A two-part essay assessing ruang rupa’s prospects for Documenta 15
A large concern in many texts of Indonesian mythology seems to be the need to raise the sky. The concern appears in the myths of China and Hawaii but the forms they take there are not as extreme as in the Indonesian stories, where the heavens and the Earth were too closely jammed together, that it became difficult for beings to operate under such a low sky roof. Even spears would get knocked down in mid-flight after hitting the ceiling of the heavens. Invoking the gods, the people called upon one of them, who had up until then always remained seated, to stand up and lift the sky above, with arms and shoulders extended.
A version of the story in the Philippines has it that people often bumped their heads against the sky, making them so angry that they threw rocks at the heavens. This so irritated the gods that they grudgingly pushed it up to its current position. That the sky should be such a persistent problem in mythology from all over our Asia Pacific territories is quite surprising. Animated pillars of houses, snails, worms, and deities: all are depicted as pushing up a low heaven over an inhabited Earth. And after that bit of a push, life in the world starts to look a lot like we know it today. The reasons for this differ, but it is almost as though, on one level or another, many Asia Pacific peoples tended to think of the world as a kind of shell that needed to be pried open. One last push or pull, and the world was ready for action.
The theme of raising of the sky in order for society to grow and function is just part of a larger mythology passed on through generations from grandmother’s tales to books for children. Most of these stories include both humans and animals who try to help each other and sometimes try to trick each other, offering a way to think of the issues and problems that beset the individual and the community.
When I learned of the announcement of ruang rupa’s appointment as artistic directors of the next edition of Documenta 15, the story of a people and their households raising up the sky came to mind. Not in the least because they made history by becoming the first Asians—and the first art collective—chosen to become artistic directors of Documenta.
I have never read or heard of anyone using mythology as a way to understand the implications of a Southeast Asian group organizing arguably the most important event in contemporary art. However, the impact of mythological thinking on the current affairs of Indonesia has been noted by scholars such as Benedict Anderson since the early 1960s. In books that deal specifically with Javanese culture and language, Anderson has written with great resolve that“anyone interested in contemporary Indonesia, its organization and social and political articulation, sooner or later comes to realize that in order to achieve any real depth of understanding for these phenomena, it is first necessary to appreciate the enduring and frequently manifest residuum of traditional, pre-Western culture.” This is certainly true with respect to ruang rupa, whose collective nature and esteemed stature, has affected how the whole of Indonesian art is perceived. In many cases, the legacies of traditional culture help to explain the phenomena of Southeast Asian art scene and they make much more understandable the Indonesian approach to contemporary art by giving us a sense of their worldview. These enduring traditions have conditioned the way in which all outside ideas, Western and non-Western, have been received, and they help to account for the particular patterns of synthesis which are woven into the Indonesian milieu.
Barring any delays due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, the next edition of Documenta will take place from June 18 to September 25, 2022. Ahead of the exhibition, the new team of artistic directors arranged a splendid living room for the new permanent exhibition commemorating the history of the once-in-every-five-years event. Aside from offering a preview, the new permanent exhibition serves as a definite demonstration of the connection between the history of Documenta and the socio-political events that run parallel to each of the editions.
The living room set-up consists of mostly green, mid-century furniture arranged on a dominantly red Persian carpet in front of slightly yellowed curtains. Archival materials about the Documenta are neatly stacked on the shelves in the background. The seating area has both a Buddha statue and television, as if simultaneously inviting audiences to meditate while recognizing the contradiction. The living room honors the origins of the group.
When ruang rupa started in the year 2000, the six founding artists Ade Darmawan, Hafiz Rancaljale, Ronny Augustinus, Oky Arfie Hutabarat, Lilia Nursita, and Rithmi Widanarko were just out of art school. Their first project was finding a space to work but they found commercial spaces were too expensive so they decided to rent a house and transform it into an art venue. This is the reason why the first exhibitions they staged were mostly in domestic settings: in living rooms and bathrooms. Bedrooms were made into offices and screening rooms. They moved several times until 2018, when they finally acquired a space that they bought along with other art collectives.
Above: The room designed by ruang rupa for Documenta 15 in the Neue Galerie in Kassel Photo: Ingo Arendt, Kunstforum.de
The preview of a typical Asian-style living room has fueled some speculations surrounding their appointment as artistic directors. Does the artist collective simply want to invite us to communicate and exchange—to “collaborate” and “make contacts”—three words that representatives of the artist collective have mentioned most frequently? Farid Rakun, a founding member of the collective who trained as an architect (M.Arch from Cranbrook) has appeared in a number of speaking engagements elucidating on their curatorial style. In a lecture entitled “Connecting, not claiming” delivered at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris, he told PhD Curatorial Practice students that they are in the method of collecting ideas for a show that continuously unfolding in time and space, “without clear beginnings or endings,” with a curatorial framework that goes “beyond staging events,” that does away with ownership and authorship. Rakun adds, “Any one telling, any one variant, can have numerous particulars, contingencies, and matters of happenstance.”
