‘Discussing Contemporaneity’, a seminar organized in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Contemporaneity: Contemporary Art of Indonesia’, posed two questions: what constitutes contemporaneity and how is Indonesian art situated in within it? In his accompanying catalogue essay, co-curator Jim Supangkat attempts to offer examples of recent discourses in Europe and America that have tried to define and contextualize art produced globally, beyond the Modernist trajectory. He proposes the term ‘artistic sensibilities’ to identify traits of contemporaneity in the cultural context of Indonesia. According to Supangkat, this term allows for a pluralization of views on art with ‘the quality of being current or of the present’ following the loosening of the Eurocentric Modernist frame. At the same time, the word ‘sensibility’ refers to a combination of technique and understanding, and has a culturally specific relevance to art in Indonesia, which is located between art in a western sense and so-called ethnic art.
This argument was the main conceptual basis for the first ever survey of contemporary art from Indonesia to be held in China. Considering the geographical proximity of the two countries, there has been absurdly little exchange between their artistic communities (beyond the commercial relationship between Indonesian collectors of Chinese descent and Chinese artists). Typically, art professionals in China seem to know far more about the art communities in Europe and America than they do about their immediate neighbours. ‘Contemporaneity’ created a possible platform for intellectual communication among Asian colleagues who share the same concerns of self-definition within a globalized contemporary art discourse.
The exhibition was indeed a broad sampling of forms and subject matter among Indonesian artists active today. Works ranged across media, from Eko Nugroho’s graffiti-style stickers on the glass façade of the museum (Untitled, 2010) to Wayang Republic (2009), Nasirun’s oversized painted leather puppet portraying a character from Indonesian shadow-puppet theatre, hanging from the ceiling of the museum like an oversized kite. This piece in particular served to assert the curators’ definition of contemporaneity as something that can also contain ethnic and craft-based practices. At times, the selected works appeared random in that there seemed to be little conceptual or formal dialogue or transition from one to another. At other times, the groupings were too tightly orchestrated by Supangkat’s formulation of contemporaneity and could appear contrived.
Supangkat’s co-curator, Biljana Ciric, brought another angle to the exhibition, balancing the emphasis on East–West binary perspectives on contemporaneity as voiced in Supangkat’s statement. Their partnership in the making of the exhibition was vital: Supangkat is a long-term veteran in the Indonesian art scene who was involved in the local avant-garde art movement as early as 1975, when he founded the Indonesia New Art Movement, which argued for a re-definition of art and was considered the beginning of contemporary art in Indonesia. The colonial history of the country was (and is) embedded in such attempts to re-define itself in opposition to western discourses and value systems. Ciric, a Serbian curator who has been living and working in Shanghai for ten years, brought a view based on the examination of individual artistic positions – less tethered to national or cultural classifications and more closely related to the infrastructure and market system of Indonesia.
The highlight of the exhibition was the film programme, which featured short videos and films from young filmmakers such as Edwin to more established figures such as Gotot Prakosa, Faozan Rizal and Garin Nugroho. Kantata Takwa is a partially documentary film named after the legendary Indonesian rock group of the same name. The production of the film started with the band’s 1990 live concert and was completed in 2008 with band members playing some of the roles in the film. Tracing continuous changes in the social climate along the way, Kantata Takwa proves to be a powerful and sentimental protest against the Suharto regime.
After leaving the seminar and the exhibition, I realized that it was important to remember that by proposing a notion of artistic sensibility, this survey served the curators’ argument and simply offered one perspective among many on contemporary Indonesian art. The idea of contemporaneity shouldn’t be about labels or definitions but about the interactions and uncertainty of multiple views.