Indonesia’s Gajah Gallery hosts an all-female group show on materiality and object interaction.
Curated by Dr Wulan Dirgantoro and Jason Lim, the visual and performance art exhibition considers media living ‘lives of their own’.
Despite an air of underlining contextual familiarity, the show is disjointed and fragmented, each piece visually antonymic to its counterparts. They are self-sufficient; and while interacting with one another solely based on location and their curated coexistence, each of the pieces – paintings, sculptures, videos and garments – go about their own endeavours, creating their own ways of communicating. But what they each seek to communicate, what they each try to depict through different aesthetic investigations, is synonymous: material – its physicality, memorability and political connotations – offers a way of speaking.
Such is the crux of “Medium @ Play”, hosted by Indonesia’s Gajah Gallery Yogyakarta from 5 May to 30 June 2018. Between eight visual artists and collectives and a series of site-specific performers, the gallery explores the relationship between practitioners and their chosen materials – many of which have been challenged to reflect on their medium’s voices in more depth than their practices have previously called for. Dr Wulan Dirgantoro and Jason Lim, curators of the all-female show, have asked their artists (and, consequently, their audiences) the following questions: what does it mean to pour life into a material, to follow it on its narrative journeys? How should one (inter)act with the material, not only providing it with the space and surroundings to dwell within, but to also join in conversation with it, addressing it as a substance of agency over function?
The artists approach this figurative framework through a variety of storylines, most conceptually digestible through three frameworks: firstly, to engage with the physicality of their material, things that can be sensed and verified by their audience, thus to let the material speak as an acknowledgement to its Eigenleben [life of its own]. Alternatively, few of the artists have chosen to consider how materials may “leave behind the confines of white cube aesthetic”, specifically with the goal to obstruct or interfere with normative social structures and art world expectations. Here, the curators explain, is where the materials and their masters allow repressed, messy or “unstable substances” to surface, be they in the form of identity crises, forgotten tradition or unpleasant memory. Thirdly – and, perhaps, most blatantly – there are participating artists who engage with materiality that is innately political or finds new political significance in its display; this third scenario prompts artists to consider the processes of making and associated power relations that their chosen media hold.
Dirgantoro and Lim’s curatorial rationale seeks to engage the artists, their materials and their spectators in a materially-focused “network of communication”. From this perspective, the experience of the audience becomes essential, providing the engagement with the art objects through bodily perception and interaction. While the primary goal of “Medium @ Play” may be, as the title suggests, an observation of material interface, the aim of the exhibition is also to locate the practices of the artists within sociocultural and historical perspectives, opening each material to meanings beyond their ‘artistic’ connotations to something of the everyday, or the creatively mundane.
And while material investigation and its communicative powers remain the blanketed focus of the exhibition, it is not lost on viewers that each of the artists identifies as a woman. In selecting the group, Dirgantoro explains that feminism was and still is considered to be a “dirty word” in Indonesia, particularly because of its associations with western ideologies. For this very reason, “Medium @ Play”, like her seminal book Feminism and Indonesian Contemporary Art: Defining Experiences, the curator provides a more nuanced perspective of feminism showing that there is almost no unifying definition. She explains:
This diversity of understanding not only informed the artist’s approach to the issues of gender injustice, religion, politics and ethnicity, but also to my position as a feminist researcher… The starting point for analysis is grounded in the discipline of art history, namely from cultural and textual productions that are produced by women artists through art works, interviews, biographies, letters, and essays. I examine how critical language can be derived from these primary sources, thus basing the primacy of the analysis on the perspective of the female artists. To some extent, my analysis can be seen as embodying a stance that I criticise in my research, namely that of valourising female creativity. Yet within these works there is a complex picture of Indonesian women artists and their sociocultural environment.
The works presented in “Medium @ Play” are not a mere reflection of the artists’ personal stories and thoughts; their subjectivities cannot be simplified through their voice as primary sources. To balance this perspective, Dirgantoro and Lim look at the reception of art history and feminist-inspired works within the mainstream Indonesian art world, specifically that which deals with innovative material experimentation. The curators note that the role of visitor and reception in the production of meaning has rarely been discussed in relation to opening up a discursive field about feminism/s in Indonesian art discourses. Gajah Gallery provides the meeting place between these subjects – between feminism, artistry, audience and materiality.
In her thesis, “A Life of its Own”, the artist and writer Patricia Townsend likens the work of art to a child. She writes (PDF Download):
There is no such thing as an artist… Without artworks (or ideas for artworks), there is no artist and the artist is essentially part of a relationship with his or her artworks, at least while they are in the process of being created. From this viewpoint, the trajectory of the artistic process can be regarded as a movement towards separation and differentiation between artist and artwork that culminates in the production of an autonomous artwork that can exist by itself in the outside world.
