The Living Thing / Notebooks : Jakarta Biennale 2009 (Realtime Magazine)

First published in Realtime magazine.

I’m well-disposed toward any festival that lets fresh ideas steep into the starchy conservatism of national institutions. I also a have a soft spot for any event whose launch party has people dancing with their underpants on the outside. Thus I was helplessly infatuated by the biennale launch at the National Gallery of Indonesia. Seconds after the dignitaries had left, a ramshackle truck loaded with speakers was blaring music from the side courtyard, and a rentacrowd of overstimulated ravers materialised to thrust and jiggle under the video projections in day-glo plastic costumes. Apparently the genre of hectic Hi-NRG techno on display was called “pantura”. It’s a truckstop disco genre, I’m told, with extra glowsticks. The thronging crowds sporting pool floaters and coloured goggles, I don’t know where they fit into the biennale picture, nor did I get the overall message of that performance — except that it would supposedly be to my benefit me if I shook my “pantat”. Nonetheless I’m convinced that every exhibition launch should have one of these as antidote to launch-speech bombast. And I can’t imagine a launch for any public event lasting long if it were shy of raucousness.

Jakarta seethes and steams, and frankly, stinks its way into the air of every event that takes place in its messy, corrupt, crowded confines. You can’t for a moment forget where you are, as you fight through traffic to reach the venue, as your accommodation floods, as the toxic traffic pollution settles in a thin, carcinogenic layer on the roof of your mouth. The Jakarta Biennale, that is, has a pervasive sense of place that some other cities lack the sloppy public health standards to provide. The Jakarta’s Biennale then, is possibly the only thing that could succeed in that environment - a messy, ambitious event that revels in, riffs upon, and constantly interrogates the intrusive urban morass it calls home. Oh, and did I mention how big it is? Depending where you draw the boundary, Jakarta contains between seven and thirty million people in continuous urban agglomeration. It’s a whole, inescapable, world.

This year’s biennale (titled Arena) has been much anticipated due to the rogue’s gallery of cult art scene figures pulling the levers: Artistic direction by Ade Darmawan, curators from Ade’s notorious Jakarta arts collective Ruang Rupa, and Bandung’s Selasar Sunaryo gallery - a crew that traverses the spectrum between high end commercial gallery society, and ratbag media activism. It’s something like an arts A-team. I’m not sure if the festival’s belligerent naming stems from the inevitable themes of art in a city such as this, or perhaps, if it was named in resignation to the combative stances of the curators and artists themselves. Whatever the causal link, the result is a festival that fits its title singularly well: an engaged, aggressive, and sometimes clashing tumult.

Of the three sub-programs, just two are active while I am in town: Zona Pertaraungan/”the Conflict Zone”, and Zona Cair/”the Fluid Zone”. I’m not sure which of those sponsored the gallery rave, but in general they are both less underpants-driven. The launch kicks off a good, though variable, exhibition.

The fluid zone makes more conventional use of gallery space. Most prominently, Jompet’s elaborate, grandiloquent, installation, keeps me captivated fro a good half an hour. He has filled an entire hall with ranks of robotically animated historical indonesian army band, uniforms, complete with drums, playing an eldritch military tattoo intercut with multiple channels of video on miscellaneous screens, depicting the artist recreating the ancient Javanese dances of dedication performed amongst the machines at an old dutch sugar refinery. The proud and problematic icons of Javanese culture re-invented as empty poltergeists reads to me like an essay in the revisionist cultural iconography implicated in the ANZAC legend here, but with a different kind of colonial angst.

Around the main hall I’m grabbed by the emergent theme of re-appropriation of mundane objects: Tintin Wulia (Denpasar/Melbourne) has created a muted rainbow of forged passports. Roslisham Ismail (“Ise” to those who caught his residency at Sydney’s Artspace) has collaged loanshark handbills into a lurid wall banner spelling out “NEP”, the euphemistic acronym of the Malaysian affirmative action economic regime. The most eyeball-searing work in the category is David Grigg’s photo documentary of Philippine slum gang tattoos. I can’t tell if I like its inarticulate bloodiness, but I can’t look away, which comes to the same thing.

And the show goes on, a rush-hour pile-up of works in this crossroads of southeast Asia. The Fluid Zone has the lion’s share of international artists, with attendees from across Australia and ASEA. This regional focus is, we are told by curator Agung Hujatnikajennong, not to be mistaken for a global one, less an attempt to leap into the globalised Biennale circuit than a logical outgrowth of Jakarta’s cosmopolitan history. He presents the event as something of a an exchange between neighbouring peers, as opposed to, I suppose, marketing for the entrenched oligarchs of a global art market to which Indonesia is peripheral. It’s a noble sentiment every bit as much as it is a great way to save on airfares.

