Tan Malaka: An opera of absence

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Tan Malaka is a story of absence, mystery and, ultimately, about not knowing. The opera incorporates these themes into its very structure and communicates a subdued feeling of absence.

Throughout the work moments of silence — and the absence of the character for whom the work is named  — gave the audience a sense of incompleteness.

The opera, a collaboration between libretti Goenawan Mohamad and composer Tony Prabowo, was re-staged in Graha Bhakti Budaya (GBB) at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center on April 23.

Tan Malaka was first performed for the public at the Salihara Theater in October. The performance commemorated both Goenawn’s 70th birthday and the 40th anniversary of Tempo, the magazine he co-founded.

The opera began in the pitch black. Then a line of red light traversed the stage from bottom to top. A man came out and stood on top of an ersatz wood platform waving a red flag depicting the hammer and sickle.

The opera tells the story of Tan Malaka, one of the country’s founding father and an international communist activist. He wrote about a potential Indonesian nation in his work Naar de Republiek-Indonesia in 1924 while in Canton, China — well before Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta voiced similar ideas.

Tan however was not present when Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed independence in 1945.

“People say he was in Jakarta those days. However, the young people prepared the proclamation of independence, and he was not there. Tan Malaka did not show even a couple of meters from Jl. Pegangsaan. He was unseen on the Aug. 17. Nobody told him,” Landung Simatupang, the opera’s narrator, said on the stage in the work’s third act.

Nearing the end of the opera, text flashed onto a screen behind the stage read: “Reportedly someone was shot dead. Reportedly Tan Malaka was shot dead. In the Kediri area”.

According to Harry A. Poeze, a historian who has traced Tan’s story for the last 30 years, Tan was shot in Selopanggung, Kediri, in 1949.

Goenawan described the performance as an essay opera — “a form that maybe has never existed before”. The opera does not follow the traditional storytelling conventions, such as a linear plot.

As Goenawan said in the opera’s program notes, the creators wanted to convey the idea that the stage did not represent an illusory reality.

“The stage is the place where reality is processed and the audience is involved in the process of freedom from illusion”.

There is no dialogue in the conventional sense. The actors are storytellers. Without a plot, however, the opera becomes demanding on viewers. It featured neither a crescendo nor resolution in the usual sense.

For some viewers, these muted currents allow for contemplation of the absence of Tan Malaka during the country’s most crucial moments and his mysterious death. For others, it’s a lovely (albeit inadvertent) lullaby.

Nyak Ina “Ubiet” Raseuki and Binu Doddy Sukaman beautifully performed the work’s arias. The sopranos sang short poems about Tan Malaka set to music performed by an orchestra conducted by Josefino Chino Toledo from the Philippines.

Goenawan incorporated into the work the Sumatran folk tale of Malin Kundang, which tells of a son who travels and returns home ungrateful.

Ubit and Binu each sang in turn: “Once there was a mother who heard her son say ‘I came to be seditious’,”. Malin Kundang symbolizes Tan Malaka as the antithesis of the status quo.

Landung replaced Adhi Kurdi who portrayed the narrator in the last version of the work. His strong presence on stage made the audience think of what happened during the time of Tan Malaka’s absence.

.Whani Darmawan played the person behind bars. He tells of the idea of struggle, a metaphor for continuing the revolution despite imprisonment.

The Paragita choir of the University of Indonesia, headed by Aning Katamsi, provided supporting vocals while Yudi Ahmad Tadjudin served as assistant director.

One of the most important elements of the opera was dance. Fitri Setyaningsih’s choreography was slow and silent to the point of meditation. About two dozen dancers from Surakarta represented the common people, miners and refugees, in the opera.

At one scene Fitri drew chalk circles on the stage, representing Tan Malaka’s continuous effort in writing and thus shaping history.

Goenawan and Tony’s opera revives memories of a revolutionary figure whose life ended tragically.

Tan Malaka is immortalized in the opera. As the narrator says:

“I disappear therefore I exist. I am present. Tan Malaka will not die in this story. Maybe that is what I need to say”.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Sat, May 07 2011

An open heart

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To visit artist Iman Soleh’s house in Ledeng, Bandung, one must walk through an alley even motorcycles cannot pass.

Despite this limited access, his house, located behind the busy public transportation terminal of Ledeng, is the center for community-based theater Celah-celah Langit (CCL), also known as the Ledeng Cultural Center (CCL).

His large front yard, where children can be seen running around while chickens peck the dirt, is where rehearsals for CCL productions take place, including for the recent play Tanah: ode kampung kami (Land; ode to our kampung) presented at Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center in Cikini, Central Jakarta.

The theater community stages performances there around three to four times a year. Iman said they also hold surveys and perform in different villages to bring art closer to the people.

“I am not against art and cultural spaces but I think that art should come to the people,” he said.

Iman, 47, a seasoned theater player who has joined different theater companies in Japan, France, the Reunion Islands and Australia, said cultural centers should be built near narrow alleyways where people live.

“Even in the most densely populated area… That’s where cultural centers should be built,” he said at Taman Ismail Marzuki recently. Iman was in Jakarta recently to prepare for the play Tanah.

His area in Ledeng has traditionally been an arts and cultural hub, Iman said. The terminal building in Ledeng changed the social landscape there with the communities that grew around it.

However, it isn’t the government that initiated any arts or culture conservation projects there. Iman explained the leader of his neighborhood was a puppet master; not far from his house lived a calung (traditional Sundanese bamboo musical instrument) player, and a bringbrung (traditional Sundanese percussion) player. A traditional Sundanese martial art pencak silat center is located near his house too.