Months after the announcement as artistic directors, a pamphlet entitled “Wessen Freiheit” (Whose Freedom) subtitled, ruang rupa: Lumbung was published by the Vereinigung bildender KünstlerInnen Wiener Secession on their website. The document laid out Rakun’s ideas into five pages, along with an assessment of their past projects. An abridged version of the paper appears on the official Documenta 15 website.
Recognizing elements from Benedict Anderson’s study of Javanese culture in the two texts that articulate their approach, I was convinced that the use of Lumbung has deep roots in Southeast Asian mythological ways of thinking, in which the process of exhibition making or story-telling has takes an entirely different shape from what they teach at European Graduate School programs and depending on who is listening.
The disconnect between Occidental and Oriental mythologies has carried over to the misunderstanding of curatorial frameworks. Comparing the statements made in their announcement of their appointment, one can observe, at least initially, that the strategies of ruang rupa did not reflect the goals that the European organizers have projected in their press releases. Notable are the omissions to parts of the position paper that mentioned the Occupy movement as an inspiration and calls to horizontalize art world power brokers and reevaluate motivations behind foreign funding of contemporary art projects.
From the outset German critics welcomed the appointment with mixed-reactions. While some are looking forward to a fresh, non-European wind to enter the staid heritage sites of Kassel, many have considered ruang rupa’s appointment simply absurd.
In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), for example, Kolja Reichert was “very surprised” by the choice of an artistic collective that “does not understand and that hardly knows the Documenta and its history.” In his view, the social orientation of the collective isn’t that revolutionary. The art critic of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, considered the step “courageous”. Die Welt found the group’s “humanistic tone” refreshing. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung described the election of the Indonesian collective as a risky decision, that should however be welcomed, while asking, “Will ruang rupa show a strong art exhibition in Kassel, or will the next Documenta lose itself in a multitude of socio-cultural projects between Java and northern Hesse?”
Stefan Kraus, the director of the archbishop’s art museum Kolumba in Cologne, also has reservations about the decision: “I think it’s an incredible task for this group of artists,” says Kraus, even though he finds the fact that a group was commissioned instead of a single curator a “remarkable” decision. On the prospect of curating collectively, he said: “It protects us from one-dimensional thinking.” A DW feature on ruang rupa mentions a FAZ reporter who was sent to Jakarta to get to know the group and figure out if they were up to the task. The reporter came back to Frankfurt even more doubtful, believing that the Documenta is simply too big for ruang rupa.
The speculations of German critics are of course baseless. While I agree with the reporter’s observation, any serious scholar will disagree with her projections for success or her prognosis on the ability of the Jakarta-based collective’s to draw interest. If anything, the current coronavirus pandemic should prompt everyone to rethink the current practice of unsustainable mega exhibitions.
Indeed, there are practical reasons why the scale of the exhibition needs to be adjusted to the perceived limitations of the current artistic directors and not the other way around. The previous edition of Documenta took place in both Kassel and Athens under the leadership of Polish art critic and curator Adam Szymczyk who came under fire for going over budget. The city of Kassel and the state of Hesse had to provide €8 million in emergency loan guarantees at the last minute to the beleaguered exhibition. A few months after Documenta 14 closed, an independent audit revealed that the deficit was caused by overspending for a secondary venue in Athens.
Despite bureaucratic skepticism on the part of the Supervisory Board, the appointment of ruang rupa was hailed as a win for the Indonesian art scene, which had gained traction—and an apparent growth spurt—in the last two decades since the Post-Suharto dictatorship era called Reformasi. An observer who comes to Jakarta will immediately notice that both commercial and non-commercial art spaces thrive despite being surrounded by so much poverty and underdevelopment. It is likely that when auditors check the books after the hundred-day museum has folded, that the appointment of ruang rupa would be hailed as a win for the city of Kassel since they have years of experience in planning and executing high-impact projects with meager resources.
It is understandable, though, how ruang rupa’s appointment may elicit opinions of being inadequate. A cursory survey of their most publicized works in Europe caters to a wider audience with popular taste. This is evident in projects such as the “RuRu pop-up store” relaunched in November 2019 at the annual Kassel artisan market, where they sold statement shirts on topics like menstruation, and sold souvenirs like a toothpaste you can wear around your neck. Some of the strategies seem to be pop-art cliche: a map of the city of Kassel on the wall where visitors can mark important places in the city with stickers. These works, however, are not their main endeavours. The collective has continuously and simultaneously run projects with a network of local and international artists. A “collective of collectives,” they have organized exhibitions for the three biggest biennales in Venice, Gwangju, and São Paulo. Perhaps the most interesting bit in their profile is the establishment of Gudskul, a grassroots education initiative for contemporary art and activism. Gudskul is remarkable for having reached a wide audience, and taking the development of online classrooms that prefigure Zoom sessions during this pandemic.
While German newspaper critics seem to have never heard of the works that ruang rupa has done in Indonesia and elsewhere, most Southeast Asian critics have claimed some familiarity with the group in their congratulatory remarks following the announcement.
