Jakarta. The stupas neatly intersect in elliptical rotations with one another, leaving a neat circle around which they will revolve, just as planets orbit around the sun. Made by ceramic artist Albert Yonathan Setiawan, the spirituality and meditative nature of his work “Mandala Study #2: Stupas and Sand” is enhanced by their materials’ organic make.
“Albert molds the objects manually, as the touch of clay in his bare hands inspire him as form of communication with the earth. It also imbued him with sensations leading to a sense of the transcendental,” notes art curator Carla Bianpoen. “Albert is also attracted by the nature of ceramics, which requires extreme care in handling. He added that others may find it bothersome, but it is precisely the frailty of the medium that draws him in.”
The serenity of “Mandala Study #2: Stupas and Sand,” as well as the similar, more inward looking “Cosmic Labyrinth” with its theme of growth and destruction, struck a chord with art lovers when it was exhibited at the 2013 Venice Art Biennale.
Now, Albert and his fellow artists at the Biennale, Eko Nugroho, Entang Wiharso, Sri Astari and Rahayu Supanggah are out to dazzle Indonesian art buffs, as they are set to showcase their work in the “Art for Cancer” exhibit.
Held at the Ceramics Museum in Jakarta’s Old Town (Kota Tua) from March 17 to 30, the event is part of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo’s efforts to revitalize the district and make Jakarta a viable center of the arts.
Organized by the Indonesian Cancer Foundation and the Bumi Purnati cultural organization, the event is set out to raise public support and awareness for cancer research and treatment in Jakarta.
“ ‘Art for Cancer’ is geared towards the founding of a more advanced palliative treatment center in Jakarta. We hope to build the center over the next five years,” says Veronica Tan, the wife of Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and chairperson of the Foundation’s branch in Jakarta. “Currently, the public’s conventional view connect palliative centers with terminally ill cancer patients. We hope to create a center geared towards people in the early stages of cancer so we may be able to control the spread of the disease by improving the patient’s conditions and treatment, among other things.”
Indonesian Cancer Foundation spokesperson Inda Noerhadi agrees with Veronica. She also highlighted art’s power to heal.
“Art has a therapeutic effect on patients of cancer and other serious diseases. It has a way of relaxing the patients and releases their mind or imagination,” she says. “Art is also conducive in treating the seriously ill, because it eases the fear factor they might experience in hospital facilities, or the impersonal character that they might get from a more scientific approach. Art also has entertainment, educational and multidimensional values, making its appeal universal to the patients and their loved ones as well as the public at large.”
Keeping with the theme of Sakti
Highlighting the work of Indonesian artists at the Venice Biennale for the therapeutic purposes of “Art for Cancer” is in line with their theme of “Sakti.”
“In Sanskrit, sakti refers to primordial energy and the personification of divine, feminine creative energy; it also indicates change and liberation. Of Indian origin, this Hindu concept was quickly integrated by Indonesians into their local cosmology,” Carla said. “In modern-day Indonesia, sakti means strong creative energy, divine and indestructible that contains the capacity for achievement beyond mere human abilities.”
“Sakti [was chosen] as the theme of the Indonesian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale because the exhibition explores the inner, alternative power that is present in the creative struggle in Indonesian art and life,” she added.
Artist Entang Wiharso poignantly captures this theme with his larger-than-life installation art piece “The Indonesian: No Time to Hide,” as Carla notes is an exploration of perception and reality. Based on portraits of Indonesian presidents and national heroes, the piece takes on their contributions to the country. But the 46-year-old Entang’s work is by no means a homage. Carla pointed out that the lone standing figure of a woman alludes to the issue of gender disparity that continues to plague Indonesian life until today. The piece is accompanied by “Temple of Hope: Forest of Eyes,” a 14-meter-wide structure featuring reliefs resembling those of the Borobudur and other temples in Central Java. But a closer look shows a different story.
“Entang details episodes of love and deceit as well as contemporary issues, juxtaposing elements from [Javanese] culture with those of Asian and Western cultures. Entang also explores the complex and sometimes turbulent intermixing of East and West,” Carla explained.
Entang’s fellow artist Eko Nugroho took a different track to his art, as seen through his installation piece “Penghasut Badai-Badai” (“The Instigator of Storms”).
“ ‘Penghasut Badai-Badai’ considers the state of Indonesia, but in a manner that is playful, ironic and critical. Cartoon-like statues stand and sit on a raft of bamboo and old oil barrels. He explains that the raft is a metaphor for Indonesia, which is supported by its wealth in oil and other natural resources,” Carla said. “Eko also pointed out that the success of the Indonesian people, who have managed to grow and prosper while weathering financial, political and social storms, as well as natural disasters, is a feat of Sakti.”
On the other hand, curator Rifky Effendy has a different take to Eko’s art. “The masks and headgear worn by the passengers are symbols of protection and concealment and are metaphors for detachment, isolation and indifference,” he said.
But Eko, whose designs won the attention of Louis Vuitton, insists that the inspiration behind his art is more modest.
“I do not deliberately choose to be political or adopt political messages in my work. My everyday life in Indonesia is dominated by issues such as poverty, social injustice, religious fanatics and corruption,” he says. ”Its difficult to turn away from such issues.”
Jakarta-based artist Sri Astari Rasjid opts to approach the idea of Sakti by revisiting the Javanese values she was raised with. The outcome of her soul searching process was the sculpture “Pendopo: Dancing the Wild Seas.” For Astari, the stately traditional Javanese architectural structure and the graceful, life-size wayang figures around them is replete with Sakti.
“The pendopo i s a metaphor for the space within my psyche, a meeting place where influences may evoke disputes and arguments which have to be solved wisely. The seven Bedoyo dancers symbolize the Queen of the South Seas and the sacredness [of the pendopo],” Carla said. “The space is like the deep where the intangible power of the queen, or sakti, resides. We will find sakti by going deep into the self.”
The work is the culmination of Astari’s lifelong examination of the Javanese values that she was raised in and their subtle and ambiguous meanings. She also analyzes realities like gender inequality, injustice against women and repressed emotions, issues that Astari encountered firsthand and highlighted in her previous works.
Carla is certain that the showing of the artwork will go a long way.
“Most of the Indonesian public have yet to see the works in the Venice Biennale’s Indonesian Pavilion,” she said. “I’m certain that it will be a more dynamic experience, because the crowd and the more open forum compared to the Venice Biennale will bring out untapped energies from the artwork.”
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on March 12, 2014