Culture Vulture

Yogyakarta and Dhaka art fairs have clear focus and bold programming

ArtJog and the Dhaka Art Summit both have a clear focus, bold programming and sales model which set them apart

I started my recent three-week holiday by booking a ticket to Yogyakarta for an art fair.

Indonesian artists, collectors and curators had all mentioned ArtJog to me at various points - in conversations, during interviews, as passing comments. Most recently, leading Indonesian contemporary artists Jumaldi Alfi and Entang Wiharso suggested a quick weekend holiday to see what sets the art fair apart from others.

It was time to take the short flight to find out for myself, since the fair is not as widely covered outside Indonesia as other visual arts events in the region.

ArtJog, which ran from June 7 to 29 and is now into its seventh edition, surprised me with strong, cutting-edge artworks created in response to the politically charged theme - Legacies Of Power: (Re-)Defining Democracy In Indonesia.

The opening was something I had never experienced before. With crowds packing the grounds in and around Taman Budaya, it felt more like a rock concert than the opening of a visual arts event. In fact, in the seven years I have covered the visual arts beat, I have never experienced anything on this scale in any of the countries I have visited. I had to call my driver back to help get me to the front of the building where the official ceremony was taking place.

Once inside the building, I encountered a fascinating sales model that clearly shuns the traditional "artist meets curator meets gallery and finds collector" model, on which much of the art market runs.

The focus at ArtJog is on the artists and, interestingly enough, quite unlike other art fairs, artists are allowed to sell directly to collectors with fair organisers taking a commission that goes towards covering the costs of running the fair.

This unconventional model also resulted in unconventional presentations.

At other fairs, such as Art Stage Singapore and the India Art Fair in Delhi, galleries rent booths and display works within their confines. ArtJog, however, faced no such limitations. There were museum-like, open-ended displays and installations as well as several large-scale works on display.

This year's fair clearly focused on developments within Indonesia - an emerging powerhouse in contemporary art - and this clear country focus helped.

Of the 103 participating artists, 97 were from Indonesia and six were from abroad, with a mix of emerging as well as established names such as Titarubi, Heri Dono, I Nyoman Masriadi, well- known American performance artist Marina Abramovic and Japan's popular art collective teamLAB.

Indonesia is in the middle of its presidential election and ArtJog curator Bambang Toko Witjaksono said this year's theme was chosen as this "is a political year for Indonesia. Legacies Of Power attempts to discuss democracy by looking at the history of power struggles in the country".

Several artworks responded to this directly and proved beyond a shadow of doubt that Indonesian art is gritty. It is real. And some of it is not for the faint-hearted.

I have always believed that while pretty is good, the art I report on must sometimes provoke. And I saw a lot of art at ArtJog, even more in artists' studios and various art spaces in and around the city, that provoked.

Two pieces stood out for me. The first was a performance art piece titled Lubang Buaya by Mella Jaarsma. It made me stop in my tracks. It made me want to find out about 1965 - a moment in Indonesia's turbulent past.

The work, which showed the heads of two men with whip lashes on their backs trapped in the mouth of crocodiles made of crocodile leather, referenced the Crocodile Pit. It was used by communist forces to hide the bodies of seven army officers murdered during a coup attempt on Sept 30, 1965. The coup failed when the army, under the command of then Lieutenant-General Suharto, moved to crush it. The PKI, then Asia's second-largest communist party after China's, was banned six months later after a bloody crackdown believed to have claimed up to half a million lives.

What really happened during the 1965 "aborted coup" that prompted a regime change in Indonesia - from founding president Sukarno to Suharto - has been the subject of many studies and investigations. During 32 years of Suharto's reign, which ended in disgrace in 1998, the country marked the Pancasila Sanctity Day on Oct 1 every year and remembered him as the national hero who saved the country from the communists' attempted coup. But through its compelling presentation of using real men trapped, Lubang Buaya provoked questions about the past and unresolved mysteries.

Titarubi, who represented Indonesia in the 55th Venice Biennale last year, had a similar impact on me. Her installation, titled History Repeats Itself, presented a shadowy figure with fibreglass beads, acrylic sheets and lights. With its play of light and shadows, it was an equally provocative comment on power play, the shadowy undertakings to get and stay in power and the lessons we fail to learn.

Apart from the strong artworks presented, the entire city seemed alive with open-ended art conversations not limited or defined by the timings of open houses at various studios.

The thing that struck me most was the tremendous sense of community. Each artist and curator I met urged me to see another artist or curator's work. That is how I drifted from one studio to the next, one conversation to the next, over five unforgettable days last month.

Yogyakarta - the artistic and cultural capital of Indonesia - is home to more than 410,000 people and is better known as a base for tourists heading out to the famous Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes.

In many ways, I was reminded of Dhaka when I was in the Bangladeshi capital for the Dhaka Art Summit in February.

ArtJog opened a few weeks after the glitzy and much-covered Art Basel in Hong Kong, while the Dhaka Art Summit was overshadowed by the more established art fairs in India.

Yet both Dhaka and Yogyakarta showed me that the curatorial and commercial can blissfully coexist. As a model, both art fairs offer something about as perfect as any art lover could hope for.

From the boldness of the programming to the vision, organisers in both countries were willing to take risks, present fresh commissions and prove that such models can work.

If the Dhaka Art Summit had a clear focus on South Asia, ArtJog stayed even more clearly focused on showcasing all the fascinating visual arts developments in Indonesia. It is this focus which sets them apart from the more established art fairs.

I know for a fact that, like a creaking art Terminator, I will be back to see what happens next in the art scenes in both places.

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