For the same crop of Southeast Asian critics, the Indonesian artist collective has already established themselves as a preeminent contemporary art institution ahead of their appointment as curators of the Documenta. Founded two years after the fall of the repressive Suharto, ruang rupa was ingenious in taking advantage of the newfound freedom by providing exhibition spaces, publishing services, workshops, research, and setting up festivals and events.
Contrary to apprehensions of the group lacking in knowledge or appreciation of the history of Documenta, Ade Darmawan noted how the endeavor started as an exhibition in the industrial German town of Kassel in 1955 to bring Germany back into a dialogue with the rest of the world after the end of World War II. The first Documenta exhibition showed the trove of “degenerate” art that had been censored by the National Socialists. According to the Documenta retrospective pamphlet, founding director Arnold Bode’s aim was to “reveal the roots of contemporary art in all areas.” Bode wanted to develop a genealogy of contemporary art, generated from a mood that might be described as a blend of postwar trauma and the will to modernize.
Sharing Bode’s vision for Documenta, Ade Damrawan said: “…why shouldn’t we focus Documenta 15 on today’s injuries, especially ones rooted in colonialism, capitalism or patriarchal structures, and contrast them with partnership-based models that enable people to have a different view of the world?”
The Goethe Institut in Indonesia has been particularly enthusiastic, hailing the appointment of Indonesian curators as “a new era for Documenta.” Indonesians generally have high regard for German culture, with a number of their revolutionary leaders, prominent artists, and past presidents being educated in Germany. In an official statement, The Hessian Minister of Education and Cultural Angela Dorn wrote: “With the selection, Documenta is consciously giving room to the non-European view of the art world and bringing the world to Hesse in a completely new way.”
In response, Ade Darmawan said, “We just try and work with other suitable artists so that they can help us articulate our expressions a bit more”. In the following passages, I will attempt to trace the developing conversation, mainly on the notion of what Darmawan describes as undiscovered expressions and artistic practices; how they have taken on the epic task of organizing a Documenta exhibition under the allegory of the raised roofs of the Lumbung in an effort to call upon the whole world to take heed and witness them.
I have identified two keywords that came up in the pronouncements on the preliminary strategies made by the collective: Lumbung and Koperasi. As a preliminary critique, I will compare these concepts to the idea of Revolusi and how despite compatibility, this word is never used or avoided in the context of Indonesian contemporary art.
The task of translating (read: diluting and sublimating) the above concepts and ideas is essential to the Indonesian collective’s curatorial function. Not even when Okowui Enzewor from Nigeria served as curator to what would soon be hailed as the first “truly global, postcolonial Documenta exhibition,” did the question of foreign concepts and their translation become a critical point in framing the hundred-day museum.
In analyzing Lumbung and Koperasi, which ruang rupa translated to a “collective farm,” (alternately: rice barn) I will flesh out the concept and offer a projection on how they might curate differently as a collective, how they might express “collectivity” and “community”. Through Revolusi, we will enumerate some of the issues that inform the construction of their curatorial concept. It is at this point where we will inject possible cues from Indonesian political history that shaped the intellectual formation of their artists and curators.
I should note before proceeding with the discussion of the three keywords that an extensive position paper has not been made public by the Documenta. A five-page version of their position paper posted by Secession in Vienna seems to be the original document from the one posted in the Documenta website. “Lumbung” is still labelled as a “working title” in the Documenta website. For purposes of discussion, I will treat the Documenta website version as the de facto framework that has yet to be substantiated with a selection of artists and conceptual subdivisions, and the Vienna version as the original intention and point of comparison.
I should also warn the reader that my proximity to the Indonesian art scene, having lived in Bandung in West Java as an Indonesian government scholar has only propelled my interest in ruang rupa as a distant observer. I have not worked or met with them personally.
Perhaps my own contribution to the dialectic between critics and curators, in Germany and Indonesia, is that I have had some experience working and studying in both places, gaining familiarity with languages that they used, enough to use them in tracing the conversation between Kassel and Jakarta. I am still approaching these topics, though, as a foreigner, who is confronting them from the periphery of the Philippines. What I offer here is a critique of concepts which I can only hope will be productive for the readers that matter most to me, the readers in Indonesia.
An ability to accommodate and tolerate conflicting norms and ideas, the capacity to entertain in coexistence ideas and values that would seem incompatible in many western settings, an unusual capacity for sympathetic toleration in social behavior—these are all attributes of contemporary Indonesian society with roots in medieval Southeast Asian empires and cultures.
For the outsider, such elements are probably most easily approached and understood through the traditional model of the community where the Lumbung originates. The Indonesian word is directly translatable as “rice barn, a collective pot or accumulation system, where crops produced by a community are stored as a future shared common resource.” Absent from the description of the Lumbung in the Documenta version, is the fact that it is not just an economy but also a physical space with a specific type of architecture. In the island of Bali, the Lumbung is not only a storage place for rice, the Balinese staff of life, but also a symbol of institutional prestige. It functions in a similar way to a social insurance system and a modern-day central bank.
