Getting down to just art


In the development of contemporary art scenes in Asian countries over recent years, a strong tendency has been for artists to buck the yoke of tradition and steer well clear of anything that might remotely resemble their nation’s folk art — unless of course their intention was to mock it.

In many of these circles, avant-garde conceptual art has been naively regarded as the spark of awareness that could start a revolution in the social consciousness.

A very different but parallel tendency has seen some Asian artists exploit their cultural identities to open doors, especially in tandem with politically correct international curators keen on introducing “exotic” talent from developing countries.

Thankfully, there appears to be a limit on how long either of these approaches remains effective, and in time artists have to give up sensationalism or stereotypes and get down to simply creating art as individuals. That is where the Indonesian scene is at right now, and it is the theme of “Passing on Distance,” a survey of emerging talent that focuses on five artists, and which is the current exhibition at Base Gallery in Kayabacho.

There is no revolution and no batik here — if you didn’t know this was a show from Indonesia, you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the art — instead we have work born of personal introspection.

The stuff isn’t bad, although it isn’t really great either. It is a product of a fledgling, honest and autonomous creative expression — and interesting for exactly that very reason as it provides a glimpse of the next generation of artists from one of the world’s most populous nations.

All of the artists are around 30 years of age, and went to art school. Some, like Handiwirman Saputra, have established themselves internationally — Saputra has been selected for the Shanghai Biennale this autumn. His work here, “Mental Series No. 8,” is a large and mysterious painting of a gray form bisected by blood-red lines and with a white cloud-like form hanging atop it. Moving closer, the viewer will discover, perched on a little shelf protruding from the wall alongside the painting, a lump of putty and a cotton ball bound up in red thread. A moment of disbelief and then comes the realization that this is the subject for the painting — talk about demystifying contemporary art!

The gallery is dominated by “Tied Tongue,” Yusra Martunus’ installation of 200 aluminum objects. Each is about 10-cm high and resembles a tongue (they are all slightly different, some rather resembling a fig or human legs). They are unpolished and porous and distort reflections like tiny fun-house mirrors. Arranged 10 high and 20 wide on the wall, they form a floating organic matrix contrasting the warm softness of the tongue with the hard coldness of aluminum.

Prilla Tania’s contribution is a series of shoes made out of paper, illuminated within by red lights. The point, or what I came away with anyway, is that the artist loves shoes and is remarkably good at making them out of paper. Inscribed on the soles are a series of banal messages: “My life is simple,” “I like walking” and so on.

Gusbarlian Lubis has a set of drawings of classical columns and gates, many hovering in space and overlaid with clouds, done in pastels; while Dikdik Sayahdikumullah’s similarly dreamy paintings look at more contemporary architecture.

The work of Sayahdikumullah is my favorite in the exhibition. His paintings, of gas pumps and building facades, recall the American photo-realism movement of the 1960s. Actually, the acrylic paintings look very much like digital photographs due the artist’s use of the sort of large white borders one gets when ink-jet printing. There is more to the work than gimmickry, though, as Sayahdikumullah has a very good eye — the city street scene, “After the Rain,” is an uncommonly evocative piece, and one can almost feel the damp air in the gray loneliness of the deserted intersection.

Base Gallery, which is now celebrating its 20th year of operations, has been showcasing Asian artists for most of that time. According to Midori Hirota, who lives in the Indonesian cultural center of Yogyakarta and curated the show, there are now a dozen or so good contemporary art spaces in the city. Many are artist-run collectives, and there is a spirit of cooperation in the art community, so hopefully we should be seeing more Indonesian art in the coming years.