Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts

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Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts
Memories and Beyond / 2010 Kuandu Biennale
(Re)Constructing Body of Memory
 (Re)Constructing Body of Memory

 

In a world in which origins overlaps and realities intersects, how can we call something as original? Indeed, it has been a long time since we last believed in the idea of originality, because a cultural product results from involutions and negotiations, involving a range of cultural interactions. Although lately there has been a stronger awareness about origins as having been constructed by various cultural spaces, at the same time there is the tendency to look back on the historical process, tracing how the cultural merging and encounters took place. The wish to retrace the historical processes does not necessarily represent the effort to romanticize the past, but rather betrays the desire to understand the present better, thus representing the act to make projections about the future.

 

Indonesia, a considerably young nation, gained its independence in 1945, along with the rising idea of Nationalism in most of Asian and African regions after the end of World War II. It is a real example of diverse and complex cultural encounters. The contemporary Indonesian society represents cultural intersections in which frontier spaces meet, the border lines between the traditional and the modern, the high-technology with the manual, the foreign and the original, the high and low cultures.

 

The land of Java is home to the largest ethnic group of Indonesia, the Javanese, and in total more than seventy percent of Indonesians call it home. It is an interesting case of cultural encounters. The history of Java is the result of long contests of great cultures: animism, Hindu, Buddha, Islam, on to the arrival of modernism brought by foreign colonies. In the early years of 1500s, the harbor of Sunda Kelapa (in Batavia or old Jakarta) was a site of encounters between the traders from the Asian continent (especially from India, China, and Arab), and those from Europe and the southern countries. This is due to its strategic geographical location, sandwiched between two continents and two great oceans. Almost all visitors to the place, whether those who were just passing by or those who ended up residing for a long while, left certain cultural signifiers which would then become assimilated into the local cultures.

***

Works by Agustinus Kuswidananto, also known as Jompet, constitutes a long reflection on the journey that has shaped the Indonesian identity, especially that of the Javanese. He is interested to retrace and re-read the cultural artifacts that are still living and have certain functions in the contemporary life of the Indonesian society. Java serves as a specific case for him, especially because of the complexity and diversity of its people, which reflect how people in Indonesia have from early on been open to new cultural products. Although he had been interested in the issue for quite a while,[1] it was only in 2007 that Jompet began an intensive examination on the construction of the Javanese identity in relation to the local-global discourse that have increasingly become a mainstream issue in the contemporary cultural studies. The long term project has resulted in several series of works, whose prototypes were exhibited in the Yokohama Triennial 2009, titled Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria.

 

Jompet's early works mainly explore the cultural history and the visual images of the soldiers from the Palace of Yogyakarta. To this day, Yogyakarta Palace still exerts quite a strong cultural power as a cultural center on Java, although its political power has significantly lessened in comparison to the previous era, especially during the early days of the Republic of Indonesia. In Jompet’s views, the Javanese soldiers are real examples of the process of cultural encounters among the cultures of Java, Hindu, Islam, and the West. What he means by the West is especially related to the historical fact that Indonesia had been a Dutch colony for more than 350 years. Before the Dutch officially came to power in Indonesia, there had been significant cultural influences from the Portuguese, Spanish, and British.

 

The soldiers, who in Jompet’s works are represented by their costumes, betray the history of syncretism in the development of the Javanese culture. The suit reveals a European style, complemented with a headgear whose form reveals the influence of Buddhist costume. The soldiers are carrying muskets or lances. Other important elements in this installation are the drums, certainly hinting at devices coming from the West, although they are made to create sounds in Javanese rhythm. The soldiers’ look suggests at all the complex encounters as a whole. Rather than rejecting a variety of cultural forms that the visitors had brought with them, including new religions, the Javanese society of the past tended to accept openly all that they consider necessary, thus creating some new cultural synthesis. Jompet views such openness and ability in creating new cultural products as being a form of defense mechanism in the face of the deluge of new cultures that surged in.

 

Jompet then combines the idea about the encounter among a variety of cultures in the Javanese society with the arrival of modernity, which was represented by machines. The first large-scale industrial machine to be present on Java was the sugarcane mill. Jompet thus went into the biggest sugar factory in Yogyakarta, built in the early 1900s. In his video work, War of Java, do you remember? #2, we see a performer whose appearance betrays certain agrarian and traditional characters, dancing (in the gestures of the local folk dance) between the sugarcane-processing machines. As we see such visual images, it is immediately clear how the different categories confront one another; the agrarian tradition and the industry, the traditional and the modern, the rural and the urban.