When an artwork – or, in the case of “Medium @ Play”, material – no longer needs its artist, when it is ‘finished’ and placed in the gallery, it gains a certain autonomy. As such, when a material is still at the hands of its creator, it still holds the potential to take any possible form, to tell any available story. Tisa Granicia’s work in the exhibition toys with this idea, her interest in (female) identity and the fluctuating experiences surrounding it in a state of perpetual flux. It then comes as no surprise that her work dabbles with a variety of materials – plastic, crocheted textile, ceramic, paint – as each holds a “personality trait” that “affect[s] the construction of an identity”.
As isolated elements, each material has a different background, has gone through different journeys and will require different manipulation in order to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the work; as a whole, they become something entirely other, feeding off of one another to write an unknown tale. Granicia’s multimedia piece, DREAMS, speaks to, among other things, a material’s power gained when the artist metaphorically ‘falls asleep’. The unconscious intermingling of isolated parts carries the potential to weave meanings – or identities – together beyond an artist’s original intent (or, at least, conscious intent).
Not all of the artists in “Medium @ Play” consider raw materiality to be at the core of their work; yet some look to their medium’s ability to conjure what the curators call “repressed” or “unstable substances”, meaning the thoughts (including any unsavoury ones) that have too often been pushed to the wayside in order to create palatable art. An artist’s chosen medium holds the ability to unearth these ideas and feelings, leading the way to identity construction and providing platforms for gender performativity. Judith Butler’s coined notion is certainly influential in the reading of many Indonesian artists, specifically women and queer artists; however, not all Indonesian (performance) artists strictly address the issues of gender in their works, with the exception of Arahmaiani Feisal’s earlier works that are explicitly political in content.
One of the country’s most influential and respected contemporary artists, Feisal has long been internationally recognised for her powerful and provocative commentaries on social, political and cultural issues. Born in 1961 in Bandung, Indonesia, she established herself in the 1980s as a pioneer in the field of performance art in Southeast Asia, although her practice also incorporates a wide variety of media. What she brings to Gajah Gallery is twofold: a documentary work on ecological issues, feminism and meditation and a commentary between types of display and how lost or forgotten stories only require material manipulation to be revived.
Her piece Concept Trap exhibits a series of strewn-about pillows, each embroidered with text relaying different emotional states. Words like ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ are nestled next to ‘hate’ and ‘anger’, referencing the artist’s sensitivity and fascination in constructing an identity based on under-recognised histories. She notes that she is captivated by the buried past of her native Java, its rich Hindu-Buddhist cultural heritage and the monumental temples that were overgrown for centuries until their modern rediscovery. The processes of excavating a city, sewing a pillow or building an exhibition each highlight what, for Feisal and Butler, forms an identity; it is malleable and ever-expanding, but requires definitive construction. It requires one to approach their material as an artefact capable of forming and renegotiating narratives.
Politically material, or materially political
The third reading of “Medium @ Play” stems from a material’s politicisation: the use of inherently political content and/or tracking its transformation into political object or tool when displayed in the gallery. The use of the word ‘political’ is, here in itself, pliable, referring to that which is attached to an activist drive, passionate cause or desire for systematic reform. Working through these veins is the all-female collective XXLAB and their ongoing project Soya C(o)u(l)ture. Their five members – Ira, Eka, Asa, Ratna and Kiki, each stemming from a different background in technology, design and the arts – focus on exploring these practices through “open source software and hardware that develops in the spirit of DIY (Do It Yourself) and DIWO (Do It With Others)”.
Based in Yogyakarta, the collective’s experimentation obsesses over soybean waste, namely tofu water runoff, and its detrimental impact on Indonesia’s biota and water sources. In interacting with one of the country’s most utilised and consumed products, and in efforts to abate future damages – be they environmental, health-related and cost-worthy – the group attempts to turn water waste, collected from the region’s overflowing factories, into art. Through painstaking processes of boiling, moulding, drying and dying, XXLAB turns the microbial cellulose sheets formed out of soybean surplus into decorative textiles, then manipulated into couture-looking garments and freestanding installations.
If there is one thing that each of the artists participating in “Medium @ Play” agree upon, it would be a raw material’s loaded narrative potential and its semiotic transience. Whereas a piece of plastic holds connotations of consummation and waste, or a spool of thread relates to historically-assigned femininity, a lone soybean is not expectedly tied to pollution. It is through an artist’s manipulation that a material, once a mass-produced product of expenditure, becomes materially political; it is given new life in consideration of its alternate or even hazardous (if unobstructed) existence outside of the gallery.
“Medium at Play” runs from 5 May to 30 June 2018 at Gajah Gallery Yogyakarta, l. Keloran No.6, Senggotan, Tirtonirmolo, Kasihan, Bantul, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta 55184, Indonesia.
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- “Shadow of the Past”: Indonesia artist Arahmaiani at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York – October 2016 – Arahmaiani’s new exhibition “Shadow of the Past” explores Buddhist meditation in relation to ecological feminist activism
- “Celebrating Murni”: life, legacy and meory of Indonesia’s IGAK Murniasih – artist profile – September 2016 – Sudakara Art Space and Ketemu Project Space in Bali celebrates Murni’s groundbreaking artistic practice and the 50th anniversary of her birth
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