“These rich culture and art communities should not disappear into thin air because they are the ones who bring art closer to the people,” he said. “We are the ones who become snobbish and make barriers because we want it to be representative. I think art should be representative, not the building,” he said.

That is why he opened his house to CCL.

Many have often wondered how his family can retain privacy in his very open home.

“If you want your lives to be beneficial to other people, you have to open your house [to them],” he said.

“Don’t be stingy with what you have if you want to give your life to people.”

During Iman’s childhood, one of his neighbors used to leave a water jug in front of her house for people who were thirsty.

“I would walk pass her house and drink her water and then shout ‘Hatur nuhun bu!’,” he said, which means thank you in Sundanese.

For the play Tanah, 25 people stayed in his living room. “But they are so diligent,” he said. “Learning about art is learning about life. When learning about beauty, the first thing you have to do is learn about cleanliness,” he said.

Iman plans to set up a small library so children can come and read there.

Before the center was called Celah-celah Langit, the place was already a hub for Bandung artists. Iman said poet Acep Zamzam Noor, painter Tisna Sanjaya used to hang out there. It was named Gang Bapak Eni Community, after the name of the street. After the fall of president Soeharto in 1998, the community was called Celah-celah Langit. “Because we can see the sky from the front yard,” Iman said.

A group of international actors from Germany, Brazil, Australia, Japan, in 2007 stayed with CCL for three months in an Indonesia-Australia collaboration between CCL and the Sidetrack performance group.

Their collaboration gave birth to a play called Tangled Garden directed by Brazilian Carlos Gomez.

Iman said he grew up surrounded by the arts in Ledeng. The idea of studying theater came to him when he was studying acting and then directing at the Indonesian Arts College (STSI) — now the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI). He is currently taking a postgraduate degree at the Jakarta Arts Institute.

He joined the Studi Klub Teater in Bandung and then Teater Kecil headed by Arifin C Noor before travelling around the world.

During his travels, he saw there was a gap between the arts and people in many countries.

“I don’t want Indonesia to be like that,” he said. That is why CCL often performs in villages, to bring art closer to the people he said.

“Art should be representative,” he said. That is why he always starts from facts when creating art.

Iman likes to talk to people around him. After the dawn prayer at the mosque, he goes to the public transportation terminal and has coffee with the buskers there.

“That way we can know what they are worried about,” he said.

CCL is preparing three productions at the moment, including a children’s play, Iman said.

Iman puts these plays together to preserve local art. “Art is the main ingredient in a social world. I don’t want our lives in Ledeng to be dry”.

Iman added that CCL had received support this year from Kelola Foundation, a not-for-profit organization on art and culture, and the Theater Embassy from the Netherlands. “Last year we just managed on our own.”

“The government and the private sector are very stingy. But we don’t need to get upset about this. It’s
OK. If we want to build a community we have to think this way: Forget the existence or absence of  the government. Forget the existence or absence of the private sector. If you can manage on your own, just do it.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Wed, May 04 2011

Our land, our people

Powerful voices: Without the help of microphones, the actors rely on the strength of their voices during the performance. Antara/Agus Bebeng
Powerful voices: Without the help of microphones, the actors rely on the strength of their voices during the performance. Antara/Agus Bebeng

The ground beneath our feet is the foundation of our lives. Last Friday night’s performance of community-based theater Celah-celah Langit (CCL) was a poignant representation of how people are losing their life foundations — their home and livelihood — by selling land to greedy property developers.

At Sanggar Baru in Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural space, 15 Central Jakarta actors enacted Tanah: ode kampung kami (Land: ode to our kampung) in a powerful one hour 10 minutes performance.

Accompanied by music from traditional Sundanese musical instruments, the actors told a story through 13 scenes of roaring dialogue and energetic dance moves.

The actors, dressed in black, showed physical and audio strength in their performance. They moved in movements that were slightly acrobatic, showing their bamboo pole skills.

They began the play with a jovial funny scene in which they were enjoying themselves in the fields.

What belongs to the people: Tanah: ode kampung kami (Land: ode to our kampung), a powerful 1 hour 10 minutes play that was presented last weekend at Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) cultural space, delves into the issue of land. Courtesy of Celah-celah Langit

Without the help of microphones, the actors relied on the strength of their voices. Holding dry rice leaves, they talked about the importance of land. The only female actor, Anita Bintang, who played the mother, a metaphor of the land, recited the poem Tanah ode kampung kami: Land is the beginning/in land we exist/we are the land/hurting the land hurts ourselves/pleasing the land pleases ourselves/don’t sell your land/selling the land sells ourselves/selling land sells your mother.

In the next scene, the actors held a big bamboo pole together close to their chests. The mother hung on to the bamboo pole using her arms and legs, outstretched.

The story portrayed two men luring people to sell their land. They told the landowner he could spend the money to go on the haj pilgrimage. “Tell all your neighbors. The whole village can go on the haj and to heaven together,” a land broker said.

One person did not want to sell his land and tried to persuade the others not to sell theirs. But his efforts were to no avail. The mother was surrounded by tall bamboo, representing the buildings and skyscrapers. “My children!,” she cried out.

Each actor then dropped the bamboo poles until they surrounded Anita. She was then lifted up and left to die.
Angry faces: Actors from the Tanah play perform at TIM cultural space in Jakarta last Friday. Antara/Agus Bebeng

The play is an adaptation of the voices of the people of Lembang, Bandung. The hilly area in Bandung has undergone many transformations over the years with many  businesspeople buying up the land there.

