Sydney Morning Herald Column

Art Stage Jakarta 2017

Published August 25, 2017
Melati spits ink at the Macan Museum

Two moments from the week of Art Stage Jakarta 2017 will stay lodged in my mind: the would-be ‘glittering occasion’ of the inaugural Indonesian Art Award, and a performance by Melati Suryodarmo in which she spent three hours in a blank cubicle, grunting, groaning and spitting ink at the walls. Indonesian art today lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Even before the fair had begun, director Lorenzo Rudolf was ready to declare it a success. Whereas the first incarnation of Art Stage Jakarta featured 49 galleries, the second boasted 60. In 2016 the total included 16 Indonesian galleries, this year there were 24. Australia was represented by Sullivan + Strumpf, who are looking increasingly comfortable in Asia, and by Chalk Horse.
According to Rudolf there were more galleries eager to sign up, but the venue, the Sheraton Grand Jakarta Gandaria City Hotel, was simply not big enough.
Added attractions this year included The Art Square, a kind of mini-fair for small galleries and local art organisations; Off the Wall, a survey of Indonesian and European street art; installations by high-tech art collective, Double Deer; and a new installment of the Collectors Show, drawing on the holdings of four prominent local collectors.
The most striking innovation was the Indonesian Art Award, held at the Institut Francais d’Indonesie, on the eve of the fair. The night was intended as a celebration of the national art scene but it might have been scripted by Jacques Tati. Rudolf and his team took almost four hours to make thirteen presentations in categories such as Best Artist, Best Gallery, Best Curator, Best Collector, and so on. For most categories there was a ‘Young’ version as well. To put that in perspective, the Oscars (which always seems interminable) – clocked in at only 3 hours, sixteen minutes this year, bestowing awards in 24 categories.
The Art Award evening had four musical interludes: French, Spanish, Italian, and – finally! – Indonesian. There was a distinct air of karaoke, with choruses of Michelle, and Volare. The most notable performance came at the very end, with Dialita, a choir consisting of elderly women who survived the 1965 anti-Communist massacres. Most of them had lost everything and spent more than a decade as political prisoners. It’s a piece of history the Indonesian government would like to forget, but artist, Agung Kurniawan, who assembled the choir, has made it his mission to preserve those memories.

Dialita - the musical highlight of the Art Award
Dialita – the musical highlight of the Art Award

Dialita’s touching, oddly cheerful performance put the rest of the evening’s entertainment into perspective. The cringe-meter lurched into the red when Rudolf and his co-host wondered aloud what nickname they could give this new award. Looking at the prominently displayed themes of Authenticity, Leadership, Excellence, Quality, Seriousness, they came up the “Aleqs” – a reminder that collector, Alex Tedja is not only the sponsor of the Award, but owner of the Sheraton Gandaria complex where the Fair is held.
The Aleqs’ presentation would be a tempting subject for a great comic writer, but I haven’t the space to indulge myself. Within the week a group of artists in Yogyakarta had held a spoof awards presentation, which could be seen as a perverse form of flattery.
The awards ceremony may have been a flawed piece of theatre, but it gave an indication of the breadth and depth of contemporary art in Indonesia. Although most work seems to be bought by a small number of super-rich collectors, they are a dedicated group, and highly supportive of the Art Stage project.
The strength of this support is the reason why Rudolf can be so positive about the fair’s future, regardless of sales, and even dream of exporting the Art Stage model to other South-East Asian countries. He has accepted the fact that Art Basel Hong Kong is the dominant global art fair in the region, and is busy constructing a network of smaller fairs that connect with the cultural ambitions of a growing middle class.
Although Art Stage has been running in Singapore since 2011, Jakarta is the perfect city to refresh the concept. Indonesia is one of the world’s emerging economies, with rising personal wealth creating the preconditions for a healthy art market. One thinks of China’s economic boom which also saw Chinese contemporary art launched onto a world stage.
Indonesian art is already widely appreciated internationally. The next major event will be the Europalia Art Festival in Belgium and the Netherlands, starting 10 October, in which Indonesia is the featured country.
With a few notable exceptions Indonesian art, especially the work of emerging artists, remains inexpensive in world terms. As we’ve seen with China, this will change as the rest of the planet becomes progressively more engaged.
In Indonesia, as with China, a time of economic and social upheaval has brought about a burst of creativity. After Art Stage I travelled on to Bandung and Yogjakarta, visiting studios and galleries, and could see the fair barely scraped the surface of an art scene preparing itself for a volcanic eruption.
A Titarubi figure in a cloak of golden nutmegs
A Titarubi figure in a cloak of golden nutmegs

All the big names in Indonesian art were in evidence at Art Stage, from Heri Dono to Eko Nugroho, but it was impressive to see how many artists were rising through the ranks. My impressions were dominated by a number of large works: Batman and Robin figures with interchangeable parts, by Naufal Abshar at the Art Porters stand; an invisible figure in a robe of gold-plated nutmegs by Titarubi, at Bale Project; big works by Mella Jaarsma and small ones by Restu Ratnaningsih at the Susan Baik Gallery. It was impossible to overlook a gigantic installation-style piece by Muhammad Ucup at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, while Lawangwangi exhibited a massive tabletop etching by Eddy Susanto, based on Leonardo’s Last Supper.
Holy Art Stage Jakarta, Batman! - Naufal Abshar's work at the Art Porters stand
Holy Art Stage Jakarta, Batman! – Naufal Abshar’s work at the Art Porters stand

The other major event of the week was a one-day performance marathon at the new Macan Museum, due to open officially in November, under the directorship of Australia’s Aaron Seeto. This preview was dominated by two performances: Tisna Sanjaya’s Self-portrait as a group of hypocrites, a ritualistic, two-hour process which left the artist covered, head-to-foot in mud, charcoal and spices; and Melati’s ink-spitting Eins und Eins. Amid the fripperies of Art Stage, Tisna and Melati served notice there is a fiery core to the colourful spectacle of the Indonesian art volcano.
Art Stage Jakarta, 11-13 August
First Sight, Museum Macan, 12 August

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August, 2017