Is Indonesian Contemporary Art In Danger Or Making A Difference?

| Rifky Effendy

Is Indonesian Contemporary Art In Danger Or Making A Difference?

Is Indonesian Contemporary Art In Danger Or Making A Difference? | Rifky Effendy

Problematics of the Indonesian art scene

The second art-market boom in Indonesia in 2007-09 awoke art practitioners to the functions of the prevailing art systems. Initially linked solely to the artist’s creative process, the field of art production became more complex with the inclusion of art-scene supporters: the mass media, the journalists and art writers, galleries, museums, curators and managers, exhibition organisers, policymakers, art education institutions or the government, suppliers, buyers, auction house owners, and collectors.

This development of an Indonesian art infrastructure may be the best example of a bad model for how the dynamic production and meaning of art is channelled into society and to a public that has very little knowledge or understanding of contemporary art. The platform is based on the mechanisms operating in the local art market, spanning out from there towards the global-market system. Within this steep ascendancy, certain questions arise: How does this influence the practices in Indonesian contemporary art and the current art scene in Indonesia? How much does this development motivate improvement in art infrastructure?

In the 1980s, Cemeti Gallery (known as Rumah Seni Cemeti or Cemeti Art House since 1999) in Yogyakarta intensively and extensively expanded exploration into new artistic expression. Championing what other exhibition spaces found hard to accept—installations, drawings, multimedia pieces, art performances, videos and site-specific pieces, for example—Rumah Seni Cemeti then grew, broadening its circle of influence and developing far-reaching networks, in particular with art and cultural organisations and institutions in Holland.

The emergence of art spaces like Rumah Seni Cemeti became a kind of indirect response by artists to conditions of the mainstream art market, particularly the boom in paintings in the mid-1980s—a period in which, as described by noted art critic Sanento Yuliman (1941-1992), there existed ‘diminishment and exile’ of artistic values, and even the rejection of any kind of artwork falling outside the usual formal and/or academic boundaries.

Managed by the couple Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo, Rumah Seni Cemeti transformed the face of Indonesian art, making it more accessible and attracting the attention of foreign curators and art organisations. It also played a major role in sending young Indonesian artists abroad through exchange programs and art residencies, and efforts were made to translate and publish research papers, books and catalogues, and to document the works of these artists and other important events in English. Rumah Seni Cemeti’s various activities inspired the younger generation to do similar things. Within the context of art communities with networks, intense interest in art, artistic experience, and/or new points of view, a number of other alternative art spaces have been established, such as MES 56 in Yogyakarta, ruangrupa in Jakarta, and Common Room in Bandung.

In the context of the technological advances and with the freedom of the post-reformation era, these small communities are exploring the global cultural potential of new art media. Ade Darmawan, one of the founders of ruangrupa, wrote in the catalogue introduction to the exhibition ‘Fixer: Exhibition of Alternative Spaces & Art Groups in Indonesia’ (2010):

the past decade since 1998 has been a euphoric period of conceptual openness and various new orientations about how social interactions, culture and politics should be managed and directed. In the same period, the generation of artists at the time began exploring and expanding their choices of expression into more varied artistic formats, whether photography, performance art, visual art projects, public art, street art, conceptual art, video art, or art done in any new media.1

The spirit emanating from the alternative spaces and the communities that supported them not only generated opportunities for the creation of artworks based on more global, contextual concepts, and even for the exercising of pluralistic thinking, but also triggered an awareness of how art can be expanded into larger arenas.

In the 1990s contemporary-art forums rooted in the latest regional concepts contextually spotlighted art developments outside Europe and the United States, drawing the attention of world art circles to developments in Asia, especially in India, China and South-East Asia. Indonesian contemporary art became one such focus, with the entry of its artists into exhibitions at museums and alternative art spaces managed by museums, organisations and governments in Australia and Japan. 

Economic development and its impact

In the mid-1980s, the number of art collectors intent on accumulating paintings increased. These collectors were not just individuals, but also property developers and state and private-sector company employees. Government officials would also encourage their colleagues to buy paintings, including if they happened to be officially opening one of the many exhibitions being held at private and state-owned galleries, at star-rated hotels and even in office buildings. New professions also emerged—the art supplier and art buyer, for example—people who provided access to paintings, especially those of the modern Indonesian masters such as S. Soedjojono, Affandi, and Hendra Gunawan.

