Start Here: Too Much Text
If art works demand a seven page “curatorial essay” then perhaps there is something amiss, some loose threads in the fabric. Shall we examine some random loose threads trailing out with frayed ends from this unravelled exhibition? Bearing in mind that loose threads can be fibers broken from the fabric they should have been warped or wefted into, and they can also be long, trailing anomalous strands never intended to mesh into the main fabric in the first place, but snaked outward from it to become incidentally entangled in other stories. Such wayward strands could easily snag on dinner forks, dissertations, discourses, or discarded hairbrushes, and stay fast there forever, much to our amusement or annoyance. So here we go with loose threads splayed outwards from Tisna Sanjaya’s Cogondewah show at Kendra Gallery in Bali, which opened last Saturday, 11 July, to moderate applause.
Loose Thread No. 1: Failure to Communicate
The works in Tisna’s Cigondewah group are socio-political. The socio-politial message is important, emotional, material, personal, and merits attention. The works do not altogether suceed in gaining it. What we have here is a failure to communicate. I quote from Cool Hand Luke of course, a reference which the artist will not fail to appreciate, being an ITB senirupa alumnus and faculty member. It’s not that we don’t support or empathise with the struggle of this artist, but the art above all, must embody and transmit the statement, text or no text.
During the exhibition opening I solicited comment from a range of people, and eavesdropped shamelessly. I heard, “the black and white works don’t work,” “I’m not convinced,” “only the self portrait seems really honest,” “Those collages were contemporary thirty years ago.”
Not only was there a failure to communicate, but also to engage. It felt as if the artist did not want to tell us something, he wanted to be asked. Digging deeper into Sanjaya’s story and the non-exhibited works one begins to understand that we may have been subjected to a yard sale in this exhibition. Interpret that as you will.
Loose Thread No. 2: Not Lost in Translation
The aforementioned seven-page curatorial essay was deftly translated into English from Indonesian by Sherry Entus. The thread incidentally snagged here is this. She was my classmate in Advanced Indonesian Language at IALF Denpasar in 2001, along with Rucina Ballinger, who like Sherry, is a force to be reckoned with (willingly or not), on the Island of Bali. I was fixated on taking this course in 2001, but IALF had no other advanced students at all to make up a class. I needed worthy classmates. I contacted Sherry and Rucina. The course is expensive. Sherry and Rucina devote their energies to loftier goals than making loads of dosh. So I offered to support them with subsidised tuition and free transportation from Ubud to Denpasar daily, just to get some classmates to make the course sizzle as it should do. I got more than my money’s worth from two such able and tenacious classmates.
The course would have been worthless without them, and without our extraordinary teacher, Bundhowi, an artist and poet and translator (notably of the poetry of Frans Nadjira). If Bundhowi and Tisna Sanjaya found themselves lost in the fog for a week on a Java mountaintop, I suspect it would be a grand thing.
Loose Thread No. 3: Goya
I am disturbed by Tisna’s seemingly gratuitous reference to Goya’s iconic painting, The Third of May in his work, Sandiwara Kita (detail above), where it is as central as the altarpiece in a Spanish chapel. Until Indonesian artists and art academics can refrain from worshipping at altars of gods alien to their own stories and histories, they will stand at the peripheries of the circle of discussion.
What is happening here? Are we speaking to Sundanese people about a deeply entrenched Sundanese problem in Spanish? Or are we speaking to art postcard collectors who line the coffers of museum gift shops in America about something they can’t begin to fathom or give a toss about? Or are we talking to fellow Indonesian art students, sharing an inside story about slide-lectures that separate the educated and internationally aware intelligentsia from the autodidactic hoi polloi? Or what? Threads snag and snap. To reference so blatantly an Art History 101 image here feels uncomfortable.
Other fibers snag in utterly incidental places. Goya grew up at home in Zaragoza. Today on the drive to work, we noticed yet one more among hundreds of acutely unremarkable cafes in Seminyak. This one just opened on Jalan Oberoi-Petitenget – – named for unfathomably irrelevant or irreverant reasons “Zaragoza”. It has one of those excruciatingly over-loved black weeping wall fountains out front, eagerly streaming the owners’ dreams down the surface of its fractured andesite mini monolith. While passing, we placed bets on how long Zaragoza would remain in business. We do this often in regard to new cafes and warungs and dress shops that are part of the retail pandemic striking this, the latest Bali Street of Dreams. We have found that we are usually overly optimistic, and the enterprises we wonder about shutter their windows far before the predicted doom-dates. Hope springs eternal, though, at least until the peeing monolith goes dry.