Iman Soleh, director of the play and founder of Celah-celah Langit or also known as Ledeng Cultural Center, prepared this production as a theater for development and educational project supported by Kelola Foundation, an NGO for the arts and culture and the Theater Embassy from the Netherlands.

In November 2010, he held a writing workshop with the people of Lembang to determine their opinions on the land issue. These 25 compiled texts were then discussed and adapted into a play.

“Art should always start from facts. If it do not come from facts we are detached from the problems of the people. What good is art when it is detached from the people’s concerns,” he said.

This makes the process of playwriting a long one, but Iman said they just had to be patient. “We talk to them about what they want to convey. ‘I will make art so that your message can be delivered’,” Iman said.

Egbert Wits, the coordinator for theater for development and education from the Theater Embassy, said the production aimed to “give a voice to the people through art”. The workshops of theater for development can give the people new skills such as writing, poetry reading, singing and dancing.

Wits added that theater for development aimed to stimulate dialogue between people about the issues communicated in the play.

Iman added that the story of Lembang was only an aperçu, which fit into the bigger problem of land in general. “Is there land for the people?” he asked. “People come to Jakarta and big cities because they don’t have anything in their villages,” he said.

He pointed out that land rights were given to only a few big companies who claimed they created jobs, while the government did not empower the people with land.

“I ask, do [the companies] guarantee their laborers good welfare? Young people no longer want to be farmers,” Iman said, adding that this was because they could not survive in this trade.

The play is presented in Jakarta, Iman said, because the capital also had its own unique land problems. “There are 1,007 land cases in Jakarta and 125 are unresolved,” he said.

Iman, a theater performer, who has joined various theater groups in Japan, the Philippines, France, Reunion Island and many other countries, founded the CCL community. The CCL creative process takes place in his front yard in Ledeng, Bandung. He witnessed his father’s village in Cigondewah convert from paddy fields into an industrial area. He also saw how the Ledeng public transportation terminal transformed the area into an arts hub.

The area is home to hundreds of university students renting boarding rooms, Ledeng residents, vendors, buskers and children. Iman said they usually performed in villages to bring the art closer to the people. Iman said that most actors in the play were university students.

Tanah will be presented in Jatiwangi as well as Lembang, Bandung.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Entertainment | Wed, May 04 201

Jean-Gabriel Périot: Telling stories through archives

JP/Prodita Sabarini
JP/Prodita Sabarini

French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot can turn a seemingly boring collection of archives into a moving story that will be forever etched in your memory.

After watching Périot’s short movies, one will find it difficult not to feel a chilling sensation that lingers on.

Using contemporary and historical still photo and videos, Périot tells stories by creating a collage of archives. With precise and tight editing, he creates sequences of pictures that become social critiques on labor conditions, war atrocities, persecution, revenge and violence against women. His works always touch upon the issue of violence, which stems from his ever-questioning of it.

The Jakarta Post met with the artist recently after a screening and discussion of his works at the Jakarta Art Institute. The award-winning filmmaker is in Indonesia for art space Ruangrupa’s 10th anniversary’s art festival “Decompression #10”.

Sipping a black coffee, Périot talked about his filmmaking, political leanings, works, and what he would do if he ran out of things to say through movies.

Périot’s works are mostly political, be it a critique on the plight of laborers in capitalist systems as seen in his 2003 film We Are Winning, Don’t Forget; violence against women through his reinterpretation of historical footage of Parisians shaving women bald for allegedly working as prostitutes for German soldiers during World War II in Even if She Had Been a Criminal…; and the gradual change of the city of Hiroshima before and after the bombing in 200,000 Phantoms.

“My films broach different topics, but there is always a question of violence, be it violence in war or contemporary violence in work and poverty,” Périot said.

“Because there is something I can’t understand about violence,” he said, adding that he could never fathom why civilians had to die in war.

His 2005 film Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), a poetic movie of a journey through roads and railways is a metaphor on life and death. He first came up with the idea for the film as he was preparing a movie on civilians who died at war. He started by looking at archives of concentration camps, but the visuals were too disturbing and violent.

“It was impossible to edit,” he said. In the end, he looked at memorials and eventually decided to make a film that would recount the journey of life.

“It’s a metaphor of life. We’re here traveling and at a certain point we will die without knowing.”

His film Even if She Had Been a Criminal… highlights the humiliation and violence women faced in France after country’s liberation from the German occupation during the World War II.

This complex film starts off with scenes of war unraveling at high speed and then slows down as Périot focuses on footage of people smiling and holding up victory signs. Later, the audience understands the bigger picture as they realize that the people smiling are in fact laughing at women being humiliated in public, shaved bald and paraded on the streets of Paris.

The women were accused of being prostitutes for Nazi soldiers during the German occupation.

He places the emphasis not so much on the reasons behind the women being shaved bold, but on the public’s trial of the women. There is an element of revenge targeted at the powerless and also discrimination against women.

“For me, as soon as you are liberated, and then you commit some kind of act against the law, you just repeat what you were liberated from,” he said. The shaving also reflected violence against women’s sexuality as men were not punished for having sexual relations with the “enemy”.

A self-proclaimed lefty, Périot said it was natural for him to be a feminist.

“When you are from the left, you are closer to the oppressed; women are part of the group of oppressed,” he said.

