Art or Home Furnishings?
by Michelle Chin



An Indonesian artist who lives and works in Jakarta told me that she has begun to get increasingly annoyed at a certain reaction to her work. Of course, as an artist, she realises that she has to be open to any reaction her work produces, but sometimes the limits of her patience are very sorely tried. Maybe it is because she would truly prefer to feel that someone who looks at her work is interested in art and not simply home furnishings.

She happened to meet a young couple at a party one night. When they heard she was an artist they arranged to visit her studio. After they had viewed a wide selection of her work, the young woman ended by saying that none of the paintings matched their furniture. The artist didn't really care whether the woman wanted to buy her paintings or not, but she also knew that she would appreciate a reaction that has something to do with the actual art itself. Often she is told "Oh, your work is very heavy, very emotional, very depressing," as if these were extremely unusual characteristics of works of art. As it happens, her work doesn't even touch the depths of despair and torment which some artists explore. But even these sorts of comments would be more welcome than hearing that her work doesn't match the colour of someone's sofa.

She says, "Indonesia has been suffocated by prettiness in art for too long. Beauty I can appreciate but prettiness for me is very close to nothingness." She believes that the prettiness which is still so popular with educated middle and upper class Indonesians may symbolise the Golkar or New Order 'anti-thought' culture of the period 1967-1999. President Suharto , the "smiling general", didn't want any challenging thoughts or doubts entering the minds of his adoring people. Challenging images were distrusted, even if the subject of the work wasn't clear.

The comments of the young couple who visited the Jakarta artist's studio show that that they were not really interested in art but in home décor. This particular artist wasn't interested in decorating their house so she told them to go to Kemang, where they could easily find a painting to match their colour scheme.

Perhaps I could add that they might find not just a painting to match their colour scheme, but even a matching painting and rug. Recently I visited a gallery in South Jakarta. It was actually more like a home furnishing store with paintings hanging on the walls, the sort of gallery where one's view of the paintings is disturbed by two metre high candle holders or lamps or other objets obscuring the paintings.

I was admiring an abstract painting by an Indonesian artist when my eyes were drawn down to the floor where there was a rug in perfect imitation of the painting. One of the gallery staff came over and very proudly told me that the rug was their creation, that they had somehow done the design (i.e. copied the painting) on a computer. He was particularly proud of having perfectly imitated some of the spiky squiggles. He mentioned that actually a lot of buyers like to have a matching painting and rug. For some reason the whole conversation reminded me of Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief. This was not meant to be a humorous situation, and I don't think that I was meant to be laughing. It was the serious business of art (or home furnishings, anyway).

I wondered if the artist knew about this. Did he okay it? What about the copyright question? Does he get a designer's fee or royalties? Had the gallery actually bought the painting or was the painting there on consignment? Are other Indonesian contemporary artists producing matching rugs and paintings now? Is it a Jakarta thing? An Indonesia thing? Is it happening all over the world? What about curtains, dining settings, napkins, table cloths, bed sheets, tea towels, cushion covers? Or for that matter, matching tie and handkerchief?

What did I expect the reaction of the artist would be? Shock, horror, surprise? Was this to be a new scandal in the Indonesian art market involving infringement of copyright? When I checked with him it turned out that he felt quite proud. He said that reproducing his paintings as rugs was clearly very far from the original purpose of the art work he had created, but everyone knows that the original painting is of the greatest importance. He simultaneously believes that a tablecloth, cushion cover, mug or tie is not of less value than the original painting. He was not concerned that he was not getting paid a fee for the "reproduction" of his art nor was there an agreement that he receive any royalties from the sales of the rugs. So, all's well that ends well. For all I know the matching paintings and rugs are selling very well and are all the rage in Jakarta now.

Not long after that episode, Lenny Gottlieb of Boston contacted me regarding a project he was considering. Lenny had spent a little time in Ubud several years ago and of course witnessed the skill and artistry of the local woodcarvers. He was now trying to determine if he could establish a dog sculpture service. He realised that his idea was a bit far fetched - someone in the USA wants a life-sized sculpture of their beloved dog, so colour photographs are forwarded to the most skilled carvers in Bali who then produce a very realistic and accurate sculpture of the dog. He wondered if I would be able to find sculptors who could depart from traditional styles of carving to produce accurate renditions of his clients' dogs. He acknowledged that such a talent would require great artfulness and talent on the part of the carver. Lenny had visited a place that produced and sold carvings of ducks and he recalled that there were many distinctly different forms of ducks there. So, I guess he thought that if they could do ducks, there was probably no reason why they couldn't do dogs. He wanted to know what a sculptor would charge to carve a medium-sized dog. (He clarified that this would probably be a large-sized dog in Ubud).

I think that Lenny got a surprise when I asked him to be more precise. I suggested he could start by giving measurements in inches or centimetres for height, width and thickness so that it would be possible to know what he meant by a "medium sized dog sculpture". As they say, size isn't everything, but when talking about "medium-sized" (even if it happens to be a dog sculpture), I want some measurements. How do I know if Lenny's idea of "medium-sized" is the same as mine?