Back to Goya. While on his obligatory artist’s Grand Tour in Italy, he won second prize in a painting competition organized by the City of Parma. Just recently I became acutely aware of Parma after inviting a random sampling of my most wicked girlfriends for an evening of general dissipation at my house, while my partner was away in Italy. Two of them were Italian women whose respective connections to me are radically tangential, as are their generational stories. They were introduced and became fast friends instantly upon discovering their common roots in Parma. The one, a dealer in ethnic ornament, is back in Parma. The other, Ambra Calo, an archaeologist by profession, is working with street kids in Bali in an anti-paedophilia effort until she starts a stint at the Metropolitan Museum poring over the particulars of bronze drums and related artefacts from Southeast Asia in September.
Her SOAS PhD. dissertation, The Distribution of Bronze Drums in Early Southeast Asia, is my bedside table tome, constantly being read and re-read with great relish. It recently garnered the undivided attention of a visitor to our house, Thomas Murray, an established tribal art dealer based in the San Francisco area, who spent the better part of this particularly festive evening at our house locked in seclusion perusing Ambra’s dissertation, which I could not think of lending to him, as Ambra herself gave it to me, and so kindly inscribed it, “To Susi, always a special source of inspiration”.
Ambra’s work sheds rays of light that pierce the murky gloom of Southeast Asian ancient history at all kinds of odd angles, illuminating in CT scan slices the whole enormous and important story of the region, from the bronze age to the information age. Artists here would do well to go there, into the rich but murky waters of their own past, before going to Goya and Zaragoza, I expect.
Loose Thread No. 4: Broken Transmission
The fact that so many important current works by Tisna (including some illustrated in the catalog) were not shown in Kendra Gallery’s exhibition certainly ensured that the artist’s channels of transmission were disturbed by dropped signals. I refer in particular to his Amnesia Cultura series of 2008 (above, and below), which appeared in the catalog (four works), but not in the exhibition. An example is shown, at top above. These mixed-media works on military camouflage cloth are arguably, and visually, the most powerful and most beautiful of Tisna’s entire oeuvre. And yet they were conspicuously absent in this exhibition. What threads were broken here? Why were these works in the catalog, but not present?
That begs the further question regarding the opening party, “What happened to the artist?” At the event, on “hari H” as the Indonesians say, he made no statement, nor did he seem to be present at all. The story was, “He’s late,” or, “He’s on his way here,” or some such vaguary. No presence. Was it shame? Non-support of the supporting gallery? Ambivalence? What factors were at play under the surface here? What transmissions were broken, between artist and audience, and by whom? Enquiring minds want to know.
Perhaps the one to ask is Kim Randall, the exquisitely charming manager of Kendra Gallery, who incidentally is up for the coveted Yak Awards “Woman of the Year” trophy (don’t miss the awards party on the 18th of July at Sentosa Bali). She’s got stiff competition, so don’t fault her if she doesn’t take home the Yak horns this year. With contenders like Susanna Perini, sole creatress of the Biasa fashion line and Biasa Artspace, it’s going to be a close race. (Aside: Sophie Digby, founder of The Yak has confessed to me under compromising circumstances that votes tallied mathematically for the Yak awards do not necessarily match the actual outcomes. Arbitrary arbitrage is a form of artistry here, and so say all of us. Seems that Yaks are animals, and as we know, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others (according to George, at least.)
Loose Thread No. 5: Intellectual Collateral Damage
Tisna is an illustrious ITB alumnus. ITB is Indonesia’s most sophisticated, international and intellectual university, located in Bandung, deep in the core of Sundaland, a realm of powerful yet peaceful ancient kingdoms illuminated by a syncretic form of Hinduism blended with local animism (c.f. Badui, Sunda Wiwitan). They still believe that their last king resisted the incursions of Islam in other dynasties in Java, and in his own family, by retreating into the mountain forests of West Java, where he transformed himself into a great tiger, the king of all tigers. They believe he still rules the land through supernatural powers, from his palace of trees in the deep forest.