 

Despite constituting his personal reflections initially, the issue of identity that Jompet is talking about eventually lays out important concepts in the theories about identity as explained in the field of contemporary cultural studies. Almost all the theories are based on questions about authenticity and how we “must” view the Other. The Other constitutes an important subject in the discussions of contemporary cultural studies in the last half century. As theories of identity develop, a range of concepts have taken shape, offering different approaches in perceiving the Other. We thus know of the post-colonialism, orientalism, Occidentalism, and still many other isms. The intellectuals are engaged in continuous observations to see how cultural constructions in a community keep on changing from one point to another, taking turns to provide a space for the emergence of new cultures that might have been marginalized in the past.

 

In Jompet’s works, Java does not entirely appear as the representation of the Other. In the discussion about the identity theory, in general the Other tends to refer to communities and cultures outside the “West”. In my opinion, Jompet’s works wish to move further than mere issues of the representation and existence of the Other. Because the cultural subject in this case has shown the ability to engage in negotiations vis-a-vis the new cultures, there are no essentialist qualities that we can attach to it.

 

Cultural negotiations invariably suggest at the cultural contests of a variety of elements. In relation to the “fight” against the machine (as representation of modernism), Jompet sees that the encounter with the new thing had initially resulted in a cultural shock. In later periods, such cultural shocks became a natural process, thus creating another process of signification or meaning assignation. Jompet sees the process as a kind of phantasmagoria, in which there are illusions regarding people’s acceptance of new values, and how the values have practical functions in society. Such phantasmagoria serves as yet another approach that enables people to deal with the initial cultural shocks, as well as to conduct certain dialects about the idea of modernity. In practice, the adaptation to new values give rise to fragmented models, understood in different levels by each societal group. Phantasmagoria becomes one of the possible representations about the existence of common “imagination” in relation to the practices to negotiate with new values. In this period, situations arise which might be reflective of the tension and the unpreparedness of all parties to merge with one another, thus creating a clash of sorts if one is to view it from today’s perspective.

 

In the War of Ghost, the soldiers can be seen as cultural artifacts, betraying past cultural contests. Today, the soldiers seem to face an impasse, showing no significant development. This is mainly affected by the fact that the Palace that sustains them is increasingly situated more as a cultural symbol instead of the center of political power.[2] At the same time, Jompet also offers a new perspective about the soldiers, one that moves beyond the encounter between the West and the East, representing the third reality shaped by the realities of both the West and the East.

 

It was from such contradictions that Jompet then moved to create a more illusory corps of soldiers. The costumes that had served as a signifier in Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria were taken off. War and Ghost presents bodies of the soldiers seeking their forms. What was certain and definite in the previous series is now made open to new interpretations. On the one hand, this shows the opinion that follows the line of thoughts that sees identity as something open to changes. The visual image of identity therefore tends to be unstable, influenced by the construction of each individual’s imaginations, be it about them or about the society in which they live. At the same time, the choice to discard the real forms of the costumes also betrays the wish to reject established forms, considering that the clothes, or things that shape the body and constitute the material representation of the concept of identity, are something that keep on changing, re-engineered, and added or reduced in line with the changing temporal contexts.

 

War of Ghost retains the armaments and the machinery, which then transform into something betraying more strongly the tension between “the collective” and “the individual”. To the Javanese society who are essentially familiar with the ideas about togetherness and collectivity, concepts about self and individualism came along with, or much later than, the arrival of the machines. Along with the compulsion to deal with the machines and the idea of modernity, each individual develops their own models or self defense mechanisms, which constitute a new process especially in the effort to know the self.

***

After the works that retrace the origins and encounters between the Javanese culture and other cultures resulted in several series of installations—i.e. Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria and War of Java, do you remember?—presented in his solo exhibition at the Cemeti Art House in 2009 and also at today’s Kuandu Biennale, Jompet is now interested in the issues of identity in relation with the contemporary society. Such contemporary issues can also be read by means of perceiving how the past has been reconstructed. Here it is shown how the issues—as well as categories—that had faced one another in tensions now form equal or complementary juxtaposition.

 

Jompet is interested to examine the issues that in the past had been clashing one another but are now accepted, especially in the categories of “the individuals and the public”, “the present and the past”, “the essentialist and the strategic”. The work War of Ghost can also be perceived further as constituting the journey of Jompet’s thoughts as an artist, about origins and how a culture evolves. At the same time, it enables us to see the journey of the Javanese culture itself. The self-defense mechanism that welcomes new values (instead of blocking them in the effort to protect oneself) which Jompet has always perceived as a common strategy, became in subsequent eras also the preferred strategy for the individuals. It is perhaps a new concept for the Javanese society.

