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Unzipped: Exploring Indonesian Art and Politics from the Inside

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It’s Saturday in Jakarta again, and this time I’m pinned up against a wall as a volunteer performer at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum MACAN).

Mella Jaarsma, Zipper Zone, 2009. Performance at the exhibition Dunia Dalam Berita

I’ve been stripped down and fastened behind a red and white striped tapestry: 

My gender has been reassigned temporarily, and for the duration of one hour, I will be gazing across at my counterpart’s fabricated bosoms which have been stitched together into the shape of a bullet bra.

He’s fixed to the adjacent wall, eyes and feet exposed. The contour of his shapely body is defined by an assemblage of zippers, with a slide fastener at his pubic area indicating where his ‘female genitalia’ could be. Every time he moves to scratch an itch, his semi-deflated Madonna bustier undulates. As for me, I’m sporting the male version of this floor-to-ceiling ensemble in what is commonly referred to as a gonzo approach to art journalism.

Master of My Domain?

I am performing Zipper Zone—a playful and poignant costume that is just one of many thought-provoking artworks on display as part of Museum MACANs current retrospective exhibition, Dunia Dalam Berita (World in the News).

Dusted off and revived from the distinguished costume closet that is Indonesian-based artist Mella Jaarsma’s artistic practice, this piece has no clear vantage point for a selfie. Instead, museum-goers are invited to embark on a short sensory expedition by dragging open zippers to discover what’s inside:

Mounted on the wall behind the tapestry, photographs surround me. Some images are light-hearted, while others are grim and haunting. But perhaps what is most surprising is the scantily clad human (i.e. me) who activates the piece. Many are tickled to reveal my identity—some even abashed by what they find inside.

Biologically, I’m not who I appear to be—a timely conversation as Indonesia witnesses record-breaking incidents of unlawful gender and sexuality policing that will, perhaps, mark another cultural shift for the country.

Zipper Zone was created in 2009 with the full title Zipper Zone (Master of Your Domain)—a pop-culture reference to the catchphrase made famous by American TV sitcom, Seinfeld, in the mid-’90s. Alluding to the uncontrollable urge to satisfy one’s sexual desires, this cryptic wordplay allowed characters of the show to openly discuss topics deemed too explicit for television audiences. A clever euphemism, Master of Your Domain was heralded for its ability to bypass conservative broadcast networks in North America. Meanwhile, about 15,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean, news and media specialists in Indonesia were manoeuvring much trickier restrictions as major media organizations suffered nationwide bans under President Soeharto’s New Order regime.

Created a  decade after  Reformasi and the fall of the New Order, Mella Jaarsma’s work parodied Facebook at its adolescence, during a worldwide transition that would drastically change the future of broadcasting, censorship and mass communication. Empowered by the thrill of user-generated content and its rapid circulation, social-media enthusiasts began unzipping and exposing the raw boundaries between public and private life. Netizens everywhere became social justice activists, as freedom of speech commenced its Internet battle with authoritarian control.

Seinfeld euphemisms were no longer necessary. 

Zipper Zone, with part of its title dropped for its 2019 appearance, now confronts a world that is inseparable from media overshare. Indonesia is now the world’s third largest democracy with the fourth highest number of Facebook users. Having an online presence here seems compulsory as Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp have all become social requisites for our offline lives.

Jaarsma sparks a great debate: who actually is the master of our domain?

Thirty minutes into the performance— I’ve been poked, peeped at and my costume fondled by a generous amount of art appreciators. The next thirty minutes are spent contemplating my own autonomy and the agency that I lack from behind this zippered garment. Here, I surrender to the voyeuristic gaze of public investigation—perhaps the true masters of my domain.

Art in Conversation with Politics

A show that should not be missed—Dunia Dalam Berita (World in the News), presents ten Indonesian art icons who convey elements of cultural transformation and political instability through a variety of multi-layered, double-coded visual euphemisms that have become characteristic of Indonesian contemporary art.

The museum does more than simply sensationalize exhibited works, giving viewers a carefully curated crash course on regional history, traditional motifs and cultural idioms. The show pinpoints important factors leading up to the fall of the New Order and highlights key milestones that have shaped the nation’s democratic transition.

Alongside Mella Jaarsma’s encoded costumes, works by seminal figures such as FX Harsono, Tisna Sanjaya, Agus Suwage, Heri Dono, Krisna Murti, I Nyoman Masriadi, I GAK Murniasih, S. Teddy D and collective, Taring Padi, present an array of whimsical and self-reflexive art practices that have been used to circumnavigate censorship for decades.

