(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - When one is new to Jakarta, one makes the mistake of not telling the cab driver to travel via the toll roads. And so it is that while creeping through the city's tight tangled backstreets, the cab finds itself coming head-to-head with another car, both unable to give way because they are simultaneously surrounded by three dozen motorcycles.
But if the traffic in Jakarta is notoriously chaotic, the rich arts scene partly makes up for it. The recent opening of the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (or Museum Macan for short) as well as the fifth Jakarta Biennale are testament to the growing efforts to shine a spotlight on the decades-old and diverse scene that receives relatively scant international attention.
Museum Macan, a private museum open to the public, is founded by logistics and property tycoon Haryanto Adikoesoemo. His collection of 800 works includes some blue-chip ones by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, Zao Wou-ki, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Sigmar Polke, Ad Reinhardt, and others.
It also includes contemporary Asian works by Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, Ai Weiwei, Liu Ye, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang, Lee Ufan and Cai Guo-Qiang. Of the 90 works currently on display for the opening exhibition, only one is by a Singaporean - Zai Kuning's Massacre, a drawing depicting a tangle of human bodies, which relates to his concerns with the forgotten histories of the Malay Archipelago.
The bulk of Mr Adikoesoemo's collection, however, are Indonesian works. These span 200 years, with paintings by Raden Saleh, the 19th-century father of Indonesian painting (who incidentally also has a showcase at National Gallery Singapore now), to hot contemporary names such as Nyoman Masriadi, Entang Wiharso and Handiwirman Saputra.
The works are displayed in a sleek, white 4,000-sq m space designed by London-based MET Studio. The large floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Jakarta's urban sprawl, while the walls and ceiling merge elegantly into curvilinear configurations. The museum is part of the building that also houses office spaces and a hotel, located within the Kebon Jeruk district of West Jakarta.
THE 'INVISIBLE' COUNTRY
As a large country with 13,466 islands populated by over 360 ethnic groups who speak more than 700 languages and dialects, Indonesia has always been a trove of rich cultural idioms and practices. But as Lippo Group's director John Riady once put it in Elizabeth Pisani's book Indonesia Etc: "Indonesia is probably the most invisible country in the world."
The same could be said for its art scene. Although Indonesian art is among the priciest in South-east Asia, it has not crossed the Pacific in the way that Chinese and Japanese art have. Big art events such as the Jakarta Biennale and Jogjakarta Biennale typically attract regional art lovers, but not many international ones.
Part of the reason is that Indonesia doesn't have a strong museum infrastructure to showcase the breadth of its art to the rest of the world. Most of its literature is in Bahasa. This is a long-standing void that Museum Macan now hopes to fill.
Macan's director Aaron Seeto, formerly the curatorial manager of Asian and Pacific art at Queensland Art Gallery, says: "There's a lot of diversity in Indonesian art, and what the curatorial team has tried to do is demonstrate the relation between the nation's art and its politics, and how the formation of its discourse is also connected to the wider discourse of the modern period. Of course, after globalisation, all kinds of things happen and various type of approaches emerged."
The curators are Agung Hujatnika, an independent curator, and Charles Esche, the director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
Mr Seeto adds: "One of the things about the Indonesian art ecology is that there's a really good independent scene with strong artists and supportive collectors. But what's missing is a strong museum structure and a thought-through museology. So it's a challenge for an Indonesian artist to look at having a bigger show in a museum here - many of these prominent artists have done shows in museums abroad but not here. Macan wants to play that role that is so important to artists by giving them a place to have their works seen, talked about and studied."
On the public level, Mr Seeto notes: "Macan also sees a role in education. We think engagement with the arts is a lifelong one. So we're reaching out to schools, encouraging the teachers to bring their pupils here, so we can foster the interest at a young age. We're commissioning artists to create art specifically for children and families, and we're creating literature for them."
Intriguingly, the museum founder Adikoesoemo did not even make an official appearance on the opening day. The president of Indonesia's AKR conglomerate, who's made a fortune in chemicals, logistics and property development, has always stayed low-profile in the art world - a stark contrast to many of Indonesia's prominent collectors such as Dr Oei Hong Djien and Budi Tek. Instead, Mr Adikoesoemo lets his daughter Fenessa speak on his behalf.
Ms Fenessa chairs the foundation that funds and governs the museum. She describes her father as a man "who simply loves art and wants to share that love with the Indonesian people". His collection comprises 50 per cent Indonesian art, 25 per cent art of other Asian countries, and 25 per cent Western art. It will now continue to expand based on the needs of the museum.
Asked if he has a consultant or adviser to help him select artworks to buy, Ms Fenessa replies: "No, he does his own homework by reading up and talking to gallerists and curators. And then he makes up his mind whether to buy something or not. He follows the same principle as other collectors do: buy what you love or like - don't listen to the hype."
Meanwhile, in an old warehouse in South Jakarta, there is a wall on which Luc Tuymans - one of the world's hottest artists - has painted an image of a woman. She has her eyes wide open to almost comical effect and her mouth is agape in disbelief.