He thinks his artistic endeavor in short films might be fueled by feelings of guilt for not being a “real” activist.

Born in 1974, Périot started making films when he was 24. “Quite late,” he said. He started out as an editor and worked with archives.

Besides enjoying working with archives, Périot had a practical reason for using them.

“It allowed me to work alone and without money,” he said, adding he did not want to spend time searching for funds to finance a film project.

Every time he is in the middle of a producing a film, he thinks it might be the last film he will make.

“Because one day I might have said all that I wanted to say,” he said.

At the moment though, he is working on two ongoing projects, a fiction short film with real actors and a feature-length film about the Red Army Fraktion (RAF), a guerrilla group active for 30 years in Germany.

He has been working on this project for the last three years. Périot thinks it might take him another three years to finish the movie.

He will quit making films if he one day run out of ideas. “If I don’t have a reason to make movie, then I would not make movie,” he said.

“Because there are better things to do in life; Perhaps [I’ll] be an activist.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Tue, January 11 2011

Edward Hutabarat: A passion for batik

JP/Adi Wahono
JP/Adi Wahono

Designer Edward Hutabarat’s favorite way to spend the weekend is to go to the airport, buy a ticket to any domestic destination and go wherever the plane takes him.

The 52-year-old designer simply loves to travel. Although he owns a mansion in South Jakarta and his store PartOne is located in Pacific Place Mall, he’s never felt at home in the city. “Jakarta is not for me. It’s where my business is,” he said in Pekalongan.

The designer added that he knew of 200 places in Indonesia where he could visit friends. which include local batik and ikat producers, rattan basket weavers, silver jewelry producers and even cake producers.

His love of Indonesia has taken him to all corners of the archipelago, from  Kalimantan, where he witnessed Dayak women weave rattan into a basket, to Pekalongan where he watched batik artists paint with their canting, and Madura where he saw cows being dressed up for the Sapi Sonok festival.

His design studio in Pekalongan overlooks a beautiful rice paddy near the workshop of Nur Cahyo, a local batik producer he collaborates with. He invited The Jakarta Post to explore the world behind the batik he uses in his pieces.

Cahyo’s workshop is located in a lush green area. “The view is amazing! Where can you see something like this? The green grass, the bamboo fence, the angsana trees…” his voice trailed off.

“Jakarta is ugly,” he added.

The designer who revived Indonesia’s interest in its kebaya and batik and who has clocked 30 years in the fashion designing industry plans on making masterpieces using hand-painted batik.

Passionate about batik, he spares no niceties when it comes to fashion shows that have made batik look like a item for a costume party. “Big curly hair, heavy make up, appliqués, boots,” he said. “It’s just too much.”

“Batik should be modern and simple. The process behind the making of batik is extravagant enough.”

His love of Indonesia and its diverse ethnic cultures fuels his work in fashion design. “God has a masterpiece. It’s Indonesia,” he said.

“New York can have the tall buildings. But they don’t have the sky I have in Indonesia.”

His travels are his field research to find inspiration and explore Indonesia’s culture.

Having brought his SLR camera to Pekalongan, he was quick to take beautiful pictures of batik. He arranged dye on the grass and climbed a tree to take pictures of the batik hung to dry.

Edo started his career in fashion designing in the 1980s. He turned his attention to traditional dresses and textile in 1991 after the then-governor of Jambi asked him to develop Jambi’s batik and sarong songket. In 1996, he tweaked the kebaya, the national dress, modernizing it and turning it into a fashionable clothing item. After writing a book about kebaya in 1999, he experimented with batik in 2000, and in 2006 opened his PartOne label, bringing batik back into fashion.

Many people were sceptical at first, when he started developing the kebaya and batik. But, the results of his designs invariably ended up becoming a trend.

Edo has always been proud of traditional Indonesian textile. His aim at first was to design clothes made of batik that were on par with international brands. This had nothing to do with high fashion elitism, he said. He simply felt compelled to give Indonesia’s batik the attention it deserved.

For him, Hermes’ silk is nothing compared to Indonesian’s hand-painted batik.

He couldn’t help but lament the young people’s lack of interest in their national culture. Indonesians should know about batik and ikat, because it is our heritage. They should know about the roots of batik to appreciate it more beyond a fashion trend, he went on.

“Batik will never develop if we don’t understand its roots. Therefore I’m showing you how to appreciate the origins of batik …, how batik is made and how a batik artist can sit for eight hours without leaning to paint batik. And there are people who have been doing this for 50 years!” he exclaimed.

“In short there is a long story behind the making of batik.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Pekalongang, Central Java | People | Fri, January 07 2011

James Yuill: On his own, immersed in electronic melancholia

A new genre: London-based electronic musician James Yuill plays at the Indoor Tennis complex in Senayan, last Friday.
A new genre: London-based electronic musician James Yuill plays at the Indoor Tennis complex in Senayan, last Friday.

There is something riveting about electronic music. The visceral beats, the layers of sound, the buildup to a stop and a shattering climax — to return the same cycle. A bit like real life.

London-based electronic musician James Yuill takes these hypnotizing sounds to a new level. He carries melancholia through subdued acoustic guitar and emotional lyrics. Blending folk and electronic music, the one-man-band has created a unique sound that will move one to both dance and cry.

The 29-year-old joined Melbourne band The Temper Trap last weekend on its Indonesian tour to Bali, Jakarta and Bandung.

