By Alex White
D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) is a way of life in Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta. Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta — literally translated as “Special Region of Yogyakarta” — is a city made up of artists and intellectuals, located in the southern part of the island of Java, Indonesia. This special community has served as support and inspiration to many artists, three of whom are currently in residence at 18th Street Arts Center, in partnership with the Baik Art Gallery. Heri Dono, Putu Sutawijaya, and Kow Leong Kiang, though very different artists, all have one thing in common: their love for Yogyakarta and its collective energy. These artists along with Ahmad Zakii Anwar, also an artist in residence, are collaborating on a group exhibition which opened at 18th Street Art Center’s Atrium Gallery on September 24.
The community of Yogyakarta definitely lives up to its name. Despite very little government support from Indonesia, the community makes do by practicing “D.I.Y.” and “making a lot of jokes,” Sutawijaya notes. Artists collectively support each other. With an open-door policy, senior artists welcome junior artists. “We are all equal artists,” says Sutawijaya, “but in my heart, I still have respect for my seniors… Heri Dono is my senior, my guru,” to which Dono replies, “No, we are equals.” The four artists, though from a plurality of cultural backgrounds, respect each other’s practices wholeheartedly, and look forward to seeing the results of their collaboration.
Coming from Indonesia and Malaysia, the artists are very much informed by “archipelic [sic] thought.” In Edouard Glissant’s famous essay “Le Discours Antillais,” Glissant describes a process of creolization that occurs within the geography of an archipelago. He writes: “Continents reject mixings whereas archipelic [sic] thought makes it possible to say that neither each person’s identity, nor a collective identity, are fixed and established once and for all.”
“In Indonesia we learn about Western art, but we also learn Bina Gupta, Tagore, Laozi, and about our local Asian philosophers,” Dono reflects, referencing a wide range of both Western and Eastern philosophers. Despite working internationally — Dono is currently representing Indonesia at this year’s Venice Biennale. “We cannot be dictated by New York curators, or Paris curators… Indonesia is an archipelago,” he adds. “There are many islands, many cultures, many provinces, and many different things. We have to respect all these things.” As the artists explore Los Angeles, they have come to realize that the city in itself has many cultures and neighborhoods, and they hope that their cultural collaboration will both draw from the collective practice methods of Yogyakarta, and take influence from — as Dono calls it — “the spirit of Los Angeles.”
Dono is very interested in the different labels and perceptions informed by geopolitics, which led him to explore the relationship between globalization and local culture, between “East” and “West,” in his piece “Voyage-Trokomod” (2015), currently on view at the Indonesian Pavilion in Venice. An immersive installation, “Voyage-Trokomod” is half Trojan horse, half Komodo dragon, and towers over the viewer at roughly 25 feet tall. In the early 1990s, when Dono began exhibiting in Europe, his work was only accepted into ethnography museums — museums, which labelled his work ‘exotic,’ and placed everything within the realm of Western notions of the East. Just as the Trojan Horse conjures up acts of war, taking place from within the line of defense, “Trokomod” subverts Western narratives by exploring Eastern ideas of the West. The Arsenale, where the Indonesian Pavilion is held, was originally built in the 12th century to manufacture and store weapons, but later it was used to store spices, possibly from Indonesia and Malaysia. The exhibition space, therefore, is already intrinsically linked within this trajectory of East and West. Dono’s Trojan Horse, itself, is a weapon, but, here canons are replaced with telescopes. Upon looking through the telescopes, the viewer can see different European artifacts, such as a judge’s wig and a copy of Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.”
“In Asia, the terminology ‘East’ and ‘West’ refers to geography, not geopolitics,” Dono remarks, adding that, “the confusion about East and West comes from colonialism. Europe and Asia have no boundaries. It’s all one continent.” Dono explains that Zheng He, the 15th century Chinese explorer, traveled to many countries and many continents, but never practiced colonization. Instead, he enacted a cultural exchange. “He went to Europe and was introduced to industry, food, agriculture,” says Dono. By revisiting notions of cultural exchange, “Trokomod” looks to the past in order to discover Indonesia’s current place in the world. “Life is not about exploiting until all is broken. We must take care of a future generation,” asserts Dono. His hybrid creature inserts itself directly inside the heart of the art world, the Venice Biennial, and prepares to battle for an emerging generation of artists in Indonesia. This generation, however, has no fixed collective identity. Zheng He’s practice of cultural exchange has influenced the mixings of traditions throughout the archipelago, and it continues to do so today, making Yogyakarta an incredibly diverse place with a vibrant arts community.
What is the future of art in Yogyakarta? In 2007, Sutawijaya opened Sangkring Art Space, a contemporary art center comprising two floors, with more than 5,382 square feet of exhibition space. Next year, he plans to include an artist residency space with the hopes of eventually opening it up to international artists. “We will start with regional artists, perhaps Malaysian artists,” he reveals, nodding to Leong Kiang, “and hopefully grow to Hong Kong artists, and expand from there.” Leong Kiang, who is based in Kuala Lumpur, lived and worked in Yogyakarta in 2008. Inspired by the community, Leong Kiang has adopted a similar open-door policy for his studio in Malaysia, and very much looks forward to the possibility of another residency at Sutawijaya’s art space. The program intends to encourage a dialogue, where artists will be welcomed with the community spirit of Yogyakarta. Learning from his current residency at 18th Street Arts Center, Sutawijaya is excited by the prospect of further cultural exchange.
As the three artists prepare for their group exhibition, they are reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s travels to Java and Bali in 1933. Home movies depict Chaplin spontaneously engaging with the traditional Balinese dance, the same type of dance that inspired Sutawijaya’s “Dance of Remembering” paintings. In his typical slap-stick fashion, Chaplin struggles to dance, and, in turn, creates a great deal of laughs. “Jokes are a catalyst for discussion,” Sutawijaya observes, because they help people deal with deeper issues. Just as Hollywood came to the archipelago, in the form of Chaplin, the artists plan to take on Los Angeles, and promise to put on a show.
During their residency at 18th Street, they’ve visited several art sites, but have chosen to spend a chunk of their time, renting a car and traveling along the coast, up the iconic Highway 1 to San Francisco, taking in California’s diverse landscape and culture along the way. Inspired by their road trip, there may even be a spontaneous performance in the works. Each artist’s work is deeply thought provoking, and will undoubtedly provide a unique perspective on both California and the plurality of cultures within the Indonesian/Malaysian archipelago. Be it Sutawijaya’s dancing bodies in motion, Leong Kiang’s interpretation of a girl at Santa Monica beach, Dono’s theatrical animations, or Zakii Anwar’s photo-realist drawings — whatever the result — it will be worth viewing.
“Road Trip to California” runs from September 24 through to October 16. It will also be on view during 18th Street Art Center’s annual fundraiser, the Beer Art & Music Festival on Saturday, October 10 from 1 to 5 p.m.