Pushing against the roof of the world Part I

First of two parts 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.



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