Fig.2 Toba Batak Traditional House Prototype Floor Plan in Sigumpar Village. Photo: Traditional Buildings of Indonesia Volume 1 http://pustaka.pu.go.id/storage/biblio/file/1973_Traditional_Buildings_of_Indonesia_Volume_I_Batak_Toba.pdf
Let us take this description of the Lumbung from archaeologist Leo Aoi Hosoya:
The Lumbung is usually built on four poles, standing between 1½ metre and 2 metres up from ground level. The upper storage area often has a distinct omega shape created by bending flexible framing of split bamboo or betel nut trees to support the roof. The roof is generally covered with alang-alang grass and the sides are made of woven, split bamboo (called pagar). The pole support structure beneath the raised, enclosed rice barn is open with no walls. A floor or platform is constructed of wood and bamboo about 1/2 metre above the ground. This lower platform provides a convenient, shady place for people to sit and relax or for women to weave. In many traditional villages this lower sitting area is a meeting place for village residents where both business activities and social interaction commonly occur.
Fig. 3 Rice barn at Traditional Sasak Village Desa Sade, Lombok, Indonesia
Like the construction of Lumbung, the collective stated that they “seek to learn from their accumulation of collective experiences in directly practicing institutional building as an art form.” Thus, they are proposing not a set idea or framework for an exhibition to Documenta but a model for imagining and experimenting and executing koperasi (closely but not exactly translatable to cooperative), a model of economy. This will be based on “democratic principles of rapat (assembly), mufakat (agreement), gotong royong (commons), hak mengadakan protes bersama (right to stage collective protest) and hak menyingkirkan diri dari kekuasaan absolut (right to abolish absolute power).
While the concepts Lumbung and Koperasi are easily conflated, their position paper defines Lumbung as the model of governance for resource management and Koperasi is the result or goal of the entire exercise. This is the distinguishing feature of their curatorial platform: there is no bias towards a specific form or expression, a collection of artwork, or call to action. Instead, it results in the formation of a community, a koperasi, that activates socially engaged art. The dialectic between Lumbung and Koperasi will serve as the center point of the exhibition framework:
From Kassel, we are considering Documenta as a pool of resources, located in the city but functioning on a global scale through a contemporary art ecosystem. We deem Documenta to be the perfect partner for ruang rupa to implement a different model, and therefore understanding, of sustainability in supporting socially impactful contemporary art practice. To Kassel, we are envisioning an edition of Documenta that is based on the city and the systems existing within and celebrate it with several strategies that focus on current interests like alternative education, regenerative economy models and the importance of art in social practice. These strategies include, but are not limited to, a sizable art exhibition in regular Documenta venues, series of 1:1 real practice in Kassel’s public services (such as schools, universities, banks, hospitals, TBD) and public programs. This to-and-fro scheme by putting Kassel in the middle of the process is conversational, intended to give birth to unforeseen hybrid art praxis and forms.
Fig. 4 and 5 Left: a bookshop in ruang rupa’s RURU set-up at the 31st Sao Paulo Biennial, 2014. Right: An overview of the installation Photo: São Paulo Biennial
The statements above are designed to feed press releases. Overall they are great ideas but without specific examples of what a collaboration looks like, they sound vague or a bit of a bluff. A concrete manifestation of what koperasi may look like, however, can be taken from ruang rupa’s participation at the 31st São Paulo Biennale. Working with São Paulo’s urban geography, ruang rupa presented a hybrid architectural/sculptural structure. Describing the project, the curators of the Biennial commented how ruang rupa reflected the diversity of Jakarta and São Paulo in the hybrid structure, mimicking the urban sprawl that characterizes both cities:
“The vertiginous environment presents the different activities of the group as reflected through the meetings and experiences they have had during their time in São Paulo. By connecting to diverse aspects of this city, they created a kind of “trans-city portrait”—one that projects São Paulo back onto itself through the eyes of Jakarta-based artists, in dialogue with how local initiatives understand the meaning of being a collective.”
From this snapshot in São Paulo, we can imagine how ruang rupa will maximize their arsenal of artists and curators who work across many fields including music, education, video, community projects, festivals, and architecture for the upcoming Documenta 15. As in Sao Paulo, they will work with the texture of Kassel and make use of the opportunities that emerge from existing cultural dynamics—responding to what goes on around them— and reflecting it back to the city of Kassel. A crucial element in the success of the exhibition is their ability to identify individuals and collectives who work in the same vein and tapping on an international network that connects Jakarta and Kassel to the wider world.
The raised roofs of Lumbung houses are both an economic and architectural practicality that speaks of the ambitions of ruang rupa for Documenta. But the translation of Lumbung from its agricultural and architectural origins into a curatorial framework is more for the benefit of outside audiences who wish to understand how different or rather, how Indonesian, their practice is from other collectives around the world. Taking the account of mythological tales from the first part of this paper, the goal of bringing the work of their organization to a larger house with a higher and wider roof can be discerned from observing parallels between the architecture of the Lumbung and their curatorial proposal.
