Jakarta's Bienniale sprawls.
The evidence is at the National Gallery of Indonesia, where one of the Biennale's exhibitions is set up. In the temporary art lounge they have set up out the back, the Secret Agents collective (Indra Ameng, Keke Tumbuan) has set up a map of Jabodetabek, of greater Jakarta. Visitors are invited to place stickers, a coloured dot for where you have come from and a different colour to show where you are going. (As a visitor from Sydney I'm not quite sure where to place my dot: I choose Bogor. Close enough.) A polychromatic rhizome of dots is growing on that giant map, vast subterranean seepage of complicit art appreciation that spans the length and breadth of the map and from my own experience, considerably beyond it borders.
This is not a Biennale in the usual mode, where one city runs a high-flying festival to advertise, essentially, its arts funding and networks to the global art mafia, but rather, something both narrower and broader. It is narrower in the sense of being regionally focussed - the intended target audience feels like perhaps the people of ASEAN area, and particularly the people of Jakarta itself, and it frankly doesn't have the budget or profile of a Venice Biennale, which would be what it would take to get wider exposure. But it is broader in the sense that it seems to do its utmost to engage with all the audiences of Jakarta, not only the self-identified art elite. There is not a single festival precinct, but a series of shows surfacing across galleries and malls, and public street works, across wealthy and poor suburbs. This festival sprawls because it pervades a sprawling city. (That is, as best a quixotic, small budget art event can pervade a city that is, by some counts, more populous than all of Malaysia.)
The Biennale's title is “Arena”; the overwhelming theme seems to be “space”; the location of Jakarta in space; but also the distribution and usage of space within Jakarta itself. The program Zona Pertarungan ("Conflict Zone”), under the curation of Ardi Yunanto, concerns itself especially with the latter. Indeed, The Conflict Zone not only takes ‘space’ as its subject matter, but is comprised largely of works that subvert space as part of their very structure. Daniel Kampua's photo essay, for example, of tourists at the Indonesian National Monument, plays with distortions of perspective, making tourists at the monument appear as giants beside the dwarfed monolith. The photo essay, it transpires, is not in fact his alone, but a collaboration with the itinerant photographers who roam around the national monument itself, and its presentation at the National Gallery is a reprise of a group exhibition of those pictures at the monument itself - and in elevating these disposable tourist shots to the status of gallery art Daniel is participating in yet another distortion of perspective, not to mention transgressing the social boundaries around gallery space. (Interestingly, though, the names of the collaborating photographers are not nearly so prominent as Daniel's own…)
Meanwhile, across town, artists Ami and Popo (Syahrul Amami and Ryan Riayadi) have created an iconography of giant posters warning against motorcycle hijackings in risk areas in Jakarta, much like the symbols on tourist maps transposed onto the actual concrete. On a similar scale, an enormous sign: “Awas Begal!” (“Beware thieves”) has been inscribed in front of Cilandok town square by Bujangan Urban (Aditya Nugroho). Or: Saleh Husein and Kudaponi have marked out an informal chess garden at the down-at-heel suburb of Tebet with gigantic chess piece murals on the pylons of the freeway flyover beside it. These works seem grandiose enough to rewrite the map of the city, the representation of urban life dictated from above, with experiences of the reality of life on the street. You almost expect to see Ami and Popo's posters recurring in miniature as symbols on the next edition of the Jakarta pocket map.
Zona Pertarungan is rife with examples of these intensely socially engaged, politically loaded works. In its use of these themes and even of participating artists the Jakarta 32ºC urban intervention program is a significant predecessor to Zona Pertarungan - to the point that there is a Jakarta 32ºC retrospective show at a mall as part of the program. I'm not claiming that the Conflict Zone interventions are tired or derivative, mind. I'd argue that the productivity of their Jakarta-specific take on urban intervention and culture jamming reveals an unexpected type of vitality of this city, where through some combination of enlightened laws and plain old official corruption, the Jakarta Biennale can exhibit fascinating, edgy works that a Biennale in another city might not or - for example, with the project by CarterPaper, exhibit the installation of fake street signs. The street art flavour has event inveigled its way into Zona Cair ("The Fluid Zone”), curated by Agung Hujatnikajennong. Vincent Leong's work Tropical paradise, has transposed street stencil art into the gallery space, with an endearingly kitsch wallpaper pattern made from icons of the Jakarta city in hot pink and acid green. The Videobabes (Ariani Darmewan and Prilla Tania) piece might also fit that category, transposing the interior of an Indonesian suburban house into the gallery with video simulation.
In general, however, the works in Zona Cair turn their eyes outward to the space of cultural and economic exchange of which Jakarta is (has always been) part: So Tintin Wulia has created a slew of fake passports from every nation across the Gallery floor. Herself an expatriate artist, her work describes a muted rainbow trajectory past the works of several others - the potent photo documentaries, for example, of David Griggs (Melbourne/Manila) and Sherman Ong (Melacca/Singapore). Ong's series, HanoiHaiku is fascinating, a series of photo vignettes, each a minutely composed snapshot of a Vietnamese home - each filled with a fascinating array of household bric-a-brac which plots the tumultuous course of that nation's history, an outsider's insider perspective…
And where the artists themselves are not expatriates, the works are still meditations upon the artists' position in the regional cultural spaces: Reza Afisina (“Asung”) has exhibited private exchanges between himself and various curators in a downright uncomfortable way. An artist? Exhibiting the work of curators? As Asung parodies the stereotypes of an inarticulate developing-world artist approaching the powerbrokers at the cultural “centre”, and turns the curators themselves those fashionable obejcts, ‘outside’ artists, he mocks the navel-gazing network of art trading of which the global biennale circuit has emerged from.
This festival, it seems, in the course of being something so official-sounding as a “Biennale”, is still edgy enough to be, well, naughty. Is it just that they are so far from Europe that the feel they will not be found out? Or is Jakarta such a centre now in its own right, that it is too big to fear offending the old league? Or does everyone simply have other jobs to pay the bills so they don't need to fear arts traders?
No matter how you answer, the fact remains that Jakarta is airing work that is too controversial, too site-specific or too unknown for many of its richer siblings. If you are looking for a budget version of a big-ticket European biennale embedded in the contextless environment of global airport culture, you will be disappointed. Instead it's a smart, relevant event that takes on art in its own messy terms, that reflects on local and our shared regional history. Worthwhile.