The work is called Twenty Seventeen and it reflects Tuyman's own disbelief at the political events of 2017, from the bizarre ineptitude of certain political leaders to the rise of numerous hate groups.
For the art lover, seeing a wall on which Tuymans has chosen to paint elicits similar disbelief. The Belgian artist's paintings fetch prices in the millions. The waiting list for his works runs into the hundreds. What on earth is he doing painting on a concrete wall? And what tool can one use in the middle of the night to cut through that wall and bring home that slab of concrete?
Tuymans is the biggest star in the roster of artists of the recently-opened Jakarta Biennale. The other 49 artists or art collectives, though not nearly as famous as he is, are no slouches either.
Led by artistic director Melati Suryodarmo, the fifth edition of the biennale is centred on the theme of "jiwa" (or soul in Bahasa) - something she feels is drowning in the neo-liberal order of the contemporary world. Many of the works seek to address issues beyond the physical realm.
Among the sterling Indonesian artists is I Made Djirna, a Bali-based artist who amassed more than 6,000 pumice rocks. He then carved faces on them, tied them together and hung them from the ceiling. He's created a house-like installation entirely out of these rocks with faces. He invites you to enter and commune with these agglomeration of "souls".
Siti Adityati, a pioneer in the Indonesian New Art Movement that made its mark in the 1970s, has filled a large pond with ordinary water hyacinths and artificial golden roses, a commentary on conspicuous consumption amid widespread poverty in Indonesia.
There are sections devoted to four late Indonesian pioneers, including Hendrawan Riyanto (1959 - 2004) who made groundbreaking ceramic works, and Semsar Siahaan (1952 - 2005) whose ferocious socially-critical paintings are the very pinnacle of art activism in Indonesia.
Singapore artists have a small but strong presence here. There's Robert Zhao who created a sequence of 14 light-boxes showing an old, large tree that had fallen near his home. The tree has been sawed into small, neat sections to facilitate its removal. Similarly, Zhao has "sawed" the image into 14 separate light-boxes, effectively heightening our sense of loss and melancholy for the fallen tree.
Jason Lim has also chosen to focus on a tree - specifically the banyan tree which holds significance in several Eastern myths and traditions. In his lengthy durational performance stretching over days, he is creating a massive banyan-inspired sculpture out of clay. It's not borne out of only reverence; the mature banyan's canopy offers shade and shelter for people and animals, but it also begins its life as an epiphyte, growing out of another host tree that it kills in order to live. Lim's work highlights both the benign and destructive sides of nature.
Besides Zhao and Lim, two other Singaporean artists are in the line-up: Ho Rui An and Choy Ka Fai. Ho has an installation which dissects theories of colonialism and globalisation, while Choy continues to explore the mind-body paradigm in the field of dance.
Melati, the first female artistic director since the biennale started in 2007, is a famous performance artist in these parts. Unsurprisingly, the biennale is particularly strong in its performance art components.
Among the performers is Marintan Sirait, an Indonesian pioneer who has been called upon to recreate a performance installation from the 1990s. Amid miniature mounds of earth resembling the mountains of Bandung where she is based, Marintan performs a slow-moving dance as a tribute to "deceleration". "By moving slowly, Marintan can reconnect with space and time, and evoke the spiritual and the transcendental," Melati explains.
Other performance artists includes Thailand's Pinaree Sanpitak, France's David Gheron Tretiakoff and Indonesia's Darlane Litaay.
DREAMS OF SUKARNO
If there is one work that's a clear crowd favourite, it is that of famous Indonesian sculptor Dolorosa Sinaga. She has created 10 life-size sculptures of the most famous man in Indonesian history, its first president Sukarno, to be placed outside the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics in Kota Tua, West Jakarta, which thousands of passers-by gawk at daily.
The sculptures depict the charismatic president in 10 different poses inspired by Pancasila, the foundational philosophy of Indonesian life that includes a belief in God, democracy and social justice.
The 64-year-old sculptor has even had her entire studio "transplanted" into a space inside the main Jakarta Biennale venue where visitors can see her finished works, works-in-progress, tools, books and various bric-a-brac.
Her Sukarno sculptures aren't just the representation of the soul of the nation, they're also the most Instagram-worthy.
Museum Macan is located at AKR Tower Level MM, Jalan Panjang No. 5 Kebon Jeruk, Jakarta Barat 11530, Indonesia. Opens every day 10am to 7pm. Visit museummacan.org for more information.
Jakarta Biennale runs from now till Dec 10, 2017. The main location where 40 works are located is Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem, Jl. Pancoran Timur II, no. 4 Jakarta Selatan, 12780. Open daily from 11am to 7pm. Free admission.
There are also two other locations close to each other showcasing 10 works: Museum Sejarah Jakarta (Jakarta History Museum, Jl. Taman Fatahillah, No.1 Jakarta Barat, 11110) and Museum Seni Rupa & Keramik (Museum of Fine Arts & Ceramics, Jl. Pos Kota, No. 2 Jakarta Barat, 11110). Tickets at the door.