 

In the contemporary cultural studies on identity, especially in relation to the latest studies done by the cultural thinkers about the issues of identity construction, it is evident that there has been a shift in the one holding the power on the identity. Previously it had centered on the “state” or the “power holder”, but it has now become an increasingly individual process. Cultural policies that in the nineties have played a role in shaping the identity of a community lately became increasingly formalized. On the one hand, globalization blurs boundaries and distributes identity signifiers to all across the globe; on the other hand, it accidentally triggers fundamental questions about identity and its signifiers.

 

Jompet examines the idea about new individualism precisely through the concept of communality. He realizes that the Indonesian society basically finds it difficult to release themselves from the communal culture. The concept of individuality is invariably understood within the framework of the “self” as a part of the society. Each individual has therefore a range of contexts and reflections in which he or she must be engaged in continuous negotiations. Apart from giving rise to different forms of negotiations, the specific concept of identity also creates other possibilities existing in the bordering spaces, the spaces in-between, or—in the terms that Jompet often refers to lately—“the third spaces”. 

***

The idea about the third space gathered steam when Jompet is engaged in a collaborative work with Teater Garasi for their latest project, Tubuh Ketiga (The Third Body), for which the research was done mostly in Indramayu, a small town in the northern fringe of Java. As he observed the community there, Jompet saw how ideas of identity and the formation of cultural symbols, which in his previous works had been shown to be based on events of the past and presented to betray how they had been “venerated” or preserved to maintain their authenticity in order to uphold certain cultural signifiers in certain times, have undergone a shift in their meaning. As this essay has repeatedly mentioned, the idea of identity and its signifiers as something that constantly change forms a part of the mainstream philosophy.

 

Ideas about cultural encounters in the (Javanese) community in Indramayu have brought Jompet to the reflections of how the new self-defense mechanism in the current cultural contest has grown to become increasingly complex. The categories that serve as signifiers for each social grouping have developed and revealed a rich diversity: colonial-postcolonial, traditional-modern, agrarian-industrialist, manual-mechanical, religious-agnostic, magical-mechanical, marginal-mainstream, low art-high art, popular-elitist, and many more.

 

It is such rich celebration on the issue of identity, giving rise to carnivals as the chosen mode of celebration, that serves as the basis for Jompet’s visual choice in the subsequent series of works. In Indonesia, the idea of the carnival constitutes the most festive idea in relation to the desire to celebrate the diverse identities. Historically, carnivals are held especially to celebrate days that the State considers important, for example the Independence Day, the Day of Youth, or, in the smaller context, the regional government celebrating the anniversary of the region. Interestingly, carnivals invariably reveal the wish to represent “Indonesia” as a Nation, with a capital N. By this I mean that there is invariably the desire to present all the ethic groups living in Indonesia, symbolized by traditional costumes.

 

Beginning his creative travail as a musician and having formally studied broadcasting, Jompet has since early on been interested in electronic devices and kinetic machinery. As he started to engage himself in this arena, and became engrossed in it, what is called “new media art” has not reached its current stage of popularity in Indonesia. During the nineties, it was only Krisna Murti, a pioneer in the Indonesian new media art, who has been consistently using the video as his medium for his works,[3] although there were also other artists such as Heri Dono or Arahmaiani who often used the video as their media of expressions. It seems that Jompet had initially no intention to turn his penchant of playing with electronic and kinetic devices into an artistic travail, creating serious works of art.

 

In the mid-2000s, as alternative ideas in the Indonesian art practices increasingly gathered momentum, the new media art gained a foothold. Apart from developing in the exhibitions held in alternative spaces, the new media was also supported by the progress in (information and communication) technology that has made technology an inseparable part of life for many people.

 

Edwin Jurriens, who is researching about the Indonesian video art and new media art, tries to see how most young artists deal with such strong new currents:

Unlike video art pioneers, the majority of the second generation does not integrate video art into installations, but presents single-channel videos on television or cinema screens as art objects in themselves. The main source of inspiration for the young artists is usually contemporary popular culture such as television commercials, music videos, soap operas and the internet rather than traditional fine arts. According to publisher and art critic Ronny Agustinus, the new generation of video artists searched for alternatives in advanced computer technology, music videos (especially early MTV) and experimental films (such as Quentin Tarantino’s) to circumvent the repressiveness of the New Order regime. They were also influenced by mainstream Hollywood films, western pop music and commercial television series. Agustinus criticises the young video artists for adopting rather than taking critical distance from these genres of popular culture.

