The Epitome of Indonesia: Invisible powers of visible things

Nothing is the same, yet nothing has changed.

What kind of image pops into your mind when someone mentions Jakarta or Indonesia? Let me guess: perhaps something related to the recent bombing in the Sarinah Mall area? (Sarinah was the country’s very first shopping mall.) This was how BBC reported the social media response to that event on 14 January 2016: ‘A photograph that appeared to show a satay seller continuing to work at his stall after blasts were heard was circulated widely online. Some Twitter users wrote alongside it: “Fear is not in our dictionary.”’ As with the aftermath of the Paris bombings, an iconic image shared through in the days following the Jakarta bombing depicts a landmark building in the city. In the case of Paris it was the Eiffel Tower, and in the case of Jakarta it was Monas (the National Monument). Unlike the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World’s Fair to welcome visitors from all around the world, Monas was built, for its native people, by modern Indonesia’s founder and first president Sukarno in 1961. It was intended to mark their greatness, bravery and long-standing courage and its role in building up an independent and newly-united Indonesia. Even so, bravery do not translate to ‘not being afraid’, especially to series of suicide bombings.

Image 1. MemesImage 1. “Pray for Paris” & Jakarta’s “We are Not Afraid”

If you are not so into media, politics and dramaturgs, perhaps a mention of Jakarta would also prompt you to picture of a ‘world class’ traffic jams. After all, Jakarta has the worst traffic in the whole wide world according to many surveys for quite some years now. At rush hours, it is impossible to ride 15mph around the central junctions of the city, as among them the Semanggi Flyover, Hotel Indonesia Roundabout and Pancoran Junction. This is what commuting, on a daily basis, is for the middle-class in Jakarta, which is why they might find a way to do yoga, memorise the Quran, watch films, sleep, or whatever makes sense to them, as a way to kill the time spent on the streets. Alternatively they might become addicted to anti-depressants.

SONY DSCImage 2. Welcome Monument. Sukarno commissioned this very first landmark of the capital city Jakarta to young sculptor Edhi Sunarso. 

Image 3. Aerospace Monument. This is the last monument (that of course become another landmark) of the capital city Jakarta that was ordered by Sukarno. Still checking on courtesy.

One last guess: Bali! The beaches, the landscapes, the rice fields, topless women with traditional textiles wrapped around their hips and heads, the dance and, yes, that kind of paradise. Of course, there was a bombing there too, way back then, but still… That paradisiacal image of Bali endures.

So where does that leave us? With the bravery of the Indonesian people that responded to the bomb attack, traffic jams in central Jakarta, and the beauty of Bali? Dare I say it – putting politics aside – but for many of those Indonesians who live neither in Jakarta nor in Bali similar images of the country come to mind. One interesting aspect of this ‘uniform’ imaginary of Indonesia is the extent to which it relates to the founder and first president (from 1945 to 1967) of the country, Sukarno. And when I say ‘extent’, I mean to say everything.

Image 4. 1950 circa Abdullah Suriosubroto suburnya-negeriku NatGal
Image 4. Abdullah Suriosubroto, Suburnya Negriku (How Prosperous My Country Is, c. 1950), in the collection of National Gallery of Indonesia.

Image 5. 1940 circa Basuki Abdullah lake-view
Image 5. Basuki Abdullah, Pemandangan Danau (Lake View, c. 1940). Image courtesy of Indonesian Visual Art Archive.

Image 6. 1930 -1960 Agus Djaja Legong Wiranata
Image 6. Agus Djaja, Legong Wiranata (c. 1930-1960), in the collection of President Sukarno.

For example, Sarinah Mall, dubbed ‘The Indonesian Emporium’, opened in 1966 and was conceived by Sukarno to show-off a selection of craft goods from all parts of the country. The president even named it after his childhood nanny. Last year, the Jakarta Biennale, a feature of the city’s cultural landscape for more than four decades, opened in the Mall’s warehouse, located in a separate area of the city. Attracting more than 30,000 visitors, the Jakarta Biennale 2015 was curated by Charles Esche and involved artists from all over the world (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Romania, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, The Netherlands, Turkey, UK, Vietnam).

Image 7. Sarinah Mall in 2009
Image 7. Sarinah Mall in 2009 where artist Angki Purbandono made a billboard dedicated to Sarinah as one of the works of Jakarta Biennale 2009. He depicted an anonymous elegant woman wearing kebaya who he imagined as Sarinah and with the words below the photograph, he encouraged people to imagine their own versions of Sarinah. Courtesy of Jakarta Biennale and the artist.

To direct people to this site, the biennale used an image of the Aerospace Monument, one of the iconic public sculpture and one of the key meeting points in Jakarta. The Aerospace Monument (c. 1964–66), also known as Patung Pancoran or Patung Dirgantara in Bahasa Indonesia, is an 11-metre-tall, 11-tonne statue of a man, standing on a surging 27 metre-high base, with one arm outstretched towards the sky, the future. This monument, together with the nearby Welcome Monument, was created by master sculptor Edhi Sunarso (1932–2016), who was given direct orders by the modernist art-enthusiast and super-stylish guy president Sukarno. “I am only visualizing Sukarno’s ideas!” Sunarso once said. He explained that Sukarno wanted to build the monument to commemorate the courage of Indonesian pilots during the fight for Indonesia’s independence (1945–9, in which, by the way, Sunarso had taken part). Alongside with bravery and greatness, courage is also one of Sukarno’s value of Indonesian people.