The typical location for a Lumbung is the village centre, which gives a sense of the vitality of its function in the traditional agrarian culture of the country. In many ways, the Lumbung represents the Indonesian worldview which ruang rupa tries to export and expand to Kassel. The belief originates from Austronesian cultures, where the house is a microcosm of the universe as a whole. The raised roof of the Lumbung was to bring it into correspondence with the mythology of ancient creatures who lifted the sky and created the Upper World that existed beyond, the floor to the Middle World inhabited by living beings, and the space beneath the house to the Under World inhabited by the dead. We recall from the description of Leo Aoi Hosoya’s description of the Lumbung, that rice is stored on the roof, which is believed to be a gift from the gods.
Fig. 6 Woodcut illustration from Kalimantan. Notice how the tripartite organization of the house in the middle towards the right is mirrored in the larger illustration.
A woodcut illustration from Kalimantan links the architecture of Lumbung to the Austronesian tripartite view of the cosmos. This concept of the tripartite cosmos and their attendant symbols or gods predate the region’s contact with the archipelago’s earliest known migrant religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Aside from archaeological evidence, there is also strong proof based on language use that this was a longstanding and widespread belief system. The Lumbung, along with most traditional house-on-stilts, may be seen as a mirror of how Sotheast Asian forebears viewed the universe. In the traditional Igorot houses in the Philippines, the carved wooden deities would be found in the attic of the houses, given that the attic represents the Upper World. The exhumed bones during the secondary burial ritual of departed ancestors are also kept in that part of the house. Some aspects of this belief can be found in other cultures as well but perhaps not as enduringly expressed in several Southeast Asian communities which still make and use these traditional houses. While veneration of the serpent, sun, bird, and other gods of Austronesian descent has declined, the entrenched belief in the direct relationship of the cosmos with the architecture of the house remains.
Lumbung and translation
In broad strokes, the Lumbung approach begins with the need to sustain a wacana (roughly translated as discourse) on the premise of translation by distinguishing among different artistic practices and how they relate to the formation of a cultural identity.
Fig. 7 Translation serves as the dialectic counterpart to Lumbung, without definite results. From a diagram drawn by ruang rupa explaining the relationship of Lumbung to the task of Translation.
Let us theoretically place the wacana of ruang rupa’s Lumbung in terms of perspectives. The first perspective carries the judgments made by external agents upon ruang rupa’s presentation of Indonesian culture; this perspective appreciates Indonesian beliefs and customs using purely external cultural standards. This is the perspective of the Documenta organizers and European audiences. Opposite to this perspective is the one espoused by a generation of artists and intellectuals who were educated in the West, mainly in the Netherlands and then responded to the accusations of colonial influences regarding aspects of Indonesian cultural heritage. This is further complicated by the succession of Indonesian scholars who wrote about Indonesian culture and society using Dutch or German, the “languages of the colonizers,” as a medium of discourse. Bahasa Indonesia, while officially the national language of Indonesia, is a standardized form of Malay that has the advantage of not originating or belonging to a single ethno-linguistic group. Most Indonesians, aside from speaking the national language, are fluent in at least one of the more than 700 indigenous local languages; examples include Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese, which are commonly used at home and within the local community.
The premise behind ruang rupa’s translation of Lumbung, serves as an example of the reliance on translating indigenous concepts to foreign practices, revealing its intent to engage mainly with outsiders rather than the local communities who alone were the “insiders” of their own culture.
In this regard, ruang rupa seems to be engaged in translating a closed circuit of interaction between contemporary art discourse (especially artistic collectives) and pengetauhan adat (indigenous knowledge). Language plays a central role; hence, artists who will exhibit at the upcoming Documenta will likely encounter terms in the Indonesian language and be asked to reflect if any of those terms and ideas correspond with approximate terms in their own cultural context. From there, the wacana (discourse) will be oriented toward their own local cultures and not to any centralized interpretation and interest.
A critical appraisal of the Lumbung should recognize the importance of ruang rupa’s introduction of ideas that challenge positivist art history that, in the end, privileges the imperialistic dominance of Western discourse. Nevertheless, we can specify weaknesses in ruang rupa’s curatorial framework, in particular regarding the use of Indonesian language in their discourse and the need to translate them. We can sense a self-exocticization in ruang rupa’s privileging of concepts that originate from Indonesian language to respond to an inherently “Western” or “foreign” format of exhibition making. For example, in Lumbung, the economic model is extracted from the architectural and sociological function in order to appear more comprehensible to non-Indonesian participants. This also happens in Koperasi, which is akin to the Western concept of Cooperative but ruang rupa distinguishes Cooperative and Koperasi, stating that there is an inherent distinction between the two without providing further explanation. There are several nuances to be pointed out in the double translation and ownership of terms and untranslatability of such terms once they enter local knowledge but such an outsider attitude toward concepts originating from their own local culture preempts the possibility of appropriating these concepts within the larger discourse of Documenta. Moreover, as the organizers have stated, the use of local terms “Lumbung” and “Koperasi” in itself does not constitute a curatorial framework, at least in the Western sense of exhibition-making, and its translation is more of an artistic method or strategy rather than a mode of presentation.