Indonesian video art pioneer, Krisna Murti, introduces us to Indonesian-Dutch-Chinese-Japanese-Indian fusion fare wittily served up inside of Western-style toilet bowls. Popular for being the most Instagrammable piece in the show, this installation points to both the resilience and fragility of a nation that has endured centuries of forced cultural exchange, assimilation and controlled homogenization.

Krisna Murti, Makanan Tidak Mengenal Ras, 1999
A closer look into the (ahem) bowels of the work

At the show’s midway point, viewers may lie beneath the canopy of Agus Suwage’s military tent in his 1999 work Pressure and Pleasure. The tent has been decked out with popular Indonesian adult movie posters–a physical and metaphorical clash between indulgent popular entertainment and sobering military brutality.

Agus Suwage, Pressure and Pleasure, 1999
Interior view of Suwage’s tent

It was certainly no accident that Dunia Dalam Berita was unleashed during another tumultuous time as Indonesia anxiously braced for extreme ethnic and religious tensions while awaiting the 2019 presidential election results.

As I took one last look at Heri Dono’s Operation Mind Control (1999), and glanced back at Masriadi The Winner (1999)—a self-portrait of Nyoman Masriadi which illustrates Indonesia’s burgeoning position in world politics–I wondered about the possible sequel to this exhibition decades from now.

Heri Dono, Operation Mind Control, 1999
Nyoman Masriadi, Masriadi as Winner, 1998

In two parallel discussions organized by the museum, artists expressed their concern for the future of Indonesia’s art world. FX Harsono, founder of a contemporary art school project, SKS Proyek described the pressing need to combat surface-level art practices, as young artists feast hungry eyes on international trends and the seductive promises of the global art market.

An artist talk with FX Harsono and Tisna Sanjaya held on 18 May 2019 at Museum MACAN, Jakarta

Jaarsma, co-founder of Cemeti – Institute for Art and Society articulated her fear that growing intolerance amongst audiences and government institutions, threatens to throw a wrench in the nation’s race towards becoming a liberal-democratic society.

Mella Jaarsma in conversation with Ayu Utami. 12 May 2019, at Museum MACAN. Image courtesy of Jason Tedjasukmana

The Way Forward?

Rather optimistically, however, an impressive number of alternative curatorial programs and multi-layered exhibitions have emerged to tackle the problem. For example, in 2016, the tiny travelling exhibition, Unsung Museum, sought to re-engage art communities by recounting untold stories of banned artworks and artists deemed threatening to public morality in Indonesia.

In 2018, Cemeti Art House staged six months of exhibitions and symposiums under a platform entitled Bodies of Power / Power for Bodies, which encouraged practitioners to reflect upon the civic role of art and politically transformative practices.

Finally, various art collectives have banded together to mentor aspiring artists and curators through several study platforms like Ace House Collectives’ Three Musketeers Project and Gudskul Ekosistem, a contemporary art laboratory established by renowned Jakarta-based collectives Ruangrupa, Serrum and Grafis Huru Hara. Having transformed their studios into safe houses for speculative and alternative education, these practitioners will pave the way for the next generation of artists-as-activists and cultural reporters.

I sat down to finish this article during a week-long, nation-wide social media ban, as government officials sought to mitigate the spread of disinformation in the aftermath of election results. Residents throughout Jakarta scrambled to find alternative ways to communicate—many resorting to the antiquated SMS. Credible coverage of public unrest seemed out of reach as news reports were restricted to a few major broadcast networks.

In return, fear was only amplified. It felt like the perfect time to contemplate how the art world will once again, respond to the nation’s top-down approach to dismantling free speech.

During the shutdown, one message miraculously slipped into my WhatsApp inbox. It was a real-time screenshot of a television news anchor in what appeared to be an emergency public announcement:

(Note: The image has been blurred to protect the artists’ identities)

At first terrified by what I might learn, I started to laugh as I deciphered the headline—noticing that ‘RCTI’ (the acronym for a major television network) had been photoshopped to read ‘ROTI’ (the Bahasa Indonesia word for bread). The news anchor had been defaced by a scribble of a teddy bear. It was an invitation (with a cautionary note “not for posting”) to an album release party that night at a famous art collective’s new location in South Jakarta.

Mentored by leading figures of today’s contemporary art scene, aspiring artists of Indonesia now take the lead– poking fun at censorship and the masters of their domain.

Concerned art connoisseurs of the future, have no fear. We’re in good hands.



Dunia Dalam Berita runs at Museum MACAN till 21 July



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