Looking at the market issue in the archives of Jogja Biennale

Jogja Biennale X 2009 Jogja Jamming: Arts Archives Movement (BJX 2009) started with an enlightening statement seen on the invitation for the participating artists, “No works are sold during the Biennale event and by the organizers of the Biennale.” Meanwhile, on the reception table at several exhibition rooms of the BJX 2009 we could clearly find price lists for the artworks. Yes, the kind of price lists that are usually found at commercial exhibitions. Of course, lately, we have come to laugh on it as the price lists turn out to be Bambang “Toko” Witjaksono’s artwork. Born in Yogyakarta in 1973, the artist is known for his satirical and critical works in (rather) comical forms. The irony of Bambang “Toko” Witjaksono’s work is both interesting and disturbing. The works unveiled old stories that have not been (or probably don’t have to be) done throughout the 21-year history of the Jogja Biennale.

At the Yogyakarta Painting Biennale II (BSLY) event in 1990, Soedarso Sp., one of the judges who chose biennale’s best artwork, saw the rapid development of painting as a great motivation to the perseverance and the struggling of painters in the creation process of their artworks. Economic deregulation in December 1987, which resulted in new principles on forms of investment, was not even considered at all. The potential of painting as a new form of investment, due to its alluring prices which rapidly soared at that time, was as if incomparable with rigid and low interest rates in banks. Meanwhile, the positive views of “booming of Indonesia’s paintings” at that time turned out to trigger a lot of controversies.

Indeed so, in 1992, one day ahead of the BSLY event, a massive arts event was held. The name of the event was Binal Experimental Arts. Almost all of the young groups of artists in Yogyakarta were involved. The arts event was not only held at conventional exhibition places, but also at public spaces such as Tugu Station, the boulevard and UGM valley as well as Taman Sari, and houses/studios of several artists. Tabloids which disclosed information, participant lists and location as well as the time of the event were spread to the public. Binal’s point was simple: “If binal is not biennale, then binal does not mean biennale.” Those young artists were breaking the barriers of values, both economically and intrinsically, with the requirements for artists who wanted to send their works for biennale’s selection. (Here are some of the requirements: Participant is a professional painter aged at least 35 years old; the participant hands over painting works —two dimensional— without the batik medium.) All eyes were on Binal. In fact, there was no mass media which covered the BSLY III 1992 without comparing it with the Binal. That was the end of the story for BSLY.

Two years later, in 1994, the biennale came bearing the Rupa-rupa Seni Rupa (The Variety of Arts) title. The event was divided into several gigs: Outdoor Sculpture Arts National Exhibition, BSLY Exhibition, Contemporary (Installation) Visual Arts Exhibition and Art Discussion. The names for the gigs, which may seem unbelievable (for now), pretty much represented the confusion of the organizers at that time.

Things that implied the establishment of paintings were eliminated from Rupa-rupa Seni Rupa 1994 publications. In 1997, without any explanations, the name BSLY was gone. Then came out Yogyakarta Visual Arts Biennale (BSRY). Five persons were in the Curatorial Team of the BSRY V 1997 (re)formed biennale. While still in struggle over explaining “what arts is” (whatever included in it and why it was not merely paintings like the “predecessor”); the Curatorial Team of the BSRY V 1997 brought back biennale to its form which we all recognized in the history of world arts; the biennale event which had become the barometer of arts development (which in the beginning only happened at one place, of course these days the “place” barriers have been eliminated geographically, moreover regionally). Two years later, when the financial crisis hit the world, and Indonesia had just been freed from its dictator, BSRY was back in the game. In 1999, when artists and young art persons were still busy on trying to explain “what contemporary arts is” as well as on producing it, in the catalog of BSRY 1999, Dr. Sumartono said that the Indonesian arts market still needed to acknowledge and learn more about the alternative arts. Yes, before the market in turn recognized it, the contemporary arts were considered “alternative”.

The public’s awe on the rapid development of biennale’s structure of organization in Yogyakarta could be seen from the notes of the organizers, the documentations and the files of Jogja Biennale VII (BJ) 2003. Biennale, which (again!) did not explain the changing of its name, was the first biennale which came in with curatorial frame and which had a curator being in charge of the event. Without market issues in the curatorial frame and BJVII 2003 activities archives, the main sponsor of the event, which was curated by Hendro Wiyanto, was a commercial gallery. There was also no information, nor news, on any transactions of artworks during the event, but there were rumors of the possibility of exploitation and commodification of works that were exhibited at the BJVII 2003 and their artists. At the next BJ event, in 2005, still in the same format but in larger scale —a huge theme was carried; the artworks involved were spread into 15 different locations; the curator was positioned as the front man who was in charge for the BJ event; and even the sponsors were big corporations.

With the obvious pattern, BJ has gradually become “bigger”. The element of quantity gradually increased. With different sponsors, BJVIII 2007: Neo-nation was curated by four persons, with 167 participants involved (including several groups). Rumors sparked that the artworks displayed at the BJVIII 2007 were ready to be auctioned once the event was done —of course that did not happen. Several sharp criticisms on the management of BJVIII 2007 could actually be seen from two perspectives: They who really upheld the sacredness of BJ and understood BJ’s (actual) position in Indonesian arts constellation, and in the world; or they who were heartbroken as they were not involved in the celebration of the arts market booming at that time.

Over 300 artists responsed to the BJX 2009 invitation, carrying the subtheme of Arts Archives Movement, which firmly rejected sales of artworks; Bambang “Toko” Witjaksono and his price list is just one of them. Biennales in Yogyakarta, which has archives that could be publicly accessed at the Indonesian Visual Art Archive, is inseparable with the market issues (economics). That’s not because BJ stands in the market transaction area, but because the dynamics of arts just could not be separated with the elements of the markets.

About Grace Samboh

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