Concerned with the lines that draw people together, curators Alia Swastika (Indonesia) and Suman Gopinath (India) establish a rubric for Biennale Jogja XI with the overarching theme of “religiosity, spirituality and belief.” Used as a trigger point, this loose framework allows for a selection of geo-political works that examine religion and its various social and cultural incarnations. Derived from Amitav Ghosh’s book of the same title, Shadow Lines: Indonesia meets India miraculously came together in five months despite budgetary constraints, limited infrastructure and diminished curatorial collaboration. Over the next ten years the biennial, based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, will connect the country with other regional locations around the equator. A refreshing and resourceful approach for the small biennial that has been running since 1988, this twinning structure avoids the complicated global entanglement of Biennale line-ups with their associated fatigue and duplication.
Ethnic and religious diversity was played out across the work of 40 artists: 25 from Indonesia and 15 from India. Each curator selected works by artists from her country with a generational disparity. Gopinath (born 1962) chose portable and existing works by mid-career artists with whom she had previously worked, while Swastika (born 1980) tended to include a younger generation.
Nevertheless, serendipitous connections were evident, especially in the configuration on the third floor of the primary venue, JogjaNationalMuseum, highlighted by collaborative duo Arya Pandjalu and Sara Nuytemans’s ongoing photographic suite. Birdprayers is comprised of cut outs of religious buildings that performers place on their heads in different locations, acting out the contentious domain of religious conflict and place. The most interesting works in the exhibition queried notions of faith and its counterpoint.
The second biennial venue, Taman Budaya Yogyakarta, housed a smaller grouping of ancillary works as well as information sections about the two participating countries.
On the opening night, performances enhanced the exhibition configuration. Artist Melati Suryodarmo was strung up on the gallery wall, her lower limbs protruding in a gold skirt and high heels from a dense black slit. Still and suspended, her body was the site of endurance and entrapment within a claustrophobic purple room with a chandelier. This heightened ambiance was contrasted with Wimo Ambala Bayang’s deployment of a black square motif in his detached photographic portraits of replicas of the Kaaba (the Islamic holy place in Mecca) in various locations devoid of pilgrims. N.S. Harsha’s site-specific floor painting of a celestial gash inflects an action painting with a spiritual gesture whilst activating the gallery space.
Jogja’s position in terms of political activism and resourcefulness was on full display during the vernissage period. Highlights include Jompet Kuswidananto’s performers dressed in military regalia and wearing uber cool dark glasses posing in the forecourt. Jompet’s defiant gesture is contrasted with Krisna Murti’s performance of a vulnerable and prone female dressed in hijab, holding a search light as a projection of rolling waves cascades over her body reminding us that no matter what religious affiliation we adopt, we cannot escape our shadow.
by Natalie King