As one of the 27 curators of the Singapore Biennale 2013 and a specialist in Indonesian art, Tan Siu Li has been travelling to Indonesia regularly over the last few months. A curator at Singapore Art Museum overseeing its Indonesian collection of modern and contemporary work, Tan worked with SAM assistant curator Iman Ismail and two Indonesia-based co-curators Aminuddin TH Siregar (‘Ucok’) and Mia Maria to select artists and their works to be presented at this year's “If The World Changed” Biennale.
In this interview ahead of the Biennale opening on October 25, she discusses the state of the current Indonesian art scene as well as some of the Indonesian works that will be shown.
Where do you think is the most vibrant art scene in Indonesia right now?
Traditionally, Yogyakarta (Jogja) has been the epicentre of contemporary art production in Indonesia. It's where you go if you want to see lots of art and meet artists. But the scene in Jogja has quietened down quite a bit in recent years though, and the artists there are not as active as they used to be.
That said, Jogja is still home to established and exciting art events, such as the Jogja Biennale and ARTJOG, and established institutions for the research and presentation of art, such as Cemeti and IVAA, are also all found there.
Many artists still flock to Jogja from other parts of Indonesia and the region to study at the art school there, or undertake residencies, or show their work. That, and the fact that many artists have established studios in Jogja, due to the lower costs and the ready availability of skilled labour and facilities to support art production, still make Jogja a must-visit for art lovers.
Having said all that, my personal opinion is that there is a lot happening in Jakarta now. Networks such as ruangrupa, Salihara and Forum Lenteng have, over the past decade or so, nurtured a new generation of creative who traverse disciplines fluidly, and whose practices, being very rooted in an urban context, present interesting alternatives to the kind of art coming out of Jogja. You can see this in the Biennale in the works of Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina, Mahardika Yudha and Anggun Priambodo. Jakarta is just getting warmed up, and I think quite a few artists there are encouraged by the greater representation of artists from Jakarta at SB2013. Usually it's artists from Jogja who get picked for Biennales and international exhibitions.
The scene in Bandung also seems to be picking up. The approach to art-making there is also very different from Jogja — usually more conceptually oriented — and there were quite a few artists based in Bandung with whom I was keen to work for SB2013, but they were not able to participate this time for various reasons. There's always next time!
Do you think contemporary artists in Indonesia are now “tamer” that they used to be prior to Reformasi years?
The visual language is perhaps not as strident as what we saw in the 1990s — the years of political protest — and many artists from the younger generation have achieved success quite easily and early on in their careers. So it is true that there isn't that same sense of struggle conveyed in their works, but they have a spirit all their own and to compare them with their predecessors would be like comparing apples and eggs. Indonesian art has also moved on from the 'protest' art of the 1990s, which in the end became commoditised as well. There are new and different issues to address, and hence new artistic strategies and a new visual language has evolved.
How did you go about selecting the Indonesian artists and their works?
Amongst all the Southeast Asian countries, the Indonesian art scene is arguably one of the best represented at international exhibitions. When I discussed the selection of Indonesian artists and artworks for SB2013 with my fellow curators, we were all keenly aware of this fact. It would have been easy to have the usual established and popular names in our line-up, but we wanted SB2013 to be an opportunity to present artists, artworks and practices which we deemed significant, but under-represented at international platforms, partly because some of these artworks and practices are difficult to sell, and partly because some of these artists are under the radar.
The final line-up of artists is a good mix of established and/or more senior artists (for example Tisna Sanjaya), and some artists who are either quite well-known abroad but not so much at home (Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina), or the reverse (Nasirun, for instance, has rarely exhibited abroad). We also have some 'surprises' such as self-taught artist Rosid, although what we're showing from him is not strictly an artwork, and architect Eko Prawoto. The latter two were included because we were keen to expand definitions and parameters of 'art' to encompass other intersecting disciplines such as architecture, and to also explore including objects that are not strictly 'artworks' but which respond to the Biennale title in interesting ways and which can open up new conversations.
What do the works selected tell us about the state of the contemporary art in Indonesia?
That there is a happy spectrum of very different approaches to art and art-making. My fellow curators and I hope that our selection will be interesting and provocative for Indonesian as well as regional audiences, as they discover different facets of the Indonesian art scene beyond what is conventionally presented at commercially-oriented exhibitions.
Is there a common thread in between the works that underlines the main concerns of Indonesia society?
Yes, but to be fair these run through many of the works in the Biennale. On such tread is the commentary on social issues. For example Mahardika Yudha’s "The Face of the Black River" talks about environmental degradation and the failure of the local government to improve the lives of the people, or Anggun Priambodo’s "Toko Keperluan" talks about the culture of consumerism.
There is also a desire to preserve and present history and/or cultural heritage, in the face of a rapidly-changing world, and also a reflection on spirituality and traditional cultures and beliefs, and their place in the contemporary world.