by Michelle Chin

Jogjakarta is simultaneously a centre of traditional Javanese culture and contemporary Indonesian art. Full gamelan orchestras create soundscapes from the past; classical Javanese dancers exhibit beautiful control and poise; wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performances keep locals and visitors spellbound.

At the same time, contemporary art has grown in the fertile soil of Jogja's sophisticated environment. Yogyakarta itself has given its name to an important school of modern and contemporary art in Indonesia, and many graduates of the Indonesian Institute of Arts (ISI Yogyakarta) have gone on to fame and fortune in the Indonesian and international art scenes. A trip to Jogja is indeed a must for anyone who is interested in contemporary Indonesian art. There are several excellent art galleries, and you will probably need at least a few days to simply check out all the exhibitions. In Jogja, be prepared to expect the unexpected with cutting-edge exhibitions of wearable art, paintings, sculptures, performance art and installations as well as unusual innovations in choice of media used for art works and exhibitions which move from home to home.

Wearable Art
While wearable art may often appear as if it had been designed for the catwalks of Paris or Milan, Mella Jaarsma's wearable art is of a totally different fashion. Her installation works and performances such as the series titled I Fry You 1& 2, Eat You Eat Me and Hi Inlander (Hello Native) have been included in several Indonesian and international contemporary art events. The works have provoked a lot of heated dialogue, mainly because of the materials that Mella uses: frog skins, snake skin, squirrel skin, goat skins, banana tree trunks and the cocoons of silkworms.

Mella's wearable art installations are most often in the form of cloaks or veils. In the work I Am Ethnic 1 & 2 she used a whole goatskin for each of the two veils. The work was inspired by the Islamic ritual in which two goats are sacrificed on the birth of a baby boy and one goat is sacrificed if the new-born is a girl. Here Mella questions the diverse roles that animals play in human culture as sacrifices, signs and status markers.

The seams on the garments are left visible, reminding us of clothing from the earliest days of human civilisation. The models seem to be clothed and unclothed at the same time, and some of them even appear to be trapped within this second skin. In some of the male costumes there is an opening in front of the genitals: in this case, the model always covers his genital with his hands.

Mella says, "We wear a second skin every day, displaying our membership to specific groups in our cultural, social and religious spheres. Wearing a veil or covering the body and face can be seen as a dress code that demonstrates our group affiliation. On the other hand, it also conceals identity in the same way as camouflage. In both cases it is about giving up individuality and personality for the sake of becoming unapproachable and untouchable."

The cloaks or veils are worn by models who are sometimes asked to undress and don the 'costume' over their bodies, with usually only the eyes of the model appearing through a space in the hood of the cloak. Sometimes the models' hands and feet are visible: hands and eyes in particular have always been important in social interaction. The artist challenges the viewer to touch and make physical contact. Often the audience is invited to peep inside a work, or to interact with the model either by touching, prodding, poking or simply speaking.

At a recent showing of her work at the i exhibition in Singapore, the viewers were invited to interact with the models who wore the Shameless Gold costumes created from the cocoons of the cricula trifenestrata helf caterpillars which live in avocado and cashew nut trees. Mella comments, "My work Shameless Gold is an image of the social elite. It is about social maintenance and the desire for riches. Of course this theme is connected to my situation living in Indonesia where the gap between rich and poor is enormous. Rich people shamelessly show off their gold and cars, and on the other hand, poor people also like to wear some gold. It is still common here to invest in gold rather than keeping money in the bank."

Mella acknowledges that everyone who views her work is coming at it from different backgrounds and cultures, dealing with highly personal sets of taboos so they experience the work in different ways. She wants her work to relate to these audiences, dealing with some of their specific taboos in a sensitive way and so she tries to open up a dialogue rather than work in a confrontational way. She says, "Many artists, including myself, are in danger of falling into a trap: how to be human and socially engaged as an artist without becoming dogmatic and moralistic? Art cannot change the world. Or, there are as yet no signs that it can. Should art therefore manifest itself as a social movement? Is the artist to offer a helping hand? Or is he/she simply there to please and tease?"

