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Rise of the Equator: There is no Border here
Art from India and Indonesia met across the equator in the eleventh edition of the Jogja Biennale, held in Jogjakarta (or Yogyakarta), Indonesia. Fifteen Indian and twenty-five Indonesian artists were invited to contemplate the potent themes of Spirituality, Religiosity and Belief for works which were split across two main venues, Taman Budaya and the National Museum of Yogyakarta.
Located in the centre of Java, Indonesia, Jogja cradles a rich heritage which attests to the ancient trade and cultural ties with India that commenced sometime between the 1st and 7th centuries CE, with a stream of Indian migrants trading textiles and spices. With this trade, spread the influence of the Indian civilization. Many Southeast Asian kingdoms were influenced by Buddhist and Hindu philosophy which blended with the region’s indigenous beliefs, thereby permeating rituals, traditions, language, art and architecture. The Buddhist monument Borobudur, and the Prambanan temples near Jogja quietly evidence centuries-old links with the Indian subcontinent, well before the arrival of Islam, and Javanese folklore and Wayang Kulit puppetry still today narrate the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Both nations have also struggled through western imperialism and decades of colonial subjugation to eventually establish themselves as independent secular sovereign nations—one with an overwhelmingly Muslim majority and the other, overwhelmingly Hindu. Indeed, due to the nations’ similar and side by side struggle for independence, political ties were forged via an open cross-border dialogue at the Bandung Conference in 18–25 April 1956, at which India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Indonesia’s first President Achmad Sukarno met with leaders of other Asian and African countries from around the equator.
Perhaps in the spirit of such an historical event, with the recent formation of Yogyakarta Biennale Foundation, over the next ten years the current and next four biennales will engage with countries which bear proximity to 23.27 degrees north and south of the equator. ‘Shadow Lines: Indonesia meets India’, the first in the series, offered a most fascinating attempt at showcasing artists from the two countries and how they address core contemporary issues, drawing from their own personal experiences.
Instead of finding predictable internationally recognised Indonesian artists such as FX Harsono, Heri Dono and auction darling, I Nyoman Masriadi, curator Alia Swastika included a refreshing list of young contemporary artists who confront race, religion, national conflicts and gender politics head on, alongside well known Indian artists, selected by Indian curator Suman Gopinath. A visual and intellectual haven was created by an array of site-specific installations which sought sombre discourse with visitors. Nurdian Ichsan’s wet clay sculpture Linkage presented a spiritual notion of the human existence, as drops of water slowly dissolve the human figure back to its natural earthen state, demonstrating the transient temporal nature of matter, time and our very being. While this sculpture was being absolved, another was being absorbed into blackness. Melati Suryodarmo’s installation and performance piece A Conversation with the Black, had the artist silently dangling from a harness a few feet above ground while her upper body, facing away from the audience, remained hidden in black fabric on the wall. Here, in a dimly lit room, viewers were confronted with a rather surreal or absurd experience where this anonymous female body was either trapped, or escaping, oppressed or being spirited away into the limitless cosmos—a theme further explored by N.S. Harsha.
Harsha’s most iconic work in Southeast Asia, titled Cosmic Orphans, lies on the rooftop of a Sri Krishna temple in Singapore; continuing in that same vein of contemplation, is Harsha’s site specific floor painting of the cosmos. Reminder has a galaxy of stars, the earth and numerous planets delicately detailed over a splash of black paint strewn diagonally across the room—a flick of the wrist, echoing Jackson Pollock, was practiced by the artist in his studio in Mysore before replicating the final effect within the confines of the National Museum. The multitude of heavenly bodies resonate in Albert Yonathan’s installation Cosmic Labyrinth: The Bells, in which a number of bell-shaped terracotta sculptures lined up in a circular maze, not unlike a mandala.
From the spiritual, the discourse leads on to confront religious practices which spill into the realm of politics. Arahmaiani’s installation of larger than life cushion-form Arabic scripts, Stitching the Wound: Thread, readily identify with the Muslim world. However, the soft and inviting silk and styrofoam sculptures belie the negative connotations that Islam has attracted in the media over the last decade. Indonesia’s pioneering video artist, Krisna Murti’s sound and video installation takes a poetic approach as the projection of waves on the floor wash over the word Allah. Paul Kadarisman takes a more humourous route to address the tension associated with the Islamic faith. In the photographic series ‘Mohammad and Me’, the artist poses in a number of relaxed but clearly choreographed portraits with friends who are named ‘Mohammad’, which is quite a paradox considering representational visual iconography is forbidden within the faith. Going further with an investigation into the idea of religious representation is Sheba Chhachhi’s photographic documentation of women ascetics in India, titled Ganga’s Daughters. According to the artist, it was interesting for her to note that religion could offer a space for women to re-invent themselves and develop performative identities which subverted gender. Indian artist K.P. Reji’s triptych School, was perhaps the only painting in the Biennale. Negotiating a route between mythology and contemporary beliefs were the rest of the Indian artists, Riyas Komu, Pushpamala N., Sheela Gowda, Atul Dodiya and Shilpa Gupta, while Indonesian artists such as Jompet, Ariadhitya Pramuhendra and Setu Legi, set up installations with performative aspects.
With limited funding, infrastructure, resources and a unique set of challenges this commendable biennale, along with the whole host of parallel programs, titled ‘Festival Equator’, which engaged the local community, were organised in less than eight months by the Yogyakarta Biennale Foundation. Most of the works were placed in the National Museum of Yogyakarta—a disused building converted into a ‘museum’ for the event—which allowed for each installation to breathe, in its own space. In keeping with a singular, focused approach, the curators offered an alternative model of a biennale which adapts to suit the context of its region—all the while defying the formulaic, ambitious, international extravaganzas popping up all over the globe. Participating artists from both countries were especially overwhelmed by audience response, particularly those present on the day of the opening who mingled and happily fielded questions from local students and masses of curious visitors.
According to Alia Swastika, over the next ten years, Jogja Biennale will partner with South America, Macedonia, Pacific Islands, Africa and the Middle East. With the awakening of the Arab Spring—a revolution which sparked off in Tunisia, then Egypt and Libya and spread to civil resistance in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Morocco and Sudan—one cannot underestimate the significance and urgency of such a cross-cultural discourse via the biennale as a platform. Through the next decade, the equator will be on the rise and this is just the beginning.
Pushpamala N., The Motherland. Detail, photograph. Photography by Dwi Oblo.
N.S. Harsha, Reminder, 2011. Photography Indra Arista.
Nurdian Ichsan, Linkage, 2011. Clay installation. Photography Arief Sukardono.
Albert Yonathan, Cosmic Labyrinth: The Bells, 2011. Installation and performances, terracotta (low fired ceramics), wooden beads, audio and video channel. Photography Dwi Oblo.