So in Sundaland absolutely everything is an interesting mix – – secretive, intellectual, international, mystical, mythical, multifaceted, and modern (the Sundanese almost singlehandedly created modernism in design in Indonesia) . Where does this errant thread lead? Today I had a visit from two recently graduated students from Tisna’s alma mater, the College of Fine Arts at ITB. It was largely incidental. They are both artists trawling for paying jobs. As it turns out, one of them is keen on design, and the other is an aspiring fine art photographer, and son of the celebrated designer and ITB faculty member, Ratna Panggabean (of whom I have written previously and who I admire without reservation). This was a fortuitous meeting indeed, and a very enjoyable one. We’ll meet again, as I have invited these two fresh pucuk rebung (bamboo shoots) to the exhibition opening at Biasa Artspace (see above), this Thursday.
Also snagged here is the thread of my great good friend Didi Sugandi, who was part of the famous Students’ Struggle of 1978 at ITB, during which a patently smart and well-informed student body united in a mission to expose the corruption, manipulation and inequities of the Soeharto regime. Two decades passed before the truths they had waved bravely on their protest banners finally came home to the masses, and Soeharto was ousted in May 1998. One cannot help but think that the audacity of those ITB students a generation before were instrumental in cracking the fused-glass cocoon in which the Soeharto regime had entombed the country.
Ok, now coming back to my two young visitors, who arrived so auspiciously and unexpected this morning. They revealed to me that current opinions bandied about on the finest fine arts campuses of this country hold that young ITB artists are “too intellectual,” and that their rivals at ISI (Institute of Fine Arts) in Yogyakarta are “too emotional”. It was a great pleasure to hear their tirades against the Yogya pseudo-suffering-artists who, in their opinion, do little but sulk in dark corners, dressed in dirty black punk-redux getups with carefully matted hair, smoking constantly and complaining, while trying to look “radical” and “tormented”. They said, “Those guys are so ridiculous! How can you be taken seriously in this world if you look like that, if you act like that? Artists aren’t like that anymore. We don’t need to make a rebellious statement in how we dress or behave. Whatever we have to express, we will express in our art, and that is as it should be. What’s with the clothes and piercings and dreads and tatts?? It’s all about the art, not about the attitude.” I tend to agree with them, confidentially. They confessed as well, that the Yogya crowd spurns their ITB rivals as intellectual “jet setters”. To get a better perspective, I’ll have to grill some ISI alum on Thursday at Biasa Artspace about this. What fun. A vital dialectic is going on here. This bodes well for the development of art in Indonesia. Just let them have a knock-down, drag-out brawl, I say. Or a “paint-off” with the American Idol panel doing the judging. That would be a fine, fine arts reality TV extravaganza.
As if this isn’t enough already, yet another wayward thread catches hold. During my meeting with these two young aspiring artists with broad global horizons and deep local roots, they recalled that my (non-genetic) “brother” Didi Sugandi is an old friend of their mother (referred to as “Om Didi”). We got to talking about him, and his current career as a pirate-pioneer, sailing the high seas with an organisation known as Garis Depan Nusantara, on a mission to visit and document unblinkingly, the farthest-flung islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Both of the aspiring artists across from me at my desk this morning trilled, “We want Didi’s job!!!” My heart sang like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, hearing a Batak and a Sundanese so enthusiastically embracing the majesty, dignity, richness and challenge of their own vast “Land of Water”, the archipelago that defines this region and all it was, all it has been, and all it can become. It seemed like a very good sign.
Loose Thread No. 6: Numbers
The catalog for this exhibition (which looked like it was reconstituted from some previous exhibition in a more moneyed capital), has some interesting numbers attached to it. It has 53 pages, showing 19 works of art, of which only 12 were exhibited in the show and 7 not. It has 6 empty pages printed full-bleed red (as in blood, as if we didn’t get that). You do the numbers. Amnesia Cultura, indeed. It’s kind of amnesiac. The only works I really wanted to see, were not there. That’s a bit of a slap in the face.
My final feeling is that something was slightly amiss. It seems almost possible that artists and galleries use Bali as a flea market, as a secondary unsophisticated market for art (and artlike things), with audiences and money, but little understanding. Bali perhaps looks like a good bet, with low overheads and high fringe benefits plus low critical standards. Just “good” is assumed to be good enough, and no one is asking any questions, nor is anyone saying anything much in the press and electronic media, other than congratulatory snippets or regurgitated press pack baggage. Press packs get good print when they are passed around in Bali, this being an island with an excess of local and global print and an excess of outside attention, with the money sedating any inside attention to anything much other than the crop stats from the lucratvie bule farms.