Sukarno did not only give his personal order to the sculptor, but was also prepared to sell his own car to support the construction when it was short of funds. On 21 June 1970, when Sukarno passed away, Sunarso was still finalising the installation of this gigantic statue, and it is said that on the way to Halim Perdanakusuma Airport, the entourage taking Sukarno’s body stopped at the monument site where Sunarso joined the procession. They then flew to Blitar, East Java, where the father of modern Indonesia was buried.

Sukarno was indeed an art enthusiast and played a key role in the construction of modern Indonesian visual taste. Not only to the extent that he collected paintings, sculpture, and was the biggest patron of artists of his day, but he also in that he built the concept and the look of a modern Indonesia as an expression of his own taste. Of course, one can argue against the merits of that taste, but I guess – for better or for worse—it’s rather too late. Anyone who was born and grew up in Indonesia from the 1970s onwards has to take the façade of Jakarta for granted, as none of them have experienced the struggles—be it social, political or financial—through the making of this modern city. The closest one can get to this history is often through conversations with the parents of the 1970s generation, who were sometimes evicted or relocated to different parts of the city when these modernisation programmes took place. So, this landscape of today’s Jakarta is what it is: graffiti, murals, street art, street stalls might change the colour of things, but its structures remain the same.

It is also safe to say that, after the Sukarno era, his ideals—both by thinking and also by look—have only been amplified. More malls are being built, streets are wider, more and more people come to the city where all dreams can come true: Jakarta. At the same time, in other developing cities of Indonesia, monuments are built with the same ideas behind them: to become ‘that’ modern city landmark depicting the (local) people’s courage. And, many of these monuments were also made by Sunarso, either through orders from provincial or local government, or through the recommendation of national government. If you visit Griya Seni Hj. Kustiyah & Edhi Sunarso in Yogyakarta, you will see the miniatures and maquettes for all these monuments, dotted all over the map of Indonesia. The captions of the monuments in Jakarta read: “Idea: Ir. Sukarno. Visualizer: Edhi Sunarso.” And, oh, yes, it is written in English even though Sukarno’s degree is still written in an Indonesian way—Ir. is now equivalent to a diploma for engineers.

More than 3.5% of the city’s current population came to see the Jakarta Biennale 2015. I am not saying that the visitors were all Jakartans, but numbers can speak their own language. Compare this to the 1970s when there were only 30 people coming to art exhibitions, the biennale attendance shows a 1,000% growth of interest towards art. We are getting closer to reaching Sukarno’s ideal of the modern Indonesian: young-spirited, smart, clear, courageous, brave – and enthusiastic about art. Now, a few months after the closure of Jakarta Biennale 2015, Sarinah Warehouse has been taken over by local artist collective ruangrupa, along with institutions and platforms such as Forum Lenteng, Serrum, Jakarta 32°C, OK Video, and Grafis Huru-Hara, who have turned the abandoned space into what is now called Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem (Sarinah Warehouse Ecosystem), a shared studio complex. In addition to that, a skate park, a radio station (RURUradio) and an exhibition space are also in the plan, which will constitute a government-sponsored enterprise that occupies a space of 6,000 m2.

Image 8. 2013, Jumaldi Alfi, Melting Memories - Postcard from the Past
Image 8. Jumaldi Alfi, Jumaldi Alfi, Melting Memories – Postcard from the Past (2013). Image courtesy of the artist.

Image 9. 2014, Jumaldi Alfi, Melting Memories - Rereading Landscape, Mooi Indie 05
Image 9. Jumaldi Alfi, Melting Memories – Rereading Landscape, Mooi Indie #05 (2014). Image courtesy of the artist.

When I said that everything is related, I actually meant it. My last speculative offering would be some images of the imagined paradise, Bali, created by some established Indonesian artists. I am not – seriously – saying that Bali looks like this now, but generally, that is still the image of the island that was officially addressed as ‘paradise’ under Sukarno’s policy. In Sukarno’s personal collection, the paradisiacal Bali is one of the most popular themes, featuring works by painters like Abdoellah Soeriosoebroto, Basuki Abdullah and Agus Djaya who are famous for depicting the beautiful landscape of and people’s lives in Bali. These styles or ways of depicting Indonesian beauty continue to be present, but also to be questioned, at the same time, in Indonesian contemporary art practice. In this way, we Indonesians are a living legacy of Sukarno’s ideas and (visual) taste.

Art Review Asia Vol. 4/No. 3/2016 published a version of this article under the title NOTHING IS THE SAME, YET NOTHING HAS CHANGED. That version was edited without my full consent. Here is my original version.

About Grace Samboh

Believes in unicorn, conviviality and the struggle towards collective subjectivities—even temporarily.
%d bloggers like this: