Piece of Mind: Why Has There Never Been an Indonesian Artist at ‘Documenta’?
A month ago I visited Kassel in Germany to see “documenta,” the most prestigious international exhibition in contemporary art. I needed plenty of time to absorb the things I saw there.
“Documenta” takes place only every five years in an effort to only exhibit the best artists in the world — within its curatorial frame, of course.
This year’s “documenta” was one of the most memorable exhibitions I have ever seen.
The event included about 190 artists. Asia was mostly represented by artists from the Middle East, though there were a handful of artists from China, South Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and India.
Unfortunately, “documenta” didn’t feature any artists from Indonesia. It never has.
Is it valid to measure the achievements of the nation’s artists by how many times they are exhibited in major art events? Do we need to follow this Western reference system to know where we stand?
The problem is not about going to the West or using its standards to define ourselves. Cultural ideological debates in history have often shown that people are concerned about being distinctive, finding their own way.
But to measure achievement in this regard people must reflect on themselves, to see how far they have moved, and how their art practices enrich the global art world.
In a way, Indonesia’s absence gives reason to reflect on what is happening in the art world. “Documenta” and other major events provide platforms for artists to create works that are conceptually challenging, presenting ideas in a fresh and witty way with strong visual imagery.
This year, for example, “documenta” shows how artists are interpreting history on multiple levels.
Many of the projects showed a departure from the mainstream understanding of history, and developed a wider scope of discourses that connected the past, the present and the future.
Indonesia has a complex history that has shaped its world view. Historically, Indonesia’s contemporary artists have shown a tendency to explore political and historical discourses. At the same time, it is clear there is a desire to venture into new areas and create a world-class art scene.
In recent decades, discourses and visual forms of contemporary art across the world have changed rapidly. Artists create complexity and layers of meanings within their visual codes. The strength of the visual is accompanied by a heartfelt opinion on the topic and a willingness by the artist to engage in a substantial narration.
But this dynamic is not occurring on a grand scale in the Indonesian art scene. With the strengthening influence of the market and the lack of government and institutional support, artists tend to create work that appeals to buyers.
There have been improvements in the market’s tastes, but there is a limit to the creativity of ideas that the market can accommodate.
Therefore, most of our artists do not critically question their own practices, or they lack support to do proper research on subjects they are keen to explore.
Instead of challenging audiences with new questions and disturbing their established perspectives, artists’ creations remain decorative, giving the audience no option but to say “OK, that is that. Now what?”
An artist should pursue something visionary, something difficult to digest at first. Good artists are always one step ahead of society. They should spread hidden discourses that the mass media cannot provide, raise questions and be critical about what is happening in daily life, and ensure beauty remains in the world.
In Indonesia, we need more experimental art spaces that enable artists to work on risky aesthetic approaches. We need more grants for artists to conduct better research.
We need art history departments or courses at educational institutions that can be a forum to rewrite and re-analyze the context of our own (art) history. We need a platform to work together and make art a social movement.
This is what I am taking away from “documenta”: it has shown us how art can help us — to establish a viewpoint on history and civilization, and at the same time, to enjoy the beauty of life.
Alia Swastika is an Indonesian art curator.