The City Of Mind

Posted on August 13th, 2009 at 4:48 am by Akhyari


There are times when landing at Yogyakarta’s Adisucipto airport feels as if you’re leaping onto a dinghy in the middle of a stormy ocean. The room for error is very limited. Needless to say, you’re praying hard as the plane slams on its brakes and the surprisingly short runway comes to an abrupt stop.

Tumbling out of the plane, you’re directed into a narrow corridor that quickly gets even more cramped as all the luggage is unloaded. But then again, you don’t come to Yogya for the infrastructure. You come to Yogya for the art, for the ideas and for the energy that’s generated off the city’s hundreds of thousands of students. In the past few weeks, I’ve been shuttling in and out of this extraordinary place — each time more amazed by what Yogya has to offer. 

Arriving first thing in the morning on a recent trip, I darted off to have breakfast with artist Yusra Martunus of the art collective Jendela. By the way, most Yogya artists don’t appear to eat, instead they live off endless cigarettes and heavily sweetened black coffee, which is tough for me, since I need to be fed regularly. 

Still, Yusra is a thoughtful interlocutor: hesitant and somewhat distant. As an artist he creates beautifully crafted sculptures that seem to be in the midst of melting: solid and fluid at the same juncture. 

After Yusra, I headed off to see the Agus Suwage retrospective at the Jogja National Museum, located in the former Indonesian Arts Institute premises. I bought my first work by Agus more than 10 years ago at a show in Utan Kayu. The dark and forbidding texture and tones he used then appropriately reflected the turmoil on the streets. 

After years of observing him, I noticed he is a consistent artist — consistently paradoxical. With his trademark self-portraits and quizzical expression, he’s both serious and humourous. Interestingly, Agus is cosmopolitan, while somehow managing to remain firmly Javanese. 

Ironically, he isn’t a didactic artist. He steers clear of moral absolutes, though he’s fervent when it comes to issues of freedom of expression, perhaps understandably given his experience with antipornography activists at the 2005 CP Biennale, when his installation with photographer Davy Lingga was closed prematurely. 

The Agus retrospective spreads over three floors. There were some dramatic installations — a Frida Kahlo dummy hanging from the wall and miniature “Agus” figurines balancing on a tightrope as if taken from a troupe of circus artistes. From the Agus retrospective, I headed back to Alun-Alun, where there’s a show of Heri Dono’s latest works. Heri, like Agus, is a stalwart of the international arts scene, with his trademark figures drawn from an amalgam of sources: the wayang, pop culture and children’s toys. 

Heri’s installations are ribald and in your face. There are Dono-sauruses as well as the piece de resistance, a set of small figures of the artists Rembrandt, Affandi and others — defecating. It is quintessential Heri Dono. 

Stifling my laughter, I set off to Cemeti Art House (the cool epicenter of Yogya’s serious art) to peruse an exhibition by another Jendela artist, Handiwirman. Sadly, I missed the exhibition, but some of his work was still on display there. Handiwirman has a very unusual eye. He turns foam, wire and hair into art. There’s weird skin-colored resin in trays and strange blob-like objects suspended from the ceiling. It looks and feels revolting — rather like the American Matthew Barney’s installations. And yet despite the initial distaste, there’s something oddly compelling and tactile about his work. In fact, you are tempted to pick up the displays and play with them. 

Walking through the empty gallery, downcast because I missed the show, I fortunately bumped into a rising Bandung-based artist, Wirayoga. He was preparing for his upcoming show — basically an installation built around the idea of a faux exhibition in a temporary white-box space. 

Having retreated from Cemeti, I realized I was exhausted and famished. In Yogya, I tend to forget about food, which isn’t the city’s strong point, with only nasi gudeg prominently sold. Yogya isn’t about the physical or the tangible. Taking off from the airport and looking back over the flat expanse to the south of Mount Merapi, one of Southeast Asia’s biggest concentrations of artists, I reflect that Yogya is a city of the mind. It is a city laced with ideas and dreams, talent and hard work. This is a city where the boundaries of what’s acceptable are constantly being challenged, where nothing is as it seems. 

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.

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