Metallic Shit
S. Teddy D. recently had an exhibition titled Metallic Shit at Cemeti Art House. In his art works, he plunges into subjective interpretation of social issues using the typical language of youth culture; an inclination towards blunt, even vulgar expression; cynicism towards the dominant formal institutions of the State, especially those regarded as the extension of Suharto's New Order; and increasing disregard of aesthetic ornamentation.

Metallic is a statement about distance. Just think of metallic sunglasses, the ultimate anti-social accessory: when talking to someone who is wearing these sunglasses we have no eye contact, all we see is a reflection of ourselves. It is as if we are looking into a mirror rather than having a dialogue with another person. Or walk into an ultra-modern, all-metal Fisher & Paykel kitchen and you might have trouble working out which door will open the refrigerator.

Cold, gleaming metal does not exude warmth, intimacy and friendliness. Any warmth or light coming from metal has come from another source, not from itself. It has no colour, it is neither black nor white nor any other colour - its "colour" can only come from outside itself also, reflected from other objects surrounding it. Metal seems to imply distance, coolness, colourlessness, its personality shifts and changes according to its surroundings.

S. Teddy D. explains, "In urban culture we start to feel a metallic elitist tendency. I notice it in luxury cars and electronic machines like VCD players and mobile telephones. I see it in cafes, bars, clothes, fashion accessories. It's even taking over suburbia with all those metal fences and gates that people have started installing in front of their homes. It reminds me of Indonesian democracy." Most particularly it reminds him of the kuningisasi ('yellowing') which occurred during the New Order government. Yellow was at that time a controversial and meaningful colour, since it denoted the ruling political party GOLKAR controlled by President Suharto. At that time a process of 'yellowing' was taking place in some regions. The Governor of Central Java, for instance, indirectly ordered that all city walls, shops, garbage bins and buildings should be painted yellow, up to the border between Yogyakarta and Central Java where a black rock was also painted yellow!

While the yellowing process is now over, S.Teddy D. sees a new phenomenon of 'metalisasi' taking over Indonesia. He says, "Human civilisation has been through various historical eras such as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and so on. Perhaps we are now in the Metallic Shit Age. But it would be more appropriate to call it 'metal-plated shit' because it's not even 100% metal, it's just metal on the surface."

A Plate of Indonesia
Gelaran Budaya's annual "Report from Jogja" took the form of an exhibition titled Sepiring Indonesia (A Plate of Indonesia). "To get as wide a participation as possible, we worked with nine artists who could network with the various Jogja-based groups: the art comics community, Taring Padi, ISI Yogyakarta graduates and students, and the youngest generation of Jogja artists," says Rain Rosidi.

The conditions of participation in this exhibition were based on age of the artist and the medium used for the artwork. All of the artists were to be born post-New Order years, that is, after 1966, and the principle medium of the art work was to be a plate. Why a plate? Rain explains, "Within the age-limit restriction, we wanted the participants to represent as great a segment of the Jogja arts community as possible. Considering the size of our exhibition space, it would be impossible to show more than 30 or so medium sized paintings on canvas at Gelaran Budaya. In any case we wanted to be non-discriminative: we wanted to choose a medium that is affordable to all and does not limit the participants to one genre, for example, painting. Because a plate is an everyday utensil, it would be a challenge to the artists to transform that object into an art work." Also, a plate is a powerful symbol: primarily it might make one think of food and well-being, but its roundness can also imply a planet or world or country. The plates could express the hopes, dreams and ideas of the artists and their quest for freedom of expression. So, the theme was to be 'A Plate of Indonesia'.

Gelaran Budaya were amazed that their theme attracted so much interest among the young Jogja artists. Having invited 300 artists to participate, they expected that perhaps 40 or 50 artists might send in art works. Eventually, they received a total of 144 art works, which was way above their expectations and in fact made them have to rethink their original idea that the exhibition would travel to Jakarta, Bandung, Bali and Kalimantan. If they had already faced budgeting problems with 40-50 art works, they were overwhelmed with the idea of transporting 144 artworks to three other exhibition venues, and the costs of producing a catalogue instantly tripled.

