The influential art exhibition documenta, held every five years in Kassel, Germany, picked an Indonesian contemporary art collective, ruangrupa, as its artistic director, designating the group as the first art collective and the first Asian curators to do so ever since the event’s inception in 1955. The appointment, announced recently by the the event’s Finding Committee, renewed the focus on Indonesia’s contemporary art scene — a vibrant, yet struggling scene.

Documenta, now preparing for its 15th edition that will run from June to September 2022, was founded to stamp out the Nazism air that loomed over Germany.

FILE - Visitors stand in front of the work 'Real Nazi' by Polish arti
FILE – Visitors stand in front of the work ‘Real Nazi’ by Polish artist Piotr Uklanski during the press preview of the documenta 14, the world’s most significant exhibition of contemporary art, in Kassel, Germany, June 8, 2017.

In a statement, the committee said that ruangrupa’s appointment was based on the collective’s ability to appeal to various communities. “At a time when innovative strength particularly stems from independent organizations active on the community level, it seems only logical to offer this collective approach a platform with documenta,” the committee added.

FILE - People stand in front of 372 drawings with the title '1912-60s'
FILE – People stand in front of 372 drawings with the title ‘1912-60s’ of German artist Korbinian Aigner during the press preview of the dOCUMENTA (13)in Kassel, Germany, June 6, 2012.

Suitable for the event’s social bent, ruangrupa was founded in 2000 in Jakarta, and it is known for its eclectic work in many forms — paintings, installations. It has participated in a number of activities such as several art Biennales in Singapore, Istanbul and others. It also curated the TRANSaction: Sonsbeek exhibition in Arnhem, the Netherlands in 2016. At the last documenta event, ruangrupa participated in a radio project called Every Time a Ear di Soun.

Farid Rakun and Ade Darmawan of ruangrupa said in a press release that the event could function as a pool of resources. “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,” they said.

“I hope that because of ruangrupa’s appointment, people’s understanding of modern art can be improved, unlike what is the case today,” Argus FS, an art curator, told VOA, adding that ruangrupa is one of few art incubators that champion Indonesia’s modern art in cities like Yogyakarta and Jakarta. Argus said that modern art remains understood as a “painting on a canvas or a sculpture,” citing also the lack of art collectors in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, alone.

Art and government

Government’s participation in the contemporary art scene, according to Argus, is also lacking. “What doesn’t interest me is that the government’s view of artists is that art is an expensive thing. They think that the transactional value is enough for artists to get by,” he said.

Slamet Aji Pamungkas of the Indonesian government body, the Creative Economy Agency (otherwise known as Bekraf), said that the agency has always supported contemporary art. In 2016, it built a grand strategy for the traditional and contemporary art. “For contemporary art, we facilitate technical guidance in accordance to the artists’ needs, from quality enhancement to art management. We also provide government aid, like the revitalization of performance spaces or the procurement of technology and information means,” he told VOA.

Tubagus ‘Andre’ Sukmana, the former head of the Indonesian National Gallery, who currently heads the media art directorate at Indonesia’s ministry of education and culture, told VOA that it appreciates ruangrupa’s appointment “as a non-profit organization.” He added that the ministry is ready to provide funding should ruangrupa request it.

The Indonesian government, according to Andre, has laid out a strategic plan for the enhancement of 10 cultural objects, including contemporary art. It also plans to allocate funds for the art scenes in Indonesia’s diminutive areas.

Indonesian art scene

The Indonesian contemporary art scene has flourished in regions such as Bandung in West Java, Jakarta and Yogyakarta. According to the 2014 book Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors by researcher Yvonne Spielmann, it went through movements such as the New Art Movement in the 1970s, championed by artists such as FX Harsono or Jim Supangkat. The New Art Movement was born out of protest for the “narrowing of the understanding of art at the academies.”

Today’s contemporary artists like Heri Dono and Handiwirman Saputra have also garnered international and local acclaim — the latter has been chosen, along with curator Asmudjo Jono Irianto, co-curator Yacobus Ari Respati and the artist Syagini Ratna Wulan, to represent Indonesia at the prestigious Venice Biennale event in 2019. According to Argus, however, there’s still challenges ahead for the contemporary art scene, including the lack of government support or the over reliance on private museums such as the Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN) museum in Jakarta.

“Indonesia could be the leader [of contemporary art] in Southeast Asia. We have great potential to secure an important position,” he said.

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