Yuill tends to perform on his own, with his guitar, turntable, synthesizer and laptop, and sings about being alone in On Your Own. With his soft voice, he sings about sorrow: I stand there with nothing but blood in my veins/needlessly washing away the refrain again. His fingers go from gently strumming guitar chords to playing the synthesizer for samples of beats and blips.

Influenced by the indie-folk legend Nick Drake and techno virtuosos such as Aphex Twins and Chemical Brothers, Yuill has successfully combined different genres into something the London music scene dubs as “folktronica”.

His beats can do two things. They will either heighten the pain from the emotional words and
folksy tunes — burning your heart with melancholia — or mask it as something harmless, letting the
sorrow subconsciously seep into the back of your mind while dance takes over.

At a press briefing Friday, the blonde bespectacled man said he did not consciously decide to merge the two different styles of music. “It just felt natural at the time,” he said.

Yuill recorded his first album Vanilla Disc in 2005. “When I was recording I started to layer all of different things on top and kind of messed around with electronics.

“After touring for four years, as I learned to use the software and control things live, my music took on a harder dance edge,” he said. Yuill released his latest album Movement in A Storm this year under the Moshi Moshi record label.

Friday’s performance showed a tall Yuill lost in his music, bouncing his knees to the beat. He played tunes from his latest album, singing My Fears, a tender song that shows both strength and vulnerability.

Amidst looping beats, Yuill drawled the words: separate the me inside of you/my fears will get me through. The ballad Foreign Shore is dark and bittersweet, with Yuill warning a woman about a man that’s: “Known/known by law/to be a traitor from a foreign shore.”

Carrying his camera, Yuill took pictures and videotaped the audience saying hi to the camera. He mentioned he would be selling his merchandise and signing autographs in the next tent after his performance.

When a woman in the crowd gave an exulted cry, he cheerfully said: “Whoa! Extreme reaction over there!” then quickly added in a self-deprecating way: “I wish I got that [reaction] at home.”


— JP/Prodita Sabarini

The Jakarta Post | Entertainment | Fri, November 19 2010

Urban play: Jakarta is a big playground

Jakarate taken from http://www.irwanahmett.com

In the eyes of a quirky artistic couple, the chaos and randomness of Jakarta is a huge playground waiting to be explored. And guess what? They are asking the people of Jakarta to come and play with them.

Duo visual communication artists Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina have created a game called “Urban Play”. To play it, they create art in the form of installation, photography, performance and video using the city’s rich elements. The city space becomes their muse, their instrument, and their exhibition ground, all at the same time.

It is a mixture of urban and multimedia art serving as subtle but effective criticism of urban life in Jakarta, based on their experience and observation of the city’s minutiae.

From this game/art project, the two have created five artworks so far. Their first one, titled Color Blindness Test, was a result of “playing” in one of Jakarta’s traditional wet markets. It is a picture of the word “play”, arranged in the fashion of the Ishihara color test using four rattan tray filled with chilies, melinjo fruit, limes and tomatoes.

The innovative and creative spirit of Urban Play is bound to remind us of traditional D-I-Y toy-making – such as creating a toy-car using Pomelo skin – from the days before consumerism dulled our “Macgyver spirit”. Urban Play, however, is modern in every sense, starting from the setting: the urban city space; the documentation tools: still-camera and video camera, and the art gallery: the Internet.

The artworks can be seen at dgi-indonesia.com in the online exhibition section. There, one can see their Play*2: Public Furniture installation, a little cave-like seating area, arranged from long wood blocks at a material shop on the side of the street at Jl. Pasar Minggu. In Play*3: Dancing Umbrellas, a short video shows how street vendors created an aesthetic arrangement of umbrellas.

Play*4: Monorail Slalom is a satire on the wasted columns of the defunct monorail project, while Play*5: Jakarate, uses humor to criticize vandalism of public property.

Irwan and Tita make a conscious decision to exhibit their work on the Internet, instead of in a formal art gallery, to underline the people of Jakarta’s growing use of the Internet and limited mobility as a result of traffic jams, Irwan said.

“It’s possible to see an intersection between the concept of Jakarta and the online *world*. First of all, our mobility is limited as a result of traffic jams. And second of all, the web enables information to spread to a wider audience than through a conventional exhibition,” he said.

“It’s how viral communication happens in the online world, accommodated by the conventional world,” he said recently in a Jakarta caf*.

The two artists at first just wanted to create art by responding to the space in the city. For an example, they wanted to create a new type of font inspired by Jakarta’s bus, the metromini. In the end, they realized the city space was not a vacuum and that Jakartans were a dominant part of the city, which made it essential for them to interact with people occupying the space to create their art.

“We cannot just pick random stuff and make it into art. We have to involve people and interact with them,” he said.

The challenge, they say, was to create something using only improvisation, innovation, creativity and negotiation. This, Irwan said, could result in visual art or art as a “scale” concept.

The Dancing Umbrella project was an example of a “scale” concept, he said. It showed that street vendors – usually viewed by city officials as a menace to order – were willing to cooperate and able to organize their space into an aesthetic arrangement, using negotiation skills.

“The negotiation process is the interesting part. And that process is what’s missing in Jakarta. We found vendors are more artistic than the average artists,” he said.

Tita said the response from people asked to participate in their project went far beyond their expectations.

“It was a gamble for us. We were initially pessimistic *about people taking the time to participate in our project*. But people ended up being so kind, they took the trouble to help us,” she said.

“We had to present our concept to people who had no idea about *urban* art in two to three minutes. They could then choose to participate,” Irwan said.

