Thu, 30 Nov 2000

Questioning objectiveness of art criticism in Indonesia

By Putu Wirata

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): The objectiveness of art criticism in Indonesia is being questioned. The development of contemporary fine arts in Indonesia seems to be controlled by the taste of only a few people, who have a number of "collectors as followers" and act as speculators of sorts.

This has become an increasing trend since the collapse of many non-art businesses in Indonesia. As the painting business is new turf which is yet to be seriously explored, this small group of people have made their entry and come to dominate the taste in fine art appreciation. Jakarta-based arts observer Eddy Soetriyono, was strident in his criticism at a discussion held at the Darga Gallery here on Nov. 12, 2000, the topic of which was The Essence of Price and the Essence of Value in Fine Art Works.

To Eddy, the components which should actually determine the course taken by the development of contemporary arts in Indonesia have not been in harmony. They have gone their own way and often collide with each other. These components are, among other things, the artists, art collectors, art dealers, art critics, art journalists and art galleries.

"Our art critics have often mapped out the history of fine art from a political viewpoint. Otherwise, their description makes use of a political analysis. Djoko Pekik, whose paintings used the small people as subjects, is linked with Lekra (the cultural wing of the Communist Party during the Sukarno era). Even if Lekra had never existed, Djoko Pekik would still have opted to paint the same subjects. This is a matter of what inspires the artist, not a matter of his political affiliation," said Eddy.

He also deplored the fact that the Philip Morris Indonesian Art Award had indirectly tended to create uniformity in artistic expression as many artists thought the works which would be highly appreciated would be those exploring social and political themes. Hence the uniform expression: social and political matters. On the part of collectors, their taste is still poor.

"One collector will say that the works of one painter are good and his followers will just listen to what he says and buy up the works of this particular painter. Reportedly, even empty canvases have been ordered. What does this phenomenon portend?"

It is true that criticism often hurts. However, he said that it is not the job of a critic to heap praises on a painter or please a collector. A critic must show what is good and what is not. What is happening now is the reverse.

"A Kolekdol, a person who collects a painting and sell it if the price is high, not a collector, says that the paintings of a particular painter are good and then the critic will give his stamp of legitimacy. This is a symptom of an unhealthy condition," Eddy said.


An exhibition is currently underway through Dec. 2 at the Darga Gallery, displaying 50 works of 25 Bali-based contemporary young artists. The techniques used and the themes explored vary. However, Wayan Karja, one of the three curators of this Reflection II exhibition, said he has seen a thematic shift in the works of young Balinese painters over the past few years. Today, their works deal with social and political themes, or daily lives with a pretense of humor or profound philosophical contemplation.

Previously, for almost 25 years, the horizon of fine arts in Bali was tinted by expressions with a collective nuance among Balinese contemporary artists with spirituality and ethnic identity being given prominence. The style is abstract expressionist a la action painting practiced by Jackson Pollock with an ethnic and Balinese Hindu weighting. Today, young Balinese artists are trying to free themselves from the domination of this ethnocentric expression, enriching therefore the variety of contemporary painting in Bali.

"This phenomenon of pluralism only makes fine art more interesting and gets rid of the boredom they usually gave rise to before," said Karja.

Indeed, abstract expressionism with a Balinese ethnic tone, which has been fostered by the artists belonging to Sanggar Dewata -- an association of migrant artists in Yogyakarta, set up in 1970s -- seems to have a counterpart now. Just like a more exciting boxing match, Balinese contemporary artists have begun to explore social and political matters as the their themes.

Two of the painters in the ongoing exhibition, Made Supena and Putu Sudiana, are still within the shadow of Balinese abstract expressionism. Lukman Usdiyanto, with his painting depicting Gus Dur and Megawati busily moving their brooms as if troubled after witnessing this country break apart in several places, uses the visual technique a la Javanese shadow play, which gives the impression that the "colors" of Heri Dono are present in it.

Yet it is clear that Lukman is striving to find a fresh visual expression.

Then there is the young painter, Nyoman Sani, an alumnus of STSI. He explores the theme of a woman's life through the glamor of fashion, body exposure and sensuality, and also questions this cultural phenomenon. Wayan Suja attempts to dwell on the human phenomenon, mostly regarding Balinese women in the context of tourism, and compares this phenomenon with "a door mat bearing the inscription 'Welcome'" Obviously, this is his lashing out at the exploitation of women for the sake of tourism, in which women act as servants, usherettes, welcoming dancers at airports for the state's guests and so forth.

Although still shallow and superficial, these questions about cultural commercialization are the beginning of the emergence of various kinds of corrections and evaluations about "cultural tourism" in Bali. There is now, suddenly, a question about whether or not it is ethical to welcome a rural guest -- who just happens to be a ruler -- with sacred dances, an issue which has often sparked long-drawn-out polemics. Then, is it ethical to welcome guests with young dancers, who may suddenly receive a kiss or two on their cheeks from the guests -- which is a common practice in Western culture. In Indonesia, or Bali in particular, a kiss only come from someone special and, besides, giving or receiving kisses will entail ethical and religious problems as well as a host of other complicated issues.

The works exhibited in Arts Reflection II have made art buffs, particularly painting enthusiasts, realize that there are things other than traditional collectivism or post-traditional culture, namely the reality of individuals with problems in their lives, such as the subject Wayan Setem explores in his painting called "Baliku Mana (Where is My Bali) (acrylic on canvas, 100 cm x 100 cm, 2000).

There is a poignant inscription on the canvas, "Bali for Sale", then you can see vodka and offerings as well as a bald- headed gentleman wearing a headdress. Painted in dark colors, "Baliku Mana seems to pose a sad rhetorical question. The technique used, the composition and the visual forms built into this work may be taken as a stinging criticism of the commercialization of Bali which is now intensively taking place.

However, the demonstrative shout has made this painting look like a poster laden with heavy political propaganda. This is, perhaps, attributable to the fact that the artists are still young and full of energy and, therefore, have a penchant for a demonstrative and attractive appearance.

The message takes the main stage and the esthetics come second. Whatever the problem may be, the expressions of Balinese artists have shown greater pluralism.