Jurriens then mentions how Jompet is one of the few artists using the new media in a more conceptual framework that is relevant to the idea being developed. In Jompet’s previous works before Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria, one can already detect the artist’s interest in the idea about the relation between the artist, the artwork, and the audience.[4] Most of his works are interactive, inviting the audience to become a part of the creative process. As Jurriens has mentioned, Jompet takes a distance between his artistic practices and his medium of choice, thus enabling him to conduct a critical reading about how products of technology and the machines affect the relations between humans.

In this context, interactivity and concept of games used by Jompet had represent what had been described by Graham Coulter Smith as gamespace.[5] Artistic creativity should not be understood entirely as the juxtaposition of distant realities within the synaptic universe of the unconscious mind. One must also include the processes of reasoning and judgement that put the various micro-creative acts together to build up a whole, to construct a particular gamespace of ideas: disarranging and rearranging the components of that gamespace. In other words the nonlinear cognitive process that is the autonomous association of ideas is complemented by a more linear, chain-like construction process.

Such idea of interactivity gains a more expanded form in the works in the series of Java’s Machine. In all the installations, the center of the audience’s attention is invariably how the elements are interacting by means of kinetic devices. Jompet does not only bring together one form of technology with another, but also makes it multifunctional, so much so that the entire installations resemble a performance. It is as if the soldiers are actors on stage, with almost complete elements: music, multimedia, narrative. While in the previous works the interaction between the works and the audience had been direct involvement with the audience becoming a part of the work, in the Java’s Machine series the interaction is more one-directional, with the audience responding to the work. Jompet takes a certain approach in displaying his works, enabling the audience to come and walk in the spaces between the soldier figures. By stepping into the space of the work, the audience can see more closely the symbols and icons attached to the work, and understand how one element interacts with another. Jompet also tends to let the audience see the electronic machines or devices that he uses. He lets the sophistication that appears in the work visible to the audience, as part of his concept to make technology as something accessible for common people.

Jompet’s works, thus have the possibility to underline the democratic use of new technology for many people. His modus is operating between assembling, creating, connecting and re-using all the found objects and electronic devices. Aside of the high awareness of the role of artist to represent analytical yet critical perspective of social life, Jompet also departs his creative process with his passionate activity with sound and moving images. Making works is also a game, something that he is doing with fun, most likely to discover the new possibilities to apply the technology—as one product of modernity—in term of individual capacity. Jompet has made his personal approach towards technology, which is something that needs critical and creative action of receptivity. By doing so, Jompet’s works not only outstanding in term of the context of issues he is representing, but also in his choice of medium itself that resemblances the classic slogan “the medium is political’.




[1] Jompet is a member of Teater Garasi, a theater company that advocates new ideas in the world of the Indonesian performing art. The group, established in 1999, during the period of 2000 – 2005 has intensively been exploring the issue of the contemporary identity of Java, especially in relation to the recording of the myths and stories believed by most Javanese to this day. They called the project “Waktu Batu” or “Stone Time”, consisting of three performances, in which the visual images—designed and created by Jompet, among others—became an important element that was no less significant than the text and choreography. Jompet’s early exploration about the Javanese identity began during the field study for the project. In the subsequent periods, most of Jompet’s works in the series of Java’s Machine have also involved members of Teater Garasi, signifying a long-term collaborative project between the two parties.

 

 

[2] The palace that sustains the soldiers is a site with the label of a “Special Territory”, a status given to it by the government of Indonesia. In the political map during the New Order regime, the Palace was given the ability to assert its presence through the position of a king, the Sultan, who automatically serves as the head of the region, with no process of general election involving the people and the regional House of Representatives. So far such a special position is still debated about, with people questioning whether or not the political power of the Palace should be retained. As a cultural symbol, the Palace of Yogyakarta enjoys quite a strong position in the eye of the Javanese, although it mostly functions as a guardian of cultural values and products that are based on traditions.

 

[3] Edwin Jurriens, a Dutch researcher currently teaching in Australia has lately been doing a comprehensive study on the history and development of the Indonesian video art. In his extensive unpublished essays, Jurriens summarizes pieces of writing about the development of new media art in Indonesia, creating therefore a chronological and comprehensive picture. Apart from it, Krisna Murti has published an anthology of writing especially containing the reviews of new media art works and exhibitions in Indonesia.

[4] One of Jompet’s interactive work is 1 hr 2b Other, a game of sorts. With this work, Jompet invites two members of the audience to play with a helmet-like device, which allows one to see what the other audience is seeing, and vice-versa. In this work, Jompet tried to trace the communication modus between human being, as natural and instinctive way of interacting.

 

5 DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART © 2006 Graham Coulter-Smith CASIAD PUBLISHING