As the epicentre of Indonesian arts and culture, Yogyakarta is home to many internationally-renowned contemporary artists, collectives and institutions. Yet, this year, the Biennale Jogja titled Titen moves away from that narrative to showcase art produced in close collaboration with local village communities, using these rural locations outside of the city as exhibition venues.
“Titen” is a Javanese term, which means to use signs from nature to better understand and manage natural phenomena. It is almost a form of environmentalism that is strongly rooted in indigenous “embodied knowledge” – from agrarian practices to traditional folk song, dance, and artisanal crafts.
A majority of the works in the Biennale are the result of ongoing transnational dialogues with indigenous groups, minority groups, scientists, activists and artisans from all across Indonesia, as well as countries such as Nepal, Romania, Sri Lanka, Torres Straits Islands and former Yugoslavia.
Fascinated by the idea of venturing into the Jogja countryside, I paid a visit to the Biennale, and spoke to Jogja Biennale Foundation Director Alia Swastika and one of the participating artists, Jompet Kuswidananto, to uncover how the art, ecology and village communities can come together.
Coming from a hyper-urbanised environment in Singapore, a huge part of the experience was visiting the tranquil village areas, walking on unpaved roads surrounded by rice fields, banana trees and coconut trees. It was very easy to feel a heightened sensitivity to what the curators called “our relationship with soil and the local ecology”.
Ecological methods and natural materials
A combination of the exhibition locations and the focus on “titen” both play a huge part in creating what Alia terms a “new aesthetic” – artwork produced with natural materials such as bamboo, wood, rattan, and soil, that can be easily broken down and result in less waste.
This eco-conscious aesthetic can be seen in Earthbound Mode #1, a large installation that resembles bamboo drying racks commonly seen across rural Southeast Asia. Thai artist Kan Nathiwutthikun suspends textiles tie-dyed with the earth from his mountain home to harness the constