The Equatorial Belt / Yogyakarta

Entitled “Hacking Conflict – Indonesia meets Nigeria,” the thirteenth edition of the Jogja Biennale opened on November 1 at the Jogja National Museum in Yogyakarta with a showcase of artworks by twenty-three Indonesian artists and twelve Nigerian artists. Flash Art caught up with director Alia Swastika.

Biennale Jogja XIII is the third edition of the “Equator Series,” following on from collaborations with India in 2011 and the Middle East in 2013. Can you discuss the reasons for choosing to engage with Africa and how the curatorial concept was developed?  

We started on the equatorial belt, working westward from Indonesia, and we are going to make a circle around the world. So we started from India, then went further west to the Arab region, and now to Africa. West Africa is interesting for us due to the dynamics of contemporary art there being a bit similar to what happened here in Southeast Asia. We wanted to connect with an area with a similar art history, and I think Nigeria also represents strong contemporaneity in the African art scene today. We also want to start relationships through government institutions; therefore we chose countries where we have quite active embassies. The Indonesia Embassy in Nigeria is central for West Africa. Governments are usually not involved in these kinds of art events in Indonesia, but it is important for us to show our vision to our government. The curatorial concept was developed through extensive research by artistic director Rian Rosidi and curator Woto Wibowo (aka Wok the Rock) on the similarities and differences between both countries in relation to the post-colonial experience and their experiments towards democratization. And this led to the forming of the theme, “Hacking Conflict,” to see conflicts more as something progressive and challenging instead of merely obstacles.

On a sociopolitical and historical level, Indonesia and Nigeria share many similarities: they are both post-colonial countries that experienced years of authoritarian rule. Have you also noticed affinities between the art scenes?

A strong community has developed the art scene in both countries, which is self-sufficient and open to embracing the contemporary spirit of the global art world. With limitations regarding government support, artists from both countries have initiated lots of spaces, platforms for knowledge production and art education. Recently, both countries are seen as emerging markets, and this has created new connections and tensions within the local art scenes. Artists are struggling not to be dictated by market domination, but at the same time, they try to express political thoughts through their art projects, to emphasize their critical stance toward authoritarian regimes. By doing this, they attempt to interpret their history and to manifest their memories of the past in the spirit of new freedom.

Can you discuss this in relation to some of the works by participating artists?

The works of Maryanto and Victor Ehikhamenor explore the phenomenon of natural resources in both countries, and disasters that are caused by gaps in power — militarization, violence and corruption. Ndidi Dike portrays the everyday life of the people, focusing on the market and trading, and how local economics are grown in the spaces between global economic market forces and the intimate relationships of the common people. Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina, in collaboration with Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, are looking into the history of Yogyakarta itself to better understand the genealogy of power, particularly in the context of democracy. Aderemi Adegbite, in a way, looks at the Muslim faith in both countries. The art collective Serrum’s project experiments with the notion of alternative education, and Olanrewaju Tejuoso builds alternative museums by inserting hidden and left-behind stories into central narratives.

Twenty-three Indonesian artists and twelve Nigerian artists have been grouped to work collaboratively. Can you shed light on this process of exchange and improvisation?

The curator has set up some platforms for discussion, mostly online, that have enabled artists to share ideas and offer invitations to collaborate. We sent two Indonesian artists to Lagos to observe the situation there and also to meet other artists in person. Now we have invited artists from Nigeria to stay in Yogyakarta for a month to create their works here and work with local communities. Along the way, many potential collaborations happen. So the collaborations are mostly based on how they respond to each other’s ideas or how they create connections from the different narratives scattered around.

The Jakarta Biennale, entitled “Maju Kena Mundur Kena” and curated by Charles Esche, also opened in November. The artistic centers in Yogyakarta and Jakarta play very different roles within the Indonesian art scene. What would you say are the defining characteristics?

They are very different. Jakarta has more complex urban problems, which perhaps one cannot find in Yogyakarta on such a big scale. Yogyakarta, historically, is more rooted in culture, education and tradition. Intellectualism has been a long tradition of the city, and therefore artists are considered more as part of an intellectual group. There is no art market in Yogyakarta. In Jakarta, for a long time, commercial galleries have dominated the art scene. The artist collective Ruangrupa, of which most of the organizers of the Jakarta Biennale are members, has had great success in creating an alternative movement in addition to the commercial institutions.

by Lucy Rees

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Thematic Hangover

For emerging Southeast Asian art scenes striving for recognition within the international landscape of contemporary art, Venice is obviously a major focal point.

Southeast Asia had little involvement with the Biennale until 2000. Since then, Southeast Asian artists have been gradually invited to participate in the various curated sections, and, for the past decade, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia have had solid representation with their own national pavilions.

At the 2015 Venice Biennale, a number of Southeast Asian national pavilions showcase outstanding artists and curatorial concepts. Yet recent cancelations, decades-long hiatuses and debates over fraught selection processes have revealed complex mechanisms still at play, and bring questions of national representation and cultural diplomacy to the forefront.

For the first time in fifty-one years after its one-time participation in the Biennale’s 32nd edition in 1964, the Philippines returns to Venice. Following a rigorous selection process, art historian Patrick Flores’s project “Tie a String around the World” was chosen by a panel of jurors out of sixteen submissions. Commissioned by the National Commission of Arts and Culture, Flores told Flash Art: “I think the government has realized that a Philippine presence in the global contemporary art scene is a timely response to the robust ecology of the local art world. This is way to offer a platform for that ecology to further thrive elsewhere.”

Developed out of prior research, the installation at Palazzo Mora explores the first film ever made about Genghis Khan — an early 1950s collaboration between Filipino artists Manuel Conde and Carlos Francisco. Flores chose two contemporary artists to work with this premise: Manny Montelibano and Jose Tence Ruiz. “I thought that the former’s video work and the latter’s installations responded well to the theme I was trying to cast,” Flores said. The project both speaks to the country’s current predicament in the South China Sea and offers a broader allegory about world making and the notion of possession. By choosing artists from different periods in history, from the 1950s through to the 1990s, Flores also attempts to introduce viewers to the history of modernity in the Philippines.

Singapore, on the other hand, has taken part in the Biennale since 2001; particularly successful projects include Ming Wong in 2009 and Ho Tzu Nyen in 2011. Singapore was absent from the 55th edition due to its participation being under review by the National Arts Council. There was understandable consternation and a momentary loss of confidence from the Singaporean art community, prompting an open letter, signed by some two hundred arts practitioners, urging that the decision be reconsidered. Singapore is now working toward a long-term lease of a pavilion space at the Venice Biennale. David Teh, a Southeast Asian art specialist and also the director of Future Perfect, commented: “Their system for finding candidate artists doesn’t always yield compelling proposals, and after the recent successes, there was apparently a sense that the field was thin. I’m quite sure that was wrong, and while I can’t speak impartially of course, Charles Lim’s pavilion proves it.” Curated by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa and commissioned by the National Arts Council, the highly anticipated pavilion showcases a culmination of the artist’s ongoing series “SEA STATE,” initiated in 2005. Referencing Land Art of the 1970s, the project traces the geographical contours of Singapore as well as its biophysical, political and psychological position through the visible and invisible lenses of the sea.

Indonesian artist Heri Dono is exhibiting the site-specific project Voyage – Trokomod at the Arsenale. It is only the second time Indonesia has exhibited in the Arsenale. Coming full circle, Heri was also invited to exhibit in the 2003 “Zone of Urgency” exhibition curated by Hou Hanru, making him the first Indonesian artist to take part in the event since Affandi’s participation in 1954. As with many emerging scenes in Venice, it is often the private sector that leads the way, in the absence of government support. Heri Dono’s project is organized for the second time through the private efforts of Restu Imansari Kusumaningrum of Bumi Purnati Indonesia, an independent legal entity that supports the arts. Co-curator Carla Bianpoen said: “For Imansari and the artistic team whose pursuit for culture is of central significance, it has been an uphill struggle. Cultural diplomacy urgently needs a well-planned and formulated national cultural strategy.” A cross between a Trojan horse and an Indonesian Komodo dragon, the Trokomod rejects Western hegemony and speaks to the plurality of contemporary art today. Bianpoen continues: “Metaphorically the ancient-looking giant Trokomod represents a metamorphosis from the depths of memory, rising up as a futuristic submarine within a spirit that surpasses mere pluralism and equality.”

Thailand has taken part in the Biennale every year since 2003, when Apinan Poshyananda introduced the first Thai Pavilion. Following the exhibition of esteemed Thai artists like Arin Rungjang and Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch in 2013, Thailand’s selection of Kamol Tassananchalee this year resulted in major controversy within the Thai art community. While the senior modernist painter has no doubt been a respected artist in the country for many years, he is relatively unknown on the international contemporary art circuit, prompting questions of whether he is a contemporary artist at all and debate over the opaque selection process. It is understood that the system Thailand had for selecting artists, which was linked to their national Silpathorn Awards, was abandoned this year due to bureaucratic in-fighting within the culture ministry. There has been no satisfactory reason for his selection and, unfortunately, almost no promotion of the project.

National pavilions are, of course, instruments of national representation. Yet the question of artist selection is arguably more loaded in Southeast Asia than in Europe or America. David Teh notes: “Let’s not forget that the governments of this region are predominantly still authoritarian. In many Western contexts, contemporary art isn’t primarily a vehicle of the state imagination. In Southeast Asia, though, many contemporary artists are still preoccupied with problems of national identity — partly because these are complex stories that some artists care about, but perhaps more because institutions and the market have developed identitarian product lines that have sold well on the global stage. So there’s a kind of thematic hangover, and it does affect selection for Venice.”

by Lucy Rees

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Artists in Residence on the Rise / Singapore

With Ryan Gander’s new print works currently showing at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, Koh Nguang How wrapping up his exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art, and The Art Incubator recently opening its 6th exhibition aptly titled ‘Residency as Method’, I was prompted to take a look at the developing trend of artist residencies that is clearly on the rise in Singapore.

The Singapore Tyler Print Institute was one of the earliest art galleries to establish such a program in 1997. With a strong focus on production, their model is also a unique one—a commercial gallery that directly facilitates the development of an artist’s practice and output. Director and Founder Emi Eu said: “The residencies have always been a central activity and objective. Back then it was called the Visiting Artist Program, basically to have the artist stay with us, to produce a body of work and have an exhibition afterwards. The gallery part was an outlet for people to see the works that were being produced, and also an avenue to make sales.”

Invited artists tend to have a strong conceptual practice. In 2015 alone, the space has already hosted Carsten Holler, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Anri Sala, and Tobias Rehburger, Shirazey Houshiary, Do Ho Suh, and Ryan Gander whose show ‘Portrait of a Colorblind Artist obscured by Flowers’ is on display until June. Speaking to Gander about his experience, he confessed that he enjoyed the challenge of being restricted to the medium of print. Armed with around 20 expert technicians at the ready, the endless possibilities of print mean that artists can take on bold new directions. Gander said: “It’s the only place I have been in the world where the physicality of making is the same speed as my ideas.”

A research centre that forms part of Nanyang Technological University and headed by Professor Ute Meta Bauer, it is no surprise that Centre For Contemporary Art’s residency program is research-based. Established as the second part to their ‘three pillar’ program of Exhibitions, Residencies and Research, they are essentially the beginning point of a conversation—there is no expectation to produce. Curator Vera May told us: “We support the idea of field work; of being here; of really understanding research and its processes, such as the ability to access archives or to meet with different people.” Allocated to an even mix of Singaporean, Southeast Asian and more broadly international artists who are selected by an international panel through a submitted research proposal, the seven adjacent studios are found nestled among the quiet tropical surrounds of Gillman Barracks. Currently in the studio are Newell Harry (Australia), James Jack (Japan), Arjuna Neuman (Australia/UK) and Charles Lim (Singapore), who will be representing Singapore at the upcoming Venice Biennale.

Independent space The Art Incubator, founded in 2008, has a residency program that sends emerging Singaporean artists out rather than hosting. Director Charmaine Toh said: “I think 5 or 6 years ago it was really about giving artists exposure. Southeast Asian artists are now getting invited to big international shows so it’s not so much about that anymore. The residencies are more a way to fund their practice and to provide a place to experiment” Currently on show is an exhibition of three emerging Singaporean artists anGie Seah, Godwin Koay and Sufian Samsiyar who completed their residencies at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, Bamboo Curtain Studio, Taipei, and 98B, Manila, respectively. Curator-in-residence Kimberly Shen chose to reflect on how artists respond to foreign locations through their work. Toh points out the unique and nuanced nature of the art scene in Southeast Asia: “The networks here are so important and you need to know who to talk to. Our role is facilitating these relationships.”

Grey Projects, housed in the hip neighborhood of Tiong Bahru and under the direction of Jason Wee, is one of the only artist-run spaces in Singapore after a number have closed in recent years. Their core focus is cross-cultural exchange through partnering with similar spaces including Platform3 in Bandung, Thailand, The Taipei Artists Village in Taipei, Hangar in Barcelona and the Casa Tres Patios in Colombia. Wee says: “We hope that artists can begin conversations with one another that doesn’t always have to have a gallery or museum act as the intermediary; without always having to talk through art history, or through the market.” Another part of their program is “a little more opportunistic”. They have a studio for a small number of Singaporean artists to work in whose work might be an experiment or where the subject matter is controversial and cannot easily be shown in galleries or institutions. Godwin Koay, for example, makes works about surveillance, police states, activism and institutional critique. Ironically, his propaganda posters created during his Art Incubator residency were required to be covered up due to a breach in funding requirements.

