Finding freedom to express
Javanese artist Jompet Kuswidananto’s hand gets a good work out in his home town of Yogyakarta.
While walking through a preview of the spectacular Art / Jog Maritime Culture art exhibition at the city’s Taman Budaya (cultural center) it seemed that administrators, curators and – most importantly – overseas critics and buyers - all wanted a piece of the man.
Although the exhibition is supposed to have a marine theme it’s a mark of Jompet’s importance that organizers included one of his installations.
I was Hamlet is based on the ideas of German post-modernist theater director Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine. It features old and broken sound systems, symbols of the authoritarian New Order government that dictated Indonesians’ lives and thoughts for 32 years. It might have been naughty once, but it’s not nautical.
Successfully jostling for prominence in the crowded art world doesn’t appear to have infected Jompet with arrogance, the virus of fickle fame.
“It seems the definition of ‘emerging young talent’ ends when the artist reaches 35,” he joked, shortly after returning from a residency in Vietnam.
“I’m almost 37 so that probably rules me out. Being an installation artist restricts my market, but fortunately my wife Inna Deshitta is an architect in Bali.
“Having a professional partner allows me time to explore. I’ve been going alone on my motorbike into quiet places to think. I hate to be in a routine.
“For the past four years I’ve been working with my ghost figures. Maybe it’s time for new directions. Sometimes I ask myself whether it’s all been over-discussed.”
Original talent and an attractive personality aren’t the only qualities that make the self-taught artist an ideal candidate for overseas support. He doesn’t present like the stereotyped Indonesian bohemian, no red headband and dreadlocks, no reeking of kretek smoke.
Then there’s his fluent English and easy access to a lexicon describing, exploring and covering the canvas of abstract art with ease, making him a stimulating conversationist.
But the crunch factor is that Jompet used to inhabit the once dangerous territory of anti -Soeharto social commentary. He’s passed though the rebel stage unscathed and earned his veteran’s stripes.
Now he faces the curse of being mainstreamed, and the need to find the next big cause.
There’s no stand-out enemy. Poverty and corruption, dirty politics and inequality are major foes, but amorphous. All things perceived to be wrong once coalesced in a single bogey man - the nation’s second president.
“Are we free now? That’s the big question,” Jompet said. “It’s something I think about a lot.
“We thought we were after 1998 (the downfall of Soeharto), and able to reclaim our rights. Now we can all speak but no-one is listening because it’s so noisy.
“Today the cry is: ‘What is democracy?’ It’s a destination, not a journey. But we must not let it be defined by others.
“Democracy also provides a place for radicalism, which can create the downfall of democracy. The state is now absent from our daily lives. So we have to learn how to resolve our own problems, see them in different ways, and be creative.
“My topics are local, but I’m pretty sure they’re also public issues. Everyone has to question their world view because we’re no longer taught what to think. Not all are happy with this situation.”
Underlying his point are stickers and T-shirts on sale in Yogya featuring the face of the smiling general who dominated the Republic’s politics for 32 years above the caption: Piyo kabare bro ...? Enak jamanku to .. (How are you, brother? My era was good, eh…)
The son of a farmer, Jompet grew up in a Yogya kampung, played protest music on guitar and joined a theater club. At Yogya’s Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) he studied communications and experimented with music and art, laced with anti-government action.
“We read underground news from overseas,” he said. “We already realised something was wrong with the State. I threw stones at the police, but fortunately wasn’t arrested.”
He read widely and was inspired by the work of the Cypriot-Australian performance artist Stelarc who famously proclaimed that ‘the human body is obsolete’ before taking on an academic career.
In 2003 Jompet’s work appeared overseas in a Seoul group exhibition. It was followed by displays in Shanghai, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Africa. His first solo show was in Yogya in 2008.
The same year Jompet was noticed when Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria was shown at the Yokohama Triennale. It featured images of body-less Yogya kraton guards as the interface of competing cultures and the ‘war against homogenization.’
For the past five years Jompet has commuted between Yogya and Bali where his wife was practising, but there are no maidens-in-paddy influences in his work.
During the last Southern Hemisphere summer his installation The Commoners, along with works by Eko Nugroho, another Yogya artist, dominated the foyer of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
The catalogue said: ‘As a pairing, they shine light on the effervescent contemporary Indonesian art scene and present a wide-ranging, yet precise snapshot of this world’.
Jompet’s major work featured ranks of ‘ghost figures’ made substantial only by boots, hats and tools. Occasionally they beat drums and waved flags.
Like his work in Art / Jog, a buyer would need a large and lofty lounge to accommodate the installation – though Jompet is prepared to make smaller, more compact versions.
The Melbourne exhibit was acquired by the NGV whose director Tony Ellwood has been in Yogya with a chequebook. In the past 11 months the gallery has bought seven contemporary Indonesian pieces to boost its collection of 196 works from the archipelago, though many are batik and puppets.
“There are now local buyers - not all interest is from overseas,” said Jompet. “It’s a more critical market. I’m optimistic about the future of contemporary art in Indonesia. This exhibition (Art /Jog) proves it.”
First published in The Jakarta Post 13 August 2013