Across the Gallery courtyard from the slick internationalism of the Fluid Zone, there is the gallery component of Zona Pertarungan/the Conflict Zone. This program is curated by Ardi Yunanto, editor of the bilinigual Indonesian contemporary art magazine Karbon. At Ruang Rupa, Ardi has also manged the Jakarta 32ºC program of urban interventions - in fact, Sydneysiders may recall him presenting a retrospective of that project at the recent Sydney Biennalé event - Constellations 3: Extra/Ordinary Cities: The Cultural Dynamics of Urban Intervention. It’s clearly a core passion for him - urban intervention is everywhere in the program Ardi has assembled. And where the fluid zone is regional, Zona Pertarungan is consciously parochial, and relentlessly political. This program is also more physically dispersed, colonising an exhausting inventory of public sites across the city. Works are anything from murals to subverted advertising on billboards, to outright illegal fake street signage. The gallery show, then, is less the works themselves than a convenient digest of pieces scattered throughout the city, for those too lazy to sift through the chaos of Jakarta slums trying to pick out which bits might be art. The show’s role is not solely documentary - some works are too ephemeral to find, such at the Carterpaper collective’s hilarious culture jams, and some are entirely imaginary, such as Ari Dina Krestyawan’s attempt to insert surreal stream-of-consciousness “public announcements” into the LED displays above the city’s main road. That latter work exists only as a composited video, not the only work whose installation was cancelled in last-minute failures in negotiations with the sign’s owners.

As heated as the debate about Australia’s diminishing supply of art spaces can get, Jakarta’s space is so constrained in comparison that it seems a cautionary fable. Every inch of streetscape is the subject of multiple conflicting regimes of ownership, of corrupt regulation, of protection rackets, and so on. Curator Ardi recounted me an example of a large mural of chess pieces on the pylons of a freeway flyover. The work, by designers Saleh Husein and Kudaponi is a painted tribute to the impromptu chess playing tables that set up in their shade. Between the council fees, the bribes, and outright protection rackets the cost of keeping it there is comparable to renting commercial billboard space. The chess mural treads little close to faux-folksy celebration of the poor by richer artists for my taste, although Ardi is quick to itemise the exhaustive community consultations that the artists had gone into spanning months - not to mention an ignominious defeat in a chess tournament for the artists.

By contrast, where the Fluid Zone program escapes the national gallery it is not to the streets, but to the shopping malls. Most prominent is Indonesia’s richest mall, the Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, which is a Biennale sponsor, and has artworks nestled between their Gucci outlet and their Moulin Rouge-themed foodhall. The show here is not light on politics nor social critique, both implicit and blatant. On the former side, Australia’s Craig Walsh has installed the latest in his series //Incursions//, where a video projection conjures an apparent flood destroying the contents of the shopfront. It’s strangely effective here, in this city of flash floods and broken plumbing, compared to regulated, risk-assessed Australia.

Other works are on the didactically anti-consumerist side. Manila-based Poklong Anading’s work “caskets” is a climbing wall up the sides of the mall atrium, whose holds are resin casts of consumer ephemera. It’s a defiantly ugly, uncollectable work that seems strangely at home amidst the cacophony of advertising that is the mall. Eko Nugroho brings his photocopy-based, polemical zine aesthetic, with a brash critique of the corruption of politics and religion told through the medium of giant model elephants and graffiti robots. The quieter satire of Wiyoga Muhardranto’s erogenous shopping bag sculptures, with their breasts and voluptuous curves, mock the empty seduction of advertising, even as they themselves function as exquisite, exquisitely acquirable objects of consumption.

This last work crystallises a contradiction in the biennale progam. It’s not just that, matter, between the commercial festival sponsor branding and Indonesian mall-kitsch backdrops it’s hard to pick the faint critical signals from the noise of shopping. Agung argues it is is a pragmatic necessity if the biennale is to be relevant. Jakarta has no public space, as the as Ardi has discovered, and if one does wish to be engaged with all the middle class public and not just the poor, where else should the work be hung? Fot me, it’s a rude shock - in Australia, I explain, we demurely conceal this conflict with a polite separation between the consumerism of the art market, and the romantic purity the artists.

The problem that perturbs me more is the distinction in venues, and media, and subject matter between the Conflict and Fluid Zones. If it is a concession to the necessities of engaging with diverse audiences then it seems unfortunate to sequester the subject matter and the audiences both, leaving the urban elites to dally in sophisticated self critique and the poor to celebrate their tribulations in best-practice community development projects.

But, on the other hand, I also wonder where else I could find a festival that is so thorough in an attempt to engage with a whole city, from the wealthiest to the poorest, all on their own terms. It’s a vindication of the Biennale’s boldness that i can even make these criticisms, that they have been so thoroughly engaged with their city that i may muse at the small failings in their presentation. This Biennale has been one of the most thought-provoking events I have witnessed, a bold dive into the the details of a city that is larger than my entire country. I’m coming back.

Dan MacKinlay is a sound artist and all-round new media nice guy based in Sydney