Art lovers flocking to Singapore this October will get more than they bargain for, as the fourth Singapore Biennale kicks off with its share of avant garde art and more.
Featuring 82 artists from around the world, the works are set to surprise, fascinate and even unnerve viewers, as they blur the wall between art and audience, with Singapore’s urban landscape as the canvas.
Themed “If the World Changed,” the Singapore Biennale will present contemporary art’s propositions for our changing worlds, organizer Linette Tan said.
“[The event] also looks at how artists and the audience explore the type of world they want to live in.”
Indonesia is set to leave its mark on the Biennale by sending ten artists to the event, among them Mahardika Yudha, Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina. The three artists recently shared insights into their work with the Jakarta Globe, including the inspiration behind their art and what they will highlight at the upcoming event.
Mahardika Yudha: Pushing the boundaries of Indonesian video art
The sight of the Angke River’s broad, black waters going past squalid slums is perhaps a fitting metaphor for a hell caused by the excesses of urbanization and industrialization. It’s hard to imagine that the river’s sluggish black colors which could well be mistaken for an oil spill, was one of the most vibrant Indonesian bodies of water.
“Angke means red. The name holds a traumatic memory of the massacre of over 10 thousand ethnic Chinese by the VOC [Dutch East India Company] in 1740, which turned the river red with blood,” curator Mia Maria said.
Video artist Mahardika Yudha has been shedding new light on the river, including its changing hues, through his work “The Face of the Black River.”
“The Angke River no longer lives up to its name as Red River. Now its pitch black as its delta in North Jakarta due to contamination from mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals. You can see your own reflection in the water,” Mia said.
“The dynamic reflection of the black river is a reminder of the dark history, the present environmental inadequacy, and the ironic situation of the people living in the northern region of the capital city.”
While it would have made sense for Mahardika to focus on the river’s black waters as a literal and figurative heart of darkness, he chose instead to focus on the drama surrounding the lives of those who live on its shores.
“One can literally trace the passage of urbanization as one goes down the river. Upstream near the Angke’s source in West Java, the locals can still fish or even hunt for monitor lizards. But those who live downstream in North Jakarta — where the Angke flows out into the Java Sea — make a living by selling scrap metal or machinery that can be found in its waters,” the artist said. The transition from living off nature’s offerings to making money from inanimate things is an apt metaphor for the change from rural life to urbanization, he explained.
“The changes in the locals’ lifestyle upstream also reflects the encroaching forces of urbanization,” Mahardika said. “On one hand they would hunt wild animals, but on the other hand they are technology savvy enough to use smartphones.”
For Mahardika however, the locals are more than just down on their luck, opportunistic inhabitants scrounging a living off the Angke.
“The resourcefulness of the people along the Angke is astounding, despite the squalor of their living conditions. For instance, they can make antennas or even Wi-Fi for the internet with pots and pans,” he said. “This is just a small example of how common people throughout Indonesia can withstand any crisis, economic or otherwise.”
Mahardika also found that this focus on the here and now extended to the locals’ stance on the river’s bloody past.
“The 1740 massacre is largely forgotten in the inhabitant’s collective memory, as many of those who live on Angke’s shores years after the incident until today are newcomers preoccupied with getting the most out of the Angke’s resources,” he said. “But their collective amnesia didn’t come from a wish to forget, but rather from their hard lives.”
A self-taught video artist who has been making video art since 2003, Mahardika explained that “The Face of the Black River” reflects his philosophy of video art as a collage and an ongoing process, unlike documentaries or films that are visual narratives.
“I’ve been filming ‘The Face of the Black River’ since 2011. Like my other pieces, it is a work in progress, with no beginning and no end,” he said.
Mahardika, who is also a member of the Ruangrupa artist collective, is set to have a number of surprises up his sleeve, among them by curating and showing his video art at the OK. Video festival in Jakarta this September. Aside from the Singapore Biennale, he will also show his work at the Brazil Biennale later this year.
Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina: At play in the chaos of the city
A burst of color unexpectedly fell on Jakarta’s traditional Kramat Market, at least from above, as a couple coordinated simultaneous twirling of colorfully striped umbrellas covering the vendors’ wares. The riot of colors orchestrated by them, which are as figurative as they are literal, doesn’t end there.
The two went on to cross the street on the back seats of motorcycles surrounding a zebra crossing. This modern day urban retelling of the Indonesian folk tale of the kancil or mouse deer’s efforts to cross the river on the back of crocodiles, strikes a chord with the millions of people trying to get by in Jakarta’s equally merciless urban jungle.
The situational works, entitled “Dancing Umbrellas” and “Kancil Menyebrang Jalan” [Mouse-deers Crossing the Road], is but a day in the life of husband and wife incidental artists Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina. Event curator Mia explained that there is a method behind the couple’s ongoing art project titled “Urban Play.”
“Urban Play is a series of ‘public space interventions’ by Irwan and Tita in response to the problems of the city they were working in,” Mia said of the project, which began in 2010.
“Urban Play is comprised of interactive artworks that spontaneously grow along with the process of the project. The aim of the project is to get the audiences’ critical perspective to the [urban] space and their behavior towards it by using ‘play’ as their platform. Urban Play also aims to make necessary changes to the audience’s perspective and behavior towards their cities”
Urban Play has already been performed in cities around the world including Istanbul, Berlin, and Greensboro in North Carolina.
“For us, the whole city is the gallery [for Urban Plan]. It’s not confined to limited spaces like galleries, nor is it encumbered by logistics to transport pieces like paintings and sculptures,” Irwan said. “It also provides us with a chance to be innovative and self-expressive.”
The couple, who are both alumni of the Jakarta Arts Institute or IKJ, derived their inspiration from the heady days of the Sukarno era.
“Art was an integral part of the Sukarno administration, as artists like Affandi and Basuki Abdullah helped him convey his nationalistic vision throughout the country. Unfortunately, the government’s notion of art is still in its traditional forms, whereas avant garde art is marginalized,” Irwan said.
True to their calling as avant garde artists, the couple explained that their work touches on issues such as individual freedom.
“One of the things that we touched on is the prevalence of CCTV cameras throughout some cities around the world. Their presence hampers individual freedoms and constantly reminds individuals of the pervasive presence of the state,” Tita explained.
Mia said Irwan and Tita will make at least four projects for the upcoming Singapore Biennale, including “Ten Years From Now.”
“[‘Ten Years From Now’] tests the audience’s ability to hold onto their hopes and dreams, by having them fill those aspirations on a questionnaire, where they’ll be stored for the next decade,” said Irwan, who hails from Ciamis, West Java.
Though Irwan and Tita’s work took them around the world, they still look to Jakarta for their main source of inspiration.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on September 2, 2013