In Dancing Umbrellas, they had to negotiate with local Pasar Minggu market thugs. When they were shooting the vendors moving the umbrellas around, the thugs ordered them to stop.

“But, they really just wanted us to tell them what we were doing. Once they found out, they let us continue,” Irwan said.

From their playing around Jakarta, they said they found a little blessing in each game/project. For their Public Furniture installation, present at the material shop Fajar at Jl. Raya Pasar Minggu from May 7 to 11, they obtained free Wi-Fi connections at the site from the restaurant across the street.

For the Monorail Slalom, they encountered dozens of people doing their Sunday morning jog from Senayan and asked them to run slalom style at the abandoned monorail project.

Irwan and Tita said they would present nine artworks by the end of this month. The next project Irwan said would be about how people living in Jakarta were in a perpetual state of denial.

“People are in denial that they’re living in Jakarta. They know that Jakarta is in the tropics, but rather fixing the design *of buildings*, they install lots of air conditioning units,” he said.

“Floods are a frequent occurrence in Jakarta; people raise their houses as a result. The streets have a 3-in-1 rule, people then use 3-in-1 jockeys,” he said. “I’m just saying, don’t deny that you are living in Jakarta,” he said.

Whether this project will work out as planned still remains to be seen. They make changes to their project as they go along, they say; such as the Jakarta Monorail Slalom, which they first wanted to do with a car, but decided to do it with passers-by instead.

Iwang said he wanted to stimulate people to see Jakarta in more detail through Urban Play. “Jakarta is rich with detail. A society cannot be called a great society if they neglect detail. If people are used to what’s going on and never complain, they won’t realize something wrong is going on *in the city*,” he said.

“I see Jakarta with enthusiastic eyes. I came to Jakarta with a dream, if Jakarta could not grow with me, the dream couldn’t be achieved,” he said, adding that he was originally from Ciamis.

Tita meanwhile said that she wanted to ask people to “pay more attention to Jakarta”.

“Jakarta has given us so many things, but have we ever stopped to think what we have given to Jakarta? If Jakarta was a person, he/she would feel like the most used person,” Irwan said.

Irwan said they wanted to bring Urban Play to other cities in Indonesia and other countries, to watch the different characters of cities coming out.

The couple, who owns the communication visual company Ahmett Salina, funded the art project themselves.

“It’s a game for me. A golf trip costs millions, so does an outdoor trip. I spend money for this as a game for myself. This is an outlet for me,” Irwan said.

It is also a therapy for Jakarta to feel more intimate, he said. “If this game can reflect a bigger picture, then it’s good,” he said.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Mon, May 31 2010

Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina: The playful artist duo

Courtesy of Ahmett Salina
Courtesy of Ahmett Salina

The guy, Irwan Ahmett, was possibly hyperactive as a child, and having grown up into a playful adult, he now has frequent bursts of energy and ideas.

The girl, Tita Salina, is calm and quirky, and somehow gets the guy’s crazy ideas. After a few conversations, before Irwan even expressed his love to Tita, he told her: “I don’t know why, but I feel that I can make my dreams come true with you”.

He was 23. She was 25. Fast forward twelve years later, the two of them are married and had founded a design company: Ahmett Salina.

For the fi rst time since they got together, the two artists are collaborating in a breakthrough urban art project that combines site-specifi c city elements, interaction with people and multimedia tools. In the
project, dubbed “Urban Play”, they create art in the form of installation, photography, performance and video, based on elements of the city, and exhibit their artworks both in the city and cyberspace.

Both studied at the Jakarta Arts Institute (IKJ). Tita graduated, but Irwan didn’t. This, however, did not stopped Irwan from setting up a graphic design company with Tita, all the while setting up art movements, and participating in art exhibitions in Indonesia as well as abroad.

Irwan is the brainchild behind 2005 Change Yourself Project, where he went on a road show toting his Apple notebook computer and hundreds of round, blue stickers to Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bandung, meeting young people and giving presentations, in which he suggested ways people could change for the better. He also held a solo exhibition of installation art at Ruang Rupa gallery, titled “Happiness”.

In all Irwan’s projects and exhibition, Tita supported him in the background.

Sitting in a Central Jakarta coffee shop, Tita answered “no” when asked whether she would like to have her own exhibition. “I’m the kind of person who likes to be behind the scenes,” she said.

In Urban Play, however, Tita is as much of a front person as Irwan. Leading and presenting their projects in the short videos of Urban Play, these can be seen at dgi-indonesia.com in the online exhibition section.

Tita’s calm and low-key personality complements Irwan’s front-man persona. The two also share a passion for design and have a strong affinity with Jakarta.

In fact, they complete each other’s sentence. They talk about the hardship they faced during the beginning of their relationship and tell their tear-jerking drama-series-style love story with relaxed humor.

Just like in the typical plot of a romantic series, they disliked each other at fi rst, Tita said.

“The first time I saw her was when she was making a speech. She was running for president of the
student senate,” he said and paused for a moment. “That was the worst speech I’ve ever seen.”
Irwan, a freshman at IKJ, said he swore he would not vote for her.

“Little did I know I would choose her as my wife later,” he said.

Tita said that she only knew him in passing. “I had other boyfriends,” she said. “All I knew was that he was in the senate, and he was a pain.”

Irwan said that despite not paying much attention to her, he had always been interested in her artworks and appreciated them.

Their love began to blossom after university along with their collaboration in design. Tita’s best friend
lived in the same place as Irwan. As she visited the place to meet her best friend, Tita and Irwan fi nally started chatting.