Lumbung according to ruang rupa
In the interest of clarifying or confirming the preliminary assessment of “Lumbung,” the following excerpts from various interviews with Farid Rakun will be presented in this section.
According to Farid Rakun when ruang rupa was just starting out the art scene, Jakarta was dominated by commercial enterprise and that “there was no such thing as independent artistic space, cultural space.” One of ruang rupa’s goals was to strengthen the scene by deciding “we want to do this kind of stuff,” referring to non-commercial institutions that make the art scene. “No one wanted to show us. There’s no space for us, so we just make our own space. But during our 20 years of existence, of course it has changed. The scale has grown.”
While the organization has grown, Rakun notes how it is also “always shifting.” With a revolving door policy, “there’s no membership or whatever, so people can come to our space. At any given time you can come to ruang rupa now, for example, there are tables filled with people that are not from ruang rupa working or meeting and talking about stuff that’s not related to whatever project that we are doing.”
Since the beginning, ruang rupa’s focus has always been on working on subjects that concern Indonesia or those that are “specific to the Indonesian context.” Much like their translation of Lumbung as a curatorial context, ruang rupa draws the strength of their artistic concept from the pliant nature of living and exhibition spaces. “We rent a house and then we transform it. So you can see which one is supposed to be a guest room, which one is supposed to be a bedroom, which one is supposed to be a common room. But the function somehow changed, like, transforming the bedroom into libraries and so on and so on. What we keep usually or we add is the bathrooms, of course, like the toilet and kitchen. We keep it intact and stuff like that.”
It was not until 2007 when the group finally decided to open an art gallery. Conforming to the functions of that space, they started to run a program but not necessarily one that is focused on exhibitions, “it can also be a talk, workshop, concert, etc, it all depends.”
Regarding their constituency, Rakun likens their job to being professional “networkers”. “We like to meet people, we like to talk to people. Not necessarily about serious stuff, art, politics, whatever but just like about everyday, as you said.” The catalog essay of Sonsbeek 2017 which they organized echoes this declaration: “Make friends, not war.”
While increasing in strength as the number of affiliates and supporters increase yearly, ruang rupa and its members have also diversified their focus and interest by founding other collectives and spaces. “We worked closely most of the time with a collective named Sarum also based in Jakarta.” Sarum Studio, was founded by another founder who focused on video and art and Documentary. Rakun relishes in the fact that “people are basically around us all the time,” and that their network spans “at least all the major cities and towns” in Indonesia.
Seeing their role as a national movement that coalesced in a core group of around ten members, they held an exhibition called “fixer,” that brings the focus on collectives in Indonesia and in their network. Rakun notes how the exhibition “is a very important milestone in collectivism, in how to read (contemporary) collectivism in Indonesia.”
They grew up at a time when “meeting regularly as a collective or a group was considered dangerous.” The founding of ruang rupa came in the immediate years of “euphoria” of the Reformasi era. “I think that’s how I can explain the proliferation of collectives in Indonesia.”
According to Rakun, the revival in the Indonesian contemporary art scene can be seen as part of “Macroeconomics,” since Indonesia is projected to be in the “top 5 strongest economies of the world in the next, I don’t know, 10 years or 20 years.”
Government efforts in tapping the strength of its creative industry has been modelled after the cultural policy of the United Kingdom. “The previous government saw the role of culture differently.” Rakun notes, however, how this is “dangerous in itself.” I’ve witnessed first hand the massive capacity of Indonesia where creative centers and art galleries have sprouted in the capital of Jakarta and in major cities like Yogyakarta, Bandung, and Bali over the last 10 years. The art scene became so big that according to Rakun, “they (the government) cannot dismiss it.”
ruang rupa has been known to work with people of any ideology. Their activism and social engagement is unlike those of any artists and curators I have known. “We never dismiss people in the first meeting, first interaction and stuff like that. So we’ve been entertaining their notion of engagement in a certain sense, up to a certain extent. Certain stuff, of course, we don’t want to get into. Certain stuff we can still shift, you know?”
Rakun notes how “underlining the differences,” which means setting some boundaries was something they learned through their “interaction with Latin American friends.” Last year, the Cuban activist-artist Tania Brugera delivered a lecture at the Gudskul upon the invitation of Ade Darmawan.
Their collaboration with international activists, however, also gave ruang rupa a chance to realize some inherent uniqueness in their character: “we have different sensibilities. We envy them up to a certain extent; that they can make structure as the forefront of practice.” Rakun is aware, however, of cultural differences that affect modes of activism.
“Coming from Indonesia or Asia maybe, I can’t say, that’s not the strategy that can work in our context. We don’t have that kind of antagonism towards the government for example that kind of stuff. We can always sit down with them. We’re not that against each other on a daily basis. There’s no violence. There’s less violence.”
Rakun says this is part of the fluidity that makes their activism more realistic. “I don’t know whether you understand us this way. It’s open for interpretation maybe. But we keep that fluidity on how to work and then content comes first and then structure comes later.”
The rise of far-right movements has also affected Indonesia but instead of treating it as a threat, Rakun notes how the far right also “sees collectives and grass roots movement as something in line with their agenda.”
With a tinge of sarcasm, he provides an analogy in how collectives, in the language of the capitalists are just like corporations. “They also see us as their friends.”
Despite efforts to reach out across the political spectrum, Rakun and the rest of ruang rupa have often been red-tagged and dismissed as communists.
“We see it as a danger, of course, we understand the danger. But we don’t want to retract from that kind of discussion. Yes, maybe we are doing this, in Indonesia at least, I can say that being a collective, being associated with communism, which is still a taboo in Indonesia up until today, to talk about communism if anything public event that’s labeled communist will be attacked and all this kind of stuff. Physical violence could happen if you label anything communist. If you call someone communist on the street that’s considered to be one of the highest insults.”
The hatred of communism is one of the traumas that current Indonesian society is enduring. Anyone that tries to accomplish something must mask their beliefs in terms that are acceptable to a conservative public. “But they don’t see it like that (as activism) anymore, they see it as a parallel to the stripping of the state. So, there’s danger in it as well.”
Sabine Schormann, the new managing director of the Documenta, interprets the balancing act of ruang rupa as part of their mission in finding examples of artworks that “actually make a difference in real life.” Their previous projects that have used “Koperasi” as a concept without overtly labeling it as such manifests a deeper undercurrent of political convictions. When asked to articulate these beliefs, Rakun says the concept is still at its preliminary stages. “We don’t know very much yet,” admitted Rakun, “but we’ll be working here for a long time.”
Fig 8 The Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) could hold mass rallies of tens of thousands of people at will but these mass rallies were crushed in a US-backed military coup d’etat in 1965-66. Image: public domain
The seeming lack of subscription to any single ideology of ruang rupa can be traced to a group of artists and writers, primarily from the major cities on Java, who came together in September 1962 to publicly call for art’s autonomy from politics. They published their Manifes Kebudayaan (Cultural Manifesto) in the literary journal Sastra. A detailed account of the writing of the Manifesto can be found in a recent dissertation by Southeast Asian studies scholar Amanda Rath:
The signatories and supporters of the manifesto were a heterogeneous group with certain things in common. Firstly, they were considered to be part of the still small ‘middle’ class intelligentsia (meaning from civil service families and usually Dutch educated high school graduates, and some with international study experience and degrees) in Indonesia. Secondly, they did not adhere to Marxist conceptions of class, nor did they promote or engage in the reengineering of society in terms of the poor and disadvantaged. Thirdly, they did not agree with the PKI and its political mandate over cultural production, or with the sloganism of Sukarno’s stateism. Fourthly, they were anti-totalitarian. Finally, they found little in common politically or culturally with those factions wanting an Islamic state. Most of them were drawn from what fellow signatory, Gunawan Mohamad, has suggested from the ‘young bohemians’ who pursued the ‘cult of the artist’ similar to that which emerged among the Gelanggang group two decades before. As a defense of individualism against the sublimation of art and artists under politics, the Manifes Kebudayaan advocated a separation of artistic production from the sphere of politics. Yet, the call for the separation of the two spheres did not necessarily assume art’s separation from its social mission.
Such allergic reaction to ideology from artists however would soon be tested by the end of Sukarno’s regime, thereafter called the “Old Order,” ushering in the “New Order” under the command of General Suharto who wrested presidential power from Sukarno effectively in 1966. Suharto seemed to put the nation to sleep by the massacre of communists, red sympathizers and their families. Backlands army units are reported to have executed thousands of communists after interrogation in remote jails. Armed with wide-bladed knives called parangs, Moslem bands crept at night into the homes of communists, killing entire families and burying their bodies in shallow graves.
Fig. 9 The fall of Suharto paved the way for a swathe of reforms in Indonesia.(Photo: Reuters)
As a consequence, Indonesia experienced the longest dictatorship in Southeast Asia, lasting almost 32 years. In 1998, a student uprising led to a regime change. Until this point, it was illegal to congregate in groups of more than five people without permission from the state. Darmawan recalls: “After, there was a sea change: people were finally allowed to talk more freely, and we learned so much in the new democracy. This optimism created a context for young artists to speak their minds, to form new ideas and works.” He emphasizes: “it felt necessary for the young generation of artists to create a new scene, especially in Jakarta.”
ruang rupa’s first year was spent delving into the Indonesian capital, as an urban context. In post-Suharto Jakarta, there was finally hope to create and use public space, after the paranoia of the previous dictatorship and a moratorium on anything “public.”