The artists responded to using plates in various ways, ranging from conventional paintings (albeit on plates) to installations and three-dimensional works. Completed works range from conceptual pieces to whimsical and nostalgic works. Some are colourful, some sinister, some are sophisticated and deliberate. Some works are fraught with disillusion and disappointment and others brim with hope and humour. The images cross the spectrum of human experience: love, birth, relationship, family, power, hope, courage, perseverance, violence, death and the sacred, transmitting a variety of expressions and depth of vision which defy their simple origins as plates. All types of plates surfaced in the exhibition - paper, enamel, porcelain, wood, metal, plastic, round, oval, rectangular, new, old, smashed-up, twisted, broken, shattered. Some of the multimedia works incorporated an astonishing array of objects including (unused) sanitary napkins, and one extreme example included human faeces covered with resin: wrapped with a ribbon and set on a plate, the work was titled "Indonesian Bureaucracy". Due to its unpleasant smell, it had to be removed from the exhibition soon after the opening of the show. Interestingly, this piece was criticised by many viewers as being too simplistic - it was considered to be too obvious in its criticism and lacking in metaphor.

Sepiring Indonesia is not just about the artist participants, it is about all Indonesians. The art works inspire dialogue and reflection on the state of Indonesia. The exhibition provided an opportunity and platform for the voices and concerns of young artists, all of whom were born during a period in which freedom of expression was out of bounds and honest dialogue was a near impossibility. Now their voices can be heard loud and clear, and served on a plate for all who wish to partake of this feast.

Proyek Ruang per Ruang
As a solution to their search for alternative space, 13 young artists based in Jogja - Gusde, Angki, Aji, Georgia, Angga, Roni W, Tejo, Dalbo, Ucok, Rangga, Arya, Samuel and Nuning - decided to hold an exhibition in a private home. They plan to continue moving the exhibition project from home to home in the future, each time responding to the particular house and garden by creating installations, paintings, sculptures or whatever. Private spaces such as bedrooms which need to be used by those living in the house remain accessible to the residents, but apart from that the artists had considerable amount of freedom in using the spaces of the home. After all, they wanted to enjoy complete freedom of expression, and where better than at home?

During the planning stages, one of the artists had the idea to wrap the house in a Christo-style installation but his idea was rejected by the other artists who sensibly realised that in that case their own works would not be seen because nobody would be able to enter or leave the house for a month. Needless to add, the residents also were not too keen on the idea.

The catalogue they produced for the first exhibition project was cleverly titled "Don't Try This at Home", which seemed like a warning that if you are prepared to let 13 artists take over your house and create artworks wherever they like within the house, be prepared for anything! But what they meant with the title of the catalogue was related to their having realised that creating site-specific installations is not as easy as it may seem. The challenge was to create work that fitted in with the ambience, mood and lifestyle of the house and its residents.

Michelle Chin is a writer, translator and art consultant based in Jogjakarta.

Works by Mella Jaarsma and S. Teddy D. can be seen at:
Cemeti Art House,
Jl. DI Panjaitan 41, Jogjakarta
tel/fax: 0274-371 015
email: cemetiah@indosat.net.id
website : www.cemetiarthouse.com

Mella Jaarsma's installation Shameless Gold can be seen at ARTSingapore, Suntec City, Singapore from 11-15 October 2002. website: www.artsingapore.net

For details on where/when the exhibition Sepiring Indonesia will travel to Jakarta, Bandung, Bali or Kalimantan, contact Rain Rosidi:
Gelaran Budaya
Jl Menukan 273, Karangkajen, Jogjakarta
tel: 0274-448337
email: gelaran@hotmail.com

For information as to where the next Proyek Ruang per Ruang exhibition will be held, contact Made Aswino Aji or Georgia, tel: 0274-414359 email: aswino@hotmail.com or Angga: HP 0812 816 7496

[this article was written (and paid for) by Latitudes magazine, but due to a switchover bewteen one editor to the next, the article never got published - i didn't really mind because i had been paid for it anyway! Unfortunately, with all the mix-ups, I also lost all the images that had been slated for this article.]