“I instantly became attracted to her after talking to her a couple of times,” Irwan said. Irwan had many ideas in his head and liked to discuss them with Tita. With her art background, she responded and gave him feedback.

“I see him as the dark side of me.

I’m a plain person. My parents are conservative. My crazy ideas are in him. He can channel that side of me,” she said.

They finally collaborated for the first time, and their project was the cover of Naif band’s 1998 self-titled debut album. The two fi nally founded their design company Perum Desain Indonesia, which they later named Ahmett Salina in 2006.

But Tita’s parents disapproved of their daughter going out with Irwan, who had dropped out of college, resigned from work, and just started setting up a company.

“Tita’s late father summoned me and said: ‘Can you explain your plans for your future with Tita?’” Irwan said.

He told Tita’s father that he liked music, fi lm, art, and performing. “If I combine all this I can sell my dreams to people. I can sell my imagination to people. This potential is a field that I’m trying to develop right now,” Irwan re-told what he said to Tita’s father.

“Now, I know that was a wrong answer,” he said.

Tita resorted to tears and constant pleading, but her parents did not budge, she said.

“At one point he [Irwan] gave me an ultimatum, stating that I had to give him an answer in two days or he would leave. I was like ‘Noooo, I don’t want to lose you’,” she said in a dramatic fashion.

Finally she went up to her father at dawn after a sleepless night. “I said to my dad, ‘I want to get married, and I want to marry him’.”

Finally her father gave in. They tied the knot shortly after. Now they live just above their offi ce in Pasar Minggu, East Jakarta.

“At first we were worried; being together 24 hours a day. But we stay professional in our work and give
each other space,” she said.

Tita said Irwan and she created non-commercial art as a catharsis.

“Sometimes our work clients don’t agree with our ideas. So, this is a venue where we can express ourselves freely,” Tita said.

Irwan, who hailed from the small town of Ciamis, said he was possibly hyperactive as a child, as he could not stand still and concentrate at school. His father, a teacher, let him play as much as he liked and never pushed him to study. Creating art, he said, was a game to play for him.

Tita and Irwan said they had many ideas in their head for their future projects. But one of those ideas they want right now is a child to play with. “That’s our project we haven’t completed yet,” Irwan said,
and laughed.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Mon, May 31 2010

FX Harsono: Testimonies through art

Courtesy of FX Harsono
Courtesy of FX Harsono

When prominent artist FX Harsono’s father sent his son away from Blitar to Yogyakarta in 1969 to pursue a higher education, he thought his son would study engineering.

Little did he know Harsono had other plans for his future: To paint.

“I lied to my father,” Harsono recalled. “He didn’t approve of me studying art,” he said.

Besides enrolling into a technology institute, Harsono was also accepted into then newly established art school STSRI ASRI. Having a huge urge to paint and learn about the arts, he entered both schools, but lasted only three months in the technology one.

“A year later, I finally told [my parents] and they had to willy-nilly accept my decision,” he said. “My father said: ‘Do as you wish, you’re an adult’.”

A brave decision to make, Harsono knew he was to endure a trying experience as a struggling artist. His determination, however, paid off.

Entering the fourth decade of his career as an artist, his paintings, installations and videos that delve into the issue of political repression, discrimination and identity, are acknowledged around the world.

Locally, he is deemed the person who helped develop contemporary art in Indonesia as the exponent of the 1970s new art movement.

Currently, the Singapore Art Museum is displaying his works from 1975 to the most recent 2009 exhibition, “The Erased Time”. The exhibition titled “Testimonies”, which opened on March 4 will run until May 9.

In his Tangerang house in Bintaro, the bespectacled 62-year-old reminisced on his early years as an artist. “It was very tough… very tough,” he said. “But I persisted to make a living from my art,” he said.

He founded the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru or New Visual Art Movement with fellow young artists in 1975 as a response to what he viewed was a very Western-influenced art favoring decorative painting by an older generation of artists.

An Indonesian of Chinese descent, Harsono began using social and political themes in his art because he believed they represented the current Indonesian situation at that time.

In a discussion at the Dutch cultural center Erasmus Huis earlier this month, Harsono said that had he and his friends returned to tradition to create more Indonesian-themed art, it wouldn’t have been representative of the times they lived in.

One of his 1975 works, The Relaxed Chain, shows mattresses wrapped in chains, commenting on people being oppressed under Soeharto, including in the most intimate parts of their lives.

His 1994 work The Voices Controlled by the Powers is an eerie piece showing rows of wayang masks with their bottom half severed looking inward toward a pile of their cut jaws. The installation was a commentary on the banning of the progressive Tempo magazine.

“During Soeharto’s era, we can say that democracy was nonexistent. No one could talk freely, no one could criticize Soeharto,” he said. “People were oppressed and we depended on courageous people to voice criticism,” he said.

Harsono said he knew things needed to change. However, only a handful of people were brave enough to voice their dissent. “As an artist I also needed to voice my concern,” he said.

With the fall of Soeharto and the emergence of a fledgling democracy, Harsono shifted his focus from social political commentary to inward reflection.

He used art to search for his identity as a man of Indonesian-Chinese descent in early 2000. Three years later, he exhibited his works titled “Displaced”.

“‘Displaced’ showed I felt I was in a space that didn’t feel right. I felt uncomfortable, curious and restless, and started to question many things,” he said.

He used the image of a butterfly stabbed with a needle as a metaphor for the pain Indonesian-Chinese individuals endured in the country.