“As artists,” Darmawan added, “we also tried to get a slice of this new sense of shared, public space; many other collectives were formed.”
According to Darmawan their mission is to gather friends and allies from different parts of the world who are thinking similarly about sustainability.
We are questioning art practices and how to support them through alternative ways of subsistence, and asking what kind of experiments are out there to sustain ideas in challenging contexts: places where there is censorship, of course, or little support from the government, or little capital for art. This is an economic framework we are considering, but it is also about friendship and system-building.
The idea of power in Javanese culture, according to Benedict Anderson, is more about collecting and gathering objects of power rather than wielding it. Ancient royal houses used to surround themselves with magical objects to increase power. In this light, the gathering of many strategies or models for activism and art is in itself already the presentation, and the place where it is happening stands to benefit from this resource both practically and symbolically. In short, just as an artist collective gathers the individual strength of its members, the exhibition becomes a magnified display of its collective essence.
Again, the treatment of Documenta as the bigger house or Lumbung from where issues faced by other people in other places can share their vision is reiterated; Darmawan states, “it is an opportunity to take them on together.”
In its diluted version in the Documenta position paper, ruang rupa’s approach does not express a conflict in the cultural domain and is devoid of any reference to larger political-economic struggles. While ruang rupa’s interpretation of Lumbung is remarkable for using an aspect of Indonesian culture, it has not given the same attention to class inequality and exploitation that lurk behind these concepts.
ruang rupa’s use of Lumbung serves only as a means to accumulate various strategies to engage whatever issues will be chosen by participating artists in Documenta 15, these issues for now are left abstract. Though admirable, the lack of a specific agenda or solid curatorial statement tips the Lumbung dangerously toward a stasis or conundrum, which offers a false comparison by alluding to essentialist notions of Indonesian culture, history and society.
What is lacking in ruang rupa’s approach is a penegasan (Principle), which can easily be outlined to the development of indigenized socialist thought as eloquently articulated by Indonesian intellectuals such as the novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, or the radical Tan Malaka. A good start would be to take a closer look at the political thought of artists in the revolutionary movement for Indonesian independence, the Revolusi, in which a number of organizations spearheaded the 1947 Revolution against the Dutch. As stated in the Viennese version, the concept of Lumbung can then unpack local notions of class-based exploitation and emerging class consciousness.
It is worth noting that after the 1947 Revolution, a generation of Indonesian writers and artists continued the propagation of socialist discourse by tackling various social ills plaguing Indonesian society, particularly the continued exploitation of the working class. Their writings, however, have been mostly banned for the duration of Suharto’s dictatorship and have only been revived recently. In the 1930s, the establishment of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) from workers’ unions and peasant organizations, enabled writers of succeeding generations to combine social analysis and criticism with unionized organizing and calls for perang rakyat (nationalist struggle).
The collective’s use of Lumbung, absent any reference to politically-specific or even mythological origins, makes its use in Documenta part of an “outsider’s discourse” that cannot fathom the intricacies of Indonesian cultural experience. It must be emphasized that local constructions of exploitation, class consciousness and class struggle emerged at critical junctures of Indonesian history and these interpretations have been ensconced in Indonesian mythology, architecture, and artistic heritage.
Despite these preliminary limitations, ruang rupa’s forwarding of the idea of Lumbung already accomplishes an important task by challenging notions of exhibit organization, albeit perennially in danger of using diluted indigenous ideas because of institutional motivations or outright censorship. The need to include several voices in an exhibition is important, there is also the need, however, to assess whether such attempts are premised upon essentialist notions of culture, history and society. Disregarding for a moment their upcoming challenge in Documenta 15, ruang rupa’s contribution to Indonesian contemporary art will ultimately depend on their adamant refusal to reify Indonesian history and cultural heritage, which results in the unfortunate tendency of opening oneself to external influences from other cultural experiences.
There needs to be a statement regarding socio-economic realities that are at work behind these concepts otherwise the Lumbung that they will construct might just be an exercise in futility. The dialogic approach to translation and indigenous knowledge (which would be more powerful with an advocacy for authentic liberation from exploitation) is a call that is worthy of attention. Whether critics will eventually disagree with certain aspects of their frame of thought and action will not invalidate its timeliness in the task of opening Documenta to other voices in contemporary art. The success of ruang rupa’s organization of Documenta 15 will not rest on its capacity to create a shelter for ideas and strategies. Instead, their contribution will be judged based on how they have carried the full weight of Indonesian political history as a means to understand the plight of all repressed peoples in the world.
Post-script: The coronavirus pandemic peaked in Indonesia this first week of May and the Goethe-Institut Indonesien held an online forum with ruang rupa about their preparations for 2022. Recent developments have drastically increased the logistical demands of the upcoming Documenta, ruang rupa announced that their concept and plans for organization will undergo some changes to respond to the situation. Part of their process, their reflection on the challenges they are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic will be shared through a series of discussions facilitated by the Goethe-Institut Indonesien through a series of live discussions.