indonesia. You forget that other people are just as interested. … It’s quite nice to have people come in and react in that fresh and immediate way.

Do you think Australia is behind in terms of their recognition of Southeast Asian art or even Asian art, especially when compared with America, Europe or other Asian regions like Hong Kong?

AA: Yes and no. When you consider what the Queensland Art Gallery have been doing with the Asia Pacific Triennial… as far as institutions are concerned they are world leaders in showcasing, and also purchasing, art from this region. So, no, we’re definitely not behind on that front. But on a commercial front, appealing to a certain sector of collectors, yes, I’d say we are behind.

MT: In general, Southeast Asian art is just emerging across the globe. Our responsibility here, as MiFA, is to be part of that recognition. We need to be making sure that Australian collectors and the Australian public are just up-to-date as anyone anywhere else in the world. … It’s really important that we don’t get left behind just because our internal collecting is strong.

This is a commercial exhibition. What expectations did you have in terms of buyer interest, in terms of collector interest?

AA: Optimism. Lots of optimism.

MT: Because our survey shows are the first of many smaller exhibitions, the investment for us at this time is bigger. If we could place every possible work in a great collection that would be ideal, but really it was about making sure that the works were seen by important, private, public, and corporate collectors. … The works could have gone back to Indonesia or Singapore, but we really wanted them to stay here. The whole point of this show was to ensure that some of these works are collected in Australia, in Melbourne. … Whenever you place a work in a museum or a government institution it means it can be seen, and with corporate and private collections now loaning works…, the more works we can place within Melbourne, the greater the wealth of art that’s within the city.

Samsul Arifin, 'You Can See (White)', 2010, fabric and Dacron, 175 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Samsul Arifin, 'You Can See (White)', 2010, fabric and Dacron, 175 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Have you been successful in terms of sales? Do you think there is a market? Is it a growing market, or one that already exists? How would you define it?

AA: It’s blossoming. It’s just beginning.

MT: The fact that there is a growing market is the most important thing. And it’s growing for established and younger collectors. It’s been really interesting to see a 30-something-year-old guy instantly buy a work at the opening because he’s just fallen in love with it, while people who have large-scale thought-out collections with themes have also found a place for works.

Who do you see as the rising stars of contemporary Indonesian art?

AA: One of the artists that we’re particularly excited about is a young girl called Maria Indria Sari. … You will see a selection of what she calls ‘dolls’ or ‘puppets’ in the exhibition catalogue. Each one is about a meter high and they reflect on the domestic implements or tools within her kitchen. … The quality of her work is amazing. The use of textiles has resonance culturally within an Indonesian environment. [She takes] a feminist approach to what she’s saying, what she has to say. This is the first time she’s ever had a formal exhibition of her work. … She entered into the Bandung Contemporary Art Prize, which is a prestigious art prize within Indonesia, and out of around 400 entries she came within the top 25.

Maria Indria Sari, 'I am big, you are small', 2009, mixed media, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Maria Indria Sari, 'I am big, you are small', 2009, mixed media, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

About MiFA

Melbourne International Fine Art, or MiFA, is a commercial gallery situated in Melbourne, Australia. The gallery focusses on contemporary art from the Asia-Pacific region because, says gallery co-director Mikala Tai, “there’s a big gap in the Australian market, especially commercially, for artists coming from Asia to Australia.”

True to its mission, this modern space serves as a venue to showcase works by acclaimed artists from China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Aside from its offered gallery space, the venue can also accommodate corporate meetings, artist talks and presentations, allowing for a more dynamic atmosphere where art and cultural interaction can thrive.

MiFA opened in April 2010 and is co-directed by Mikala Tai and Bryan Collie.


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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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