Jompet Kuswidananto and Eko Nugroho
until 1 April 2013
by Dylan Rainforth
“After 1998 everything was changing – information, democracy… People were free to speak but people were also free to ignore it. Everyone speaks but nobody listens. So then they clash everywhere and it becomes anarchy.” Eko Nugroho is describing Reformasi-era Indonesia, the post-Suharto period that is the context for his energetic, multi-disciplinary art practice.
A nation of approximately 17,580 islands, contemporary Indonesia is a hybrid mélange characterised by a vast array of ethnic groups, competing secular and religious traditions, complex histories of colonialism and resistance, rapidly developing economic vectors, and sectarian impulses sometimes barely contained by the national motto “Unity in Diversity” (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika).
Nugroho, along with fellow Yogyakarta artist Jompet Kuswidananto, makes art that playfully reflects many of the trajectories on which his country is headed (and nationalism itself is a key subject of interrogation for the two artists).
When we meet, Nugroho and Kuswidananto are in Melbourne to create and install their joint exhibition Rally at the National Gallery of Victoria. The artists, who have very different aesthetics but sympathetic methodologies, have taken over the ground floor contemporary gallery and each annexed two walls, with sculpture and installational gestures spilling out into the centre. As well as this they will each complete an ambitious commission for the public entry areas of NGV International, with Kuswidananto to create a parade of suspended figures and Nugroho to execute a large-scale painting on the famous water wall.
Nugroho has a highly graphic approach that is rooted in his background as a painter and street artist. “Usually my work is based on the ordinary media I am surrounded by –
embroidery, batik, shadow puppets or wayang, or sculpture. I studied painting, so of course the painting and visual thing is always there, but I’m developing in many different mediums, animation as well,” he says.
In the contemporary gallery his two walls are adorned by a rich pattern, a backdrop for a grouping of large, wall-based embroidered figures (the result of a community project he organised in Yogyakarta) and, on the ground, resin-sculpted humanoids who wear masks and bear flags. Indulging in word play and visual associations, Nugroho’s works make political jibes but, for NGV contemporary art curator Kelly Gellatly (and this goes for Kuswidananto’s practice, too), “they’re not heavy handed. It’s there if you want to look but you have to scratch the surface.”
In the Rally catalogue, Gellatly explains that “Jompet and Eko do not share the acute desire of Indonesia’s previous generation of artists – such as Heri Dono, FX Harsano and Agus Suwage – to critique an oppressive regime in their work: as a result their individual practices touch on cultural and political subjects in a manner that is neither strident nor didactic.”
In the gallery, Kuswidananto’s walls of rusted corrugated iron form the background to a ghostly carnival procession of horses defined only by their saddles and equipment. “The horses are carrying carnival materials, costumes, sound systems, flags, musical instruments,” he says. For NGV’s atrium area Federation Court Kuswidananto has also created The Commoners, a suspended procession of figures – ghost labourers defined by their headgear, protection against the hot sun – playing mechanised drums. It is, Kuswidananto says, “a parade of narratives … the [empty] shape of the figures represents fluidity. The shape of the culture is always fluid. The imaginary political body.”
Carnival – a party atmosphere that temporarily suspends or overturns the rule of authority – is a critical tradition for Kuswidananto and, true to form, sound is an integral part of all his work. “The carnival culture is already there in the community as a behaviour, whether for the harvest season or for religious holidays, or marriage, or circumcision ceremonies, they always express it as a carnival,” he says.
“In the carnival you will see the symbols of their inventions – they will always try to make new performative elements, through costume, through music, through many things. I see the carnival as a celebration of change, of new things. I just borrow these materials from what the community have done… I just borrow from them as a symbolic product of change.”
Kuswidananto describes Indonesia as “a culture of permanent transition” and change is something that both he and Nugroho embrace. After all, even anarchy is preferable to the old New Order of the Suharto era.
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