An email to Yogyakarta

(A special presentation intended as a curatorial intervention)

My dearest Yogyakarta,

Hi! How is it going? After this year’s Sekaten and my having to present something related to you, I feel the urge to write you this.

I was strolling around Sekaten’s night-market and junkyard that day. I was enjoying the whole entertainment offered in the heart of you, the place designated to indulge your citizens. All of the sudden, my puzzling mind reckon a few things: I caught the ‘craziness’ of the junkyard owners marketing their goods; I sensed the I’m-so-cool feeling from a group of men who rode the wave-ride amusement that made them looked like Yamakazis; I also saw the boringness of a little girl having to work (taking care of a fishing game) at such place.

I realized how I am not really experiencing what most of the people there are. I was actually enjoying the chance of having glimpses and ‘reading’ what’s happening to everyone there. It got me wondering; who am I, for you? Why do I keep identifying myself the way I do; Grace Samboh, visual art writer, resides in Yogyakarta? Have I been objectifying you to the images people have on you, both as the cultural city and the students’ city of Indonesia?

I know that (most) people come to you reckoning those images. Even I had had such considerations before moving in to you, my dear city. More than just being known as the city of culture, people also reckon you as the ‘Mecca’ of visual arts in the Southeast Asia; you are the city of students’ too. I was looking for a postgraduate school in visual arts; where else would I go? In order to plea not guilty of objectifying you, I need to look around and reconsider my positionalities in using you.

In you, I befriended with several local artists and cultural producers. Then again, the use of the word ‘local’ should be rejuvenated. They (and I) are not local, local. At least, geographically speaking most of them (and me) are not. There’s this project, you might’ve heard of it, that’s growing vast in certain community of youngsters of you called Poetry Battle; and, yes, they’re hip-hopping poetries. You ought to know that some of the songs in the album are also taken from your old ‘historical’ literatures, even the masterpieces like Serat Centhini. Some say that they are the antithesis of the stereotyped youngsters, who forgot their roots and don’t care about traditionalities nor giving a damn on their own history or background.

Whilst I, … I believe that they are not breaking the myth of such youngsters or in the effort of (re)living their myths and/or folklores. The way I see them, they are creating and living their own myth, their own identity —that once was constructed to them. But, you know? The (founder and) producer’s origin is from Klaten, Mid Java; not from you. Somehow, I, then, recall a friend’s work that gives new light of identities by mimicking the environment; Sung Hwan Kwim. Though, it is not because of they’re doing the same thing. Merely because of both of them successfully enlighten me on such issue that usually kept me yawning, identity.

Layers and layers of such issue, in its relation to identities, then remind me how I always state myself residing in you. I like the way people gets confused in identifying me, let alone judge me. There are certain ambivalencies that I consciously built by stating so; a mid-twenties girl with such ‘city-girl’ outlook and a Jakartan accent with eastern-Indonesian family name, yet resides in you. Though, it’s not the kind of ambivalence that Wendelien van Oldenborgh subtly offered through her video of the Dutch soldier in the war with Indonesia.

I’m so sorry to put you in such position, my dearest city. It is merely because I’d prefer being identified, referred or judged based on what I do (or have done), rather than background-wise, racially, gender-wise, religion-wise, or whatsoever. Partly, that is why I am also bothered with the fact that you are being objectified into certain images.

Speaking of images, my fellow Wok the Rock never revealed his real name in whatever works he produced; he’s a visual artist and also a musician. Meanwhile, the name Wok the Rock is popular in the independent music scene of Indonesia, especially amongst those who are active in the Internet. His website project that shares free-downloadable albums along with its ready-to-print artworks,, is noted as one of today’s media in the independent music scene by the Rollingstones magazine.

His latest project, Burn Your Idol, sorts of contradict the way I’ve been introducing him to you (above). He required people using their real names in participating this project. So, in between all the ‘burned idols’ (its how he call the albums that’s being chosen by each respondent), you’ll find his real name: Fransiskus Xaverius Woto Wibowo. Is he simply hiding his Catholic name by using his pseudonym? Who knows; he, who always stated himself residing in Yogyakarta, is (primordially speaking) not from Yogyakarta.

In its relation to identity, certain kinds of ambiguity happen: there are those who unconsciously living certain constructed identities, meanwhile some others consciously fool-around with such issue. There’s also this project, Rawalelatu, which was initiated by Maryanto, a Jakartan residing in you, yet states himself as Yogyakartan artist. Related to Rawalelatu, I find it interesting, though. Since the whole story in Rawalelatu is based on his childhood’s experience of living in Jakarta’s sub-urban area.

Again I wonder … what’s your position to everyone; thus originating, living or just passing through you?

I remembered participating in a happening of several discussions, screenings and presentations concerning socio-political perspectives (and thoughts) in the art and cultural industries, last September, with transnational participants. It was supposed to outcome to an exhibition in the few following months; yet no specific outcome could be gathered out of the happening in you. Actually, many things did happen, but mostly on a personal level. I know that personal experiences are hard to share. It could turn out as banal as saying: Time tells… So as other cliché sayings, it is true; yet boring, have no sense of novelty or newness in any ways and seemed cheesy.

Oh, dear city, are you some sort of a symbol of the ambiguity of otherness? Is that how we should look at you; as a transit place? People have got to stop by, or at least pass, you in order to get to their own destination? I don’t know whether such position is noble or a mere wretch. Or, … what are you, dearest city?

Yours sincerely,

The Demons of Comparisons
A collaborative project curated by Kyongfa Che (Japan), Binna Choi (Korea), and Cosmin Costinas (Romania) and special presentations by Philippe Rekacewicz and Grace Samboh

At Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA)
28 March – 17 May 2009

At Casco; Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht
29 March – 17 May 2009

Click here to see the show.

Curatorial introduction
By Binna Choi, Kyongfa Che & Cosmin Costinas

‘The Demon of Comparisons’ is an association of subjective positions relating in various ways to larger social and political frameworks, to power and cultural constructions. Persisting on the issue of individual agency in a landscape defined by questions of national and cultural identities, ‘The Demon of Comparisons’ questions the kind of collectivity these subjects can form.

The title is a translation of a phrase from Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere, “el demonio de las comparaciones”, used by Benedict Anderson as the title of his book, under the rendering of The Specter of Comparisons. An original and insightful thinker, Benedict Anderson questioned the patterns and the meeting points that are to be found throughout geographies, times and power structures that lead to formations of identities and various senses of belonging. Our translation remains anchored in this area of interest, but wishes to add the potential of the polisemy, indeed the spectres, of the original Spanish word, ‘demonio’, in dealing with the subjectivity of one’s experience of culture and power.

‘The Demon of Comparisons’ grew out of the exchanges and discussions during the ‘Open Circuit #1: Yogyakarta’, organized by Electric Palm Tree in September 2008 in Indonesia. During the week-long workshop, participants shared and negotiated their experiences and vocabularies of social transformation from their respective backgrounds.

About Grace Samboh

Believes in unicorn, conviviality and the struggle towards collective subjectivities—even temporarily.
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