These commercial art developments of the 1980s led a handful of collectors and artists to set up their own museums, including noted collector Oei Hong Djien’s museum in Magelang, the Affandi Museum and the Hidayat Museum in Yogyakarta, the NuArt Sculpture Park and Gallery established by Nyoman Nuarta, the Barli Museum and the Djeihan Museum, as well as the Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in Bandung, not to mention a number of museums in Bali. It was argued that government-managed museums had stagnated, and that institutions of higher learning, like the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta or the Institute of Technology, Bandung (ITB), were slow to anticipate the need for art managers. Other collectors have established institutional spaces, such as the Ciputra Art Museum; Art:1 New Museum, Art Space and Institute at Mondecor Gallery; the Yuz Museum and Foundation in Jakarta; Lawangwangi in Bandung, which has been issuing the Bandung Contemporary Art Award (BaCAA) since 2011; Langgeng Art Foundation in Yogyakarta; and the House of Sampoerna in Surabaya.

The emergence of private museums in the 1980s could be perceived as a reaction to the amateurish management and development of state art infrastructure. The need to produce experts in art management has since been met by Kelola, a foundation that from 1999 to 2010 cooperated with foreign cultural funding organisations such as Asialink in Australia and Asian Cultural Council (ACC) in the United States to screen candidates and send them on residential programs. A number of Indonesian university graduates have also continued their studies in museum science and art management abroad, as the Indonesian museum system does not accommodate this kind of educational endeavour.

With all the above factors at play, developments in the Indonesian art market tend towards the problematic, with various inherent risks influencing the practice of creating art in Indonesia. The younger generation of collectors is increasingly well informed, and possesses an understanding of art appreciation, capital, and a wide global awareness. Art critic Agus Dermawan T. has observed that today’s collectors are not only financially capable of purchasing art, but also experience their plunge into the creative atmosphere of the art world as exhilarating, with some leaping forward far ahead of the others.2

In this global-market era, collectors and art dealers are raking in huge financial benefits by selling their collections on the secondary market, then opening galleries with the intention of luring in emerging artists. A large number of works by these young artists, including photographic, video and multimedia pieces using the latest technology, are being created solely to fulfil global market needs. Collectors and art dealers are quick to also involve curators and writers to initiate discourses; in other words, these curators and critics are sometimes used to legitimise the position of artists as subordinate to the art market. Recently, some collectors have even begun taking on the role of legitimating works, offering their services as ‘managers’ and ‘discoverers’, or even ‘launchers’, for any number of artists.

International market influence has entered into the realm of Indonesian contemporary art through various Asian art fairs and approaches made by European and American art dealers and galleries. Blue-chip artists such as I Nyoman Masriadi, Eko Nugroho, Agus Suwage, Handiwirman Saputra, FX Harsono, Entang Wiharso, and younger artists such as Wedhar Riyadi and J. Ariadhitya Pramuhendra, are now represented by ARNDT and Galerie Michael Janssen of Berlin, Primo Marella Gallery of Milan, Galerie Perrotin of Paris, Tyler Rollins Fine Art and Lombard Freid Projects of New York. Others show in Taiwan and South Korea. High-profile exhibitions are similarly on the rise, with Indonesian contemporary art on show at Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris and at Saatchi Gallery in London in 2011, at the Kunstraum Engländerbau in Liechtenstein in 2012, and most recently at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, which launched a South-East Asian contemporary art exhibition at the beginning of 2013.3

In Indonesia in recent years, a number of artist communities and curators have taken initiatives to eliminate the involvement of galleries. This art-fair approach, as witnessed at Art Fair Jogja (ART|JOG), held annually in Yogyakarta since 2009, enables artists to present their works direct to the public. Alternative art spaces, such as PLATFORM3 in Bandung, formed by young artists and curators in 2009, have emerged to prioritise discussion and develop artistic concepts. The establishment of the Indonesian Visual Art Archive (IVAA) in Yogyakarta has also contributed by providing information globally about the various art discourses and artists in Indonesia. In 2012, Restu Imansari and Carla Bianpoen worked to reopen access for Indonesia to present a pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013), with the Indonesian government providing funding.