While the nature and experience of the residency differs from artist to artist—some providing longlasting and meaningful connections with place, others allowing a temporary platform for research or experimentation, there is no denying that the perpetual stream of artists coming in and out of Singapore adds a certain vibrancy to the art scene. As Jason Wee adds: “Singapore is a small place in the end.”

by Lucy Rees

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Art Stage Singapore and Singapore Art Week

Hailing itself as the flagship of Southeast Asia, the 5th edition of Art Stage Singapore has evolved considerably since its launch in 2011, reflecting the dramatic development of the Singapore art scene over recent years.

As the government spearheads a national push for the visual arts, particularly within the commercial sector with the launch of Gillman Barracks in 2012 — a cluster of commercial galleries in an old converted military zone — this year will also see the openings of the National Gallery Singapore and the Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris.

Positioning itself as a hub for the region, “We Are Asia” continued to be the much-repeated tagline during the week; the fair does lean toward more of a regional approach compared with Art Basel Hong Kong, which has developed a more international flavor since joining the mighty Basel group. Fair director Lorenzo Rudolf told us: “There’s been a huge increase in participation from galleries in the region. We have become a catalyst for all these markets.”

Of the galleries in attendance this year, 70% were from the Southeast Asian region, including Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Yet wandering around the booths, it was hard to ignore the number of big-name Western and regional artists working within traditional media — a reflection of the taste of the majority of Singaporean collectors.

The Southeast Asia Platform was the definite highlight and provided a welcome opportunity to see some edgier, raw and conceptual works. Titled “Eagles Fly, Sheep Flock – Biographical Imprints” and curated by independent Singaporean curator Khim Ong, it encompassed over fifty works by thirty artists. After spending time visiting studios and working with artists, Ong tackled the challenging task of selecting works from such vast and disparate emerging scenes by focusing on individual artist practices. Ong told us: “While there is no way to define a ‘Southeast Asian art,’ by gathering these individual practices you get a sense of what is happening.”

Considering the lack of strong institutional infrastructure in the region, Ong and Rudolf both acknowledged that a lot of art has been driven by the art market. Ong said: “I think it’s important to generate more scholarship. Of course each country has their own universities and some institutions that do that, but I think this platform allows for it to be exposed to a larger international audience too. It gives you the context, which tells you a bit more about the development, rather than just seeing it as a purely selling platform.”

New special exhibitions for 2015 also included the Russia Platform and Video Platform. Olga Sviblova, Director of the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, presented two video works by the much-loved Russian art collective AES+F: Allegoria Sacra and The Feast of Trimalchio. Video Stage, curated by Paul Greenaway with special selections by Chi-Wen Huang and Ute Meta Bauer, showcased more than sixty video works from the region and around the globe.

Outside of the walls of Marina Bay Sands, the whole city was abuzz with awards receptions, gallery openings and public talks revealing a concerted effort by various organizations to use the fair as leverage for introducing their programs to an international audience.

The Signature Art Prize and Exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum, now in its third year, is an award for artists in the Asia-Pacific region who have created compelling contemporary artworks during the last three years. Out of the fifteen finalists, from New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, the Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen was awarded the SG$60,000 grand prize for his four-channel video and installation work PYTHAGORAS (2013), an immersive piece that explores the philosophical notion of the unseen.

Another award event was the Prudential Eye Award, which focuses on emerging artists from across Greater Asia. The reception, which took place at Marina Bay Sands, featured thirteen prizes, with six categories of Best Emerging Artist using various media. The uber-hip Japanese collective ChimPom, whose work critiques aspects of Japanese society with strong doses of humor, wit and melancholy, was named as the Overall Best Emerging Artist. Future Perfect at Gillman Barracks won Best Gallery Supporting Emerging Asian Contemporary Art while “No Country: Art from South and Southeast Asia” at the CCA won Best Exhibition of Asian Contemporary Art.

With such a peak in energy and activity over the week, Art Stage Singapore serves as a much-anticipated gathering for many industry players and visitors across the region while offering international collectors an insight into Southeast Asia. The question is how to maintain some of that momentum and productivity within its own art scene after the fair. Ong reflects: “Hopefully, moving on, it won’t just be initiatives from the government but from the ground up — everyone will take the opportunity to showcase.”

by Lucy Rees

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