Lenny explained that it was all very simple. He envisaged that somehow I'm standing on a street corner and cross paths with a likely sculptor, a dog runs by while we are exchanging greetings, I point to that dog and ask how much would it cost to make an accurate sculpture of said dog in a hardwood that will not split in a dry climate. And so Lenny was shocked when I told him that I couldn't help him. I just wasn't willing to participate in his little fantasy. It seemed to me that Lenny was confusing the issues of art and home furnishings. Would the most skilled carvers in Bali want to do this work? Did Lenny consider them to be artists, or producers of handicrafts and home furnishings? Probably the truth of the matter is that in the case of getting the "most skilled carvers" to do these commissioned sculptures he truly thought of them as artists, but in the case of the price he was willing to pay them, he would consider them to be mass-producers of handicrafts. Obviously, to his way of thinking, there was going to be a standard price for a medium-sized (dog) sculpture.

Standardisation of prices is much easier with handicrafts or home furnishings. Single, double, queen and king-size bed sheets come in standard sizes and have standard prices. According to Lenny Gottlieb, there should also be a standard price for a medium-sized dog sculpture. But it doesn't work like this with original works of art because of the difficulty of putting a price on the creative process which involves different forms of "value" that are not directly translatable into monetary terms. Otherwise, a smaller painting by one artist would always cost less than a larger painting by another artist, and that is not always the case. It is not even the case that a smaller work on paper by an artist costs less than a larger work on canvas by the very same artist. Works of art cannot be sold by the square metre, and they cannot be sold by the kilogram - though interestingly, in Indonesia, both size and weight may be important to some collectors and dealers. A European artist who lives and works in Indonesia told me that recently his work had been described as "too light" by a local art dealer. This artist has been experimenting with alternative materials on which to paint, so his new works do indeed weigh less than the same-sized work on canvas mounted on a wooden stretcher. What surprised me was the fact that his paintings with their fairly "heavy" subject matter could be deemed too "light" in physical weight. Are Indonesian art collectors looking perhaps for works which (whether light or heavy in subject matter) are actually heavy in their physical weight?

Sometimes a painting may be the wrong colour, too "heavy" in subject matter, too "light" in weight, too small in size, or too big for a buyer's home. When I informed Lenny Gottlieb that size isn't everything, it seems that I was actually way off track. To many art collectors in Indonesia, size IS everything. A friend in Europe was asked by a Jakartan art collector if he could find her a painting by the 19th century Javanese painter Raden Saleh. His works do not come onto the market very often and are in tremendous demand, and therefore when they do become available, they fetch huge prices in the Indonesian art market. By chance there was a Raden Saleh painting available for purchase in Germany at the time so the details of size, subject matter and so forth were sent to the Jakartan collector. News came back very promptly that the painting was too small for her wall - she was looking for something huge!

Some years ago, a couple of art collectors wanted to buy a painting from the Indonesian artist Abdul Aziz. They agreed to wait as long as it took for their names to get to the top of the waiting list for paintings. Finally their turn came and a photograph of the painting was sent to them. The photograph came back with a small square marked with a red pen and the request, "Could we please just have this bit?" In this case it is not clear whether the problem was actually one of size, colour or subject matter, but it does reinforce the idea that buyers are looking for something that fits the size or colour or emotional atmosphere of their homes.

If a painting does not fit the colour scheme of a home, there is always the possibility to change the colour scheme of the house or at least in the room where the painting will hang. I heard that a certain Indonesian collector owned a nude portrait of his wife painted by Basuki Abdullah. The portrait was displayed in the dining room which incidentally had been built and colour-schemed from the cues in the painting. His wife then had to sit at the head of the table (fully dressed of course) amidst all kinds of guests, and hear her husband tell the story of how the painting represented each of the guests in allegorical or direct form.

The good news is that it may not always be an insurmountable problem when a painting is too big for one's home. This does not mean you have to build a bigger house. The noted art lover Dr A.A. Made Djelantik tells a fabulous story regarding how he solved the problem of a painting that was "too big" for his own home.

In 1952 Dr Djelantik's father commissioned a painting by the Balinese artist Gusti Ketut Kobot. The painting depicted scenes from the Ramayana epic, and it measured 4 x 6 metres. Later, in 1965 when former President Sukarno learned that the painting was in desperate need of restoration, he near-miraculously arranged for a huge quantity of watercolour paint to be sent by courier to Indonesia from Rome. Kobot successfully restored the painting, which remained in the possession of Dr Djelantik. Several years later, when he and his wife were building their new home in Denpasar, they needed to consider how they would be able to hang the huge Kobot painting. Dr Djelantik thought that it might be possible to have a hall with a six-metre high wall at one end and the opposite end of the house could then be constructed on two levels. Astri, his wife, was more practical. Without hesitation she cut the painting into two halves. One half fitted precisely on the wall of the living room, and the other half was exactly the size of the dining room wall. Moreover, the cut did not disturb any of the scenes in the painting. In the words of Dr Djelantik, "The result was fantastic!"

[published in Latitudes magazine, Vol. 12, January 2002]