Within the context of contemporary art, there is the possibility of expanding the art discourse through considering the elements of craft. In the existing art discourse in Indonesia, the boundary between art and craft is not arbitrarily enforced, so that there is the potential to involve both within the territory of contemporary art. Artist Eko Nugroho includes batik and other textiles in his works, using these elements not only as media, but as narrative, expressing the essence of producing a work of art within the practice of contemporary art. This often involves a communal process in which he invites skilled craftspeople or artisans to participate.

In 2009, curator Asmudjo J. Irianto and I developed the Jakarta Contemporary Ceramics Biennale (JCCB). This year is the second presentation of this international-scale exhibition. Asmudjo has commented that, unlike other East Asian countries, Indonesia does not have a sophisticated ceramic tradition, and for that reason levels of technology and public appreciation for ceramics remain low. It is therefore not surprising that the development of ceramic art in Indonesia has been far from rapid. However, that may be a blessing since, if there is no set territory for ceramics, there is no diametric confrontation with contemporary art, making it easy for ceramicists to become a part of the contemporary-art community.4

In the end, the same old questions emerging from the Indonesian art scene remain to persistently provoke and prod. How sustainable is the model for the development of art in Indonesia towards continually motivating significant change and pushing forward artistic production and discourse? When will state-institution policies on art and culture change to allow for a system that encourages initiatives and facilitates the contemporary art community in Indonesia in finding a voice among the global public?


Translated into English by Margaret Agusta. 

All artwork illustrating the pages of ARTAND are provided in context of the original article. Images should not be extracted or republished without prior permissions from the artists or rights holders. For more information about the artwork, please contact the artists. 

The following biography was provided for Rifky in the frontmatter for this issue: 'Rifky Effendy is Curator of the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) Indonesian Pavilion. In 2009 he co-founded the Jakarta Contemporary Ceramics Biennale. Along with fellow curators and artists, Rifky established the Bandung-based art space PLATFORM3 in 2009, and in 2010 formed Inkubatorasia, a Jakarta-based space dedicated to promoting emerging contemporary artists.'

1. Ade Darmawan, 'Fixing the chain of the cycle of ideas', Fixer: Exhibition of Alternative Spaces & Art Groups in Indonesia, exhibition catalogue, North Art Space, Jaya Ancol, Jakarta, 2010, p. 14.

2. Agus Dermawan T., 'Meniti selera di medan booming', Visual Arts Magazine, no. 23, 2008, Jakarta, pp. 26-8.

3. These exhibitions were 'Trans-Figurations: Indonesian Mythologies' (2011) at Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton, Paris; Indonesian Eye: Fantasies and Realities' (2011) at Saatchi Gallery, London; contemporary Indonesian art at the Kunstraum Engländerbau in Liechtenstein in 2012; and 'No Country: Contemporary Art for South and South-East Asia' (2013) at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

4. Asmudjo J. Irianto in the curatorial introduction to the 1st Jakarta Contemporary Ceramics Biennale, published by North Art Space, Jaya Ancol, Jakarta, 2009; see

Image Captions 

p. 125: J. Ariadhitya Pramuhendra, Behind the Bible and scissor, 2013, Charcoal on canvas, 200 x 150cm, Courtesy the artist and ARNDT, Berlin. 

p. 125: FX Harsono, Writing in the rain, 2011, Video stills, single-channel video, edition of 5, 6 mins 2 secs duration, Courtesy Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York. 

p. 125: Entang Wiharso, Feast table: Undeclared perceptions, 2012, Cast aluminum, cast brass, Persian carpet, 200 x 400 x 300 cm, Courtesy the artist and ARNDT, Berlin. 

p. 126: Agus Suwage, Waiting for Godot, 2013, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 250 x 200 cm, Courtesy the artist and ARNDT, Berlin. 

p. 127: Wedhar Riyadi, The stranger #9, 2013, Oil on canvas, 200 x 130 cm, Image courtesy Ark Galerie, Jakarta, and ARNDT, Berlin. 

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