What you see is what you want to see

A long, long time ago, Sultan Sutawijaya (1584-1601), the first sultan of the Mataram Kingdom was known as the Ruler of the Earth. The southern sea is ruled by Nyai Roro Kidul, the Queen of the South Sea, and the mountain is ruled by Kyai Sapu Jagad (literally, ‘Revered One that Sweeps the Universe’). Geographically, the wind blows from the south to the north, down from the sea up to the volcano, Mt. Merapi. This particular cycle is known as the “perfect cycle”. The Sultan’s palace, the Kraton, is located at the central point between the two points of this north/south sea-to-mountain axis. It has been said that he who takes the earth on his lap is the wisest out of the three rulers along the axis.1

It was the Queen of the South Sea that whispered an advice to the Sultan to strengthen his empire using the two rivers that run from the slopes of Mt. Merapi to the South Sea along the east and west sides of the kingdom. It was said that she was the Sultan’s partner both in ruling their empire and in love, and she has become the ruling Sultan’s spiritual wife ever since. There are many different versions of the story of the Sultan and the Queen of the South Sea. Some say that the Queen makes an appearance at the Kraton in the Bedhaya dance ritual; others say that the Sultan travels south before every Islamic-Javanese New Year’s Day. The essence of these stories is that the Sultan meets Ratu Kidul at least once every year.2

There are dozens of other myths revolving around the Queen of the South Sea. One should not wear anything green on Parangtritis Beach as the Queen of the South Sea is jealous and she snatches away anyone wearing green, which is her favorite color. Today people still believe these stories although there is no scientific evidence that any of the people who have gone missing at the Parangtritis Beach were actually wearing green clothing. These beliefs now serve as a kind of guidance in experiencing, understanding and embracing nature. Many different versions of the stories have emerged in Yogyakarta and no one is offended by the differences. Some even talk about the Queen and the Sultan as they do in celebrity-gossip. For example, two weeks before the 2006 eruption of Mt. Merapi, Agustina Ismoerjilah, an abdi dalam3 had a dream: The spiritually powerful couple had a disagreement during dinner.

Esther Kokmeijer visualizes that particular dream into Matrimonial Disagreement (2011). A tilted chair, which appears damaged (but not broken), is positioned at a fragile dining table that has cracked plates and glasses with flattened spoons and forks. The beautiful but damaged table is a how Esther pictured their fight; neither disastrous or comical. Esther’s approach in depicting these myths is rather distinctive for she has enough distance from them. The found objects used, or objects that resemble familiar items, used in Esther’s works don’t have the need for people to immediately recognize them as objects that have their own meanings (socially and/or culturally). The familiar forms/objects are used as an exhibit to tell her version of the story, even though some are actual found objects. These objects’ familiarities are more important to Esther, as the storyteller, than to the audience.

Esther’s interest started with the imaginary line that connects the Merapi Volcano and the South Sea with the Kraton of Yogyakarta as the central point. Esther’s works are based on both old and recent myths that are currently believed and embraced in the contemporary lives of people living in the area along this imaginary line. In ‘The more you take, the more I give’, she contextualizes the surrounding landscape and natural phenomena along this line. “I became fascinated by the huge role that geography plays here in daily lives. Here you can really feel how myths form and are being shaped by the surrounding landscape. To me, this interaction between nature and people is very valuable,” she told me.

The series title, ‘The more you take, the more I give’, is a common saying amongst the people that live on the slopes of Mt. Merapi. The elders believe that the mountain says this. However much sand and stones people greedily take from the mountain, Mt. Merapi will give more and more. At first, remembering the 2010 eruption, this saying sounds scary. More than 300 people died on the slopes of Mt. Merapi during that eruption, and hundreds of houses were damaged or destroyed by the floods caused by the tons of debris spewed out on to the slopes of the volcano and were swept down through the rivers that run through the province to the South Sea. However, if viewed from a different perspective, Mt. Merapi is actually passing on its wisdom: “Life is about sharing and giving to others without wanting anything back.” As difficult as their lives are, the families living on the slopes of Mt. Merapi seem to understand.4

The work Arrived (2011) that displays some of the stones and the site, depicts the latest myth: After the 2010 eruption, more and more people from outside the area came to Mt. Merapi to harvest the volcanic sand (used in for construction). A new material export company was even established in Semarang, Central Java, to handle the volcanic sand and debris. Stories began to appear around two weeks after the eruption. People said that some of the trucks carrying the materials were not able to drive to where they wanted to and that some of the drivers ended up taking all the materials in their trucks to the south sea where they threw it into the sea. This confirmed the ancient mythic cycle running from the south to the north and back to the south. The people believed that all those ‘strange’ happenings (stalled trucks, rerouted drivers) were due to nature’s call.

There is, of course, the factor that the education system and modernity has yet to establish a holistic existence in Indonesia. As an illustration, feudalism, whether we admit it or not, is still happening in the contemporary Indonesian lives. An extreme, yet common, example is nicely told by Saya Sasaki Shiraishi: After a family gathering in the so-called metropolis city, Jakarta, the route of driving people to their homes is not based on relative locations of the houses, but rather on the ages of the passengers (the oldest passengers have priority). Though Jakarta has all the physical aspects of modernity, from asphalt highways to skyscrapers, this does not mean that the citizens live modern lifestyles, which prioritize efficiency.5 Modernity, and all that comes with it, does not blaze its way into our culture, rather, it is adapted and adopted into daily life by adjustment to the cultural traditions and experiences. The myths that are retained and have become common local sayings are based on local experience and knowledge, or local wisdom. This is precisely what fascinates Esther. It is not about believing what we see today, here, and now; but, how all of this is being preserved and how some of us who have adopted aspects of modernity in our daily lives do not consider such preservation as useless. Another way of saying it is, “Believe what you want to see, therefore you see it.” Yes, this phenomenon is about how the act of seeing is constructed by what the heart, eye and ear want to believe.


  1. The Sultan’s name is Hamengkubuwana, which means ‘he who holds the earth on his lap’.
  2. For more on Javanese history, see: Denys Lombard, Nusa Jawa: Silang Budaya (Java Island: The Crossing of Cultures), Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 1996.
  3. The abdi dalam are the court retainers who work in the Kraton and for the Sultan and the royal family. Literally, it means ‘one who serves the inner circle’. Agustina Ismoerjilah is the official Kraton guide for foreign tourists. She is fluent in five languages other than Indonesian and Javanese. She also the Kraton’s fortuneteller.
  4. Although some individuals suffered personal losses of relatives during the 2010 eruption, I saw them helping each other and sharing with other refugees from other parts of the mountain.
  5. See: Saya Sasaki Shiraishi, Pahlawan-pahlawan Belia (Young Heroes), Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2005.

The More You Take, the More I Give

At Cemeti Art House, Yogyakarta
23 November – 23 December 2011

At Heden, The Netherlands
6 – 28 April 2012

Click here to see the show.

About Grace Samboh

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