“I feel I had been constantly discriminated.

“I am not overpowered by it, but it is a constant injustice,” he said.

During Soeharto’s era, Chinese culture was repressed. Even writing in Chinese was forbidden and Harsono had to change his Chinese name, Oh Hong Boen.

He explored this concept at a deeper level in his 2009 exhibition, “The Erased Time”, in which he juxtaposed images of the mass killing of Chinese-Indonesians in Blitar — after Indonesia’s independence, and his personal experiences. His father, a photographer, was part of the exhuming team.

At one point after the reform era, Harsono thought of leaving the country. “I did think about it after the 1998 May riots. I thought we truly lived in a country where people of Chinese descent would always be victims during social change,” he said.

During the 1998 May riots, mobs attacked Indonesian-Chinese businesses. There were also reports of alleged rape of females of Indonesian-Chinese descent.

Harsono, however, stayed and channeled his frustration into art instead. A testimony of Indonesia’s ugly truth.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Tue, April 27 2010

Hadassah Emmerich: Looking beyond identity

JP/R. Berto Werhdatama
JP/R. Berto Werhdatama

The question of identity is an ever-present theme, which many artists like to explore as part of their self-discovery.

Berlin-based painter Hadassah Emmerich, who has a German-Dutch-Indonesian-Chinese background, however, said she had moved past trying to use art as a way to discover herself.

Her mixed-background prompted her to explore themes on different cultures, although she said she had abandoned using art to retrace her heritage background or reconnect with different cultures to find herself.

“I think now I’ve accepted more that you will never really know. It’s also up to you to be who you want to be,” she said. “I’m interested in artwork, not necessarily ‘me’ anymore,” she said.

The 36-year-old was in Indonesia recently for her latest exhibition at the Dutch cultural center Erasmus Huis, running from April 10 to May 4. Titled “Exopolis: Kembali ke Jakarta” (Return to Jakarta), she delves into exoticism in a playful manner. Her work in Exopolis consists of layers of different symbols taken from various cultures, times and settings, such as replicas of Paul Gauguin’s art.

Emmerich is the artist behind a noteworthy mural on the wall of the Dutch Embassy in Jakarta. Art commentator Carla Bianpoen likens the mural to “a maze of vibrant, exuberant, tropical colors evoking a sense of idiosyncratic yearning for a paradise lost”.

Having won several art prizes, Hadassah has exhibited her artwork since 1996, but it was her solo exhibition titled “With Love from Batik Babe” in 2005 that put her on the map.

Sitting in the Jakarta Arts Institute (IKJ) art department gallery after giving a lecture to students there, Emmerich talked to The Jakarta Post about how her heritage influenced her art, her search for identity and her journey as an artist.

“Without this background I may be searching within other sources, it’s hard to tell because you will never know how it would be otherwise,” she said.

“It makes me more curious on how cultures connect and where they connect. For example, I am attracted to universal stories, which are often love stories,” she said. “I’m also attracted to make collisions, to bring spirits together from different cultures that would never meet in real life. I figuratively take them from their graves and bring them back into one exhibition,” she said.

She recalling questioning her identity in her teenage years. Her Indonesian father moved to Holland when she was 6 years old. Her grandmother lived in the same house until Emmerich’s parents divorced. “Because my parents divorced, I lived with my mother and [our Indonesian culture] disappeared a little,” she said.

“Like every teenager, I asked ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Is this exotic?’ and ‘How do people see me?’” she said. She even changed her name for five years until she was 17 from Hadassah to Marissa.

Hadassah is an uncommon name of Hebrew origin meaning myrtle tree. Emmerich said she did not have a Jewish background that she knew of and felt that her name did not suit her then.

She visited Indonesia in 1996 and studied art in Bandung. She came to Indonesia to answer three questions: Who am I? Do I have something in common with Indonesia? And, what is the art scene there?

“At that time it really was a big fantasy for me to come here, to explore,” she said.

However, her visit to Indonesia did not give her answers. “I came back with more questions and confusion,” she said.

Now, Emmerich said that she took on a more “mature” viewpoint. She said previously she used the questioning of her mixed-background identity or her femininity to drive her art but shifted to bigger themes after studying her Master’s of Arts in Fine Art in London. “I’m more interested in learning more about history and literature instead of questioning ‘who I am’.”

“The degree really helped me distance myself from what we call ‘navel looking’,” she said.

“In London, I learned even if I don’t have mixed blood, I can still come and take what I want. That’s the kind of attitude in London. It’s very rigorous, very cold. I was really surprised by that,” she said.

She said that she took her questions and gave them broader views. She added she was inspired by other artists “who had done the dirty work” to use as pawns in her stories. This she said was aimed to point to certain problematic themes.

Emmerich acknowledged that artists or art commentators of the older generation might not agree with her approach in playing with “exotic” styles, a theme she said people steered away from. She said people would consider it taboo to say Gauguin was good. “People are scared to take him on and are concerned about being politically correct,” she said. “Of course for the older generation, things have much more value and are untouchable,” she said.

But, she said that artists of her generation, who can apply many different references by connecting to the Internet, had more freedom in their art. Her approach, in taking different cultural symbols, gave her more freedom and she could be the “background”. “I’m a medium somehow,” she said.

Emmerich, who is expecting a baby, said that being a mother might also indirectly influence her work. “It makes me think of other things; maybe larger themes. I think it connects me to something very ancient, or universal. But how this will form, it’s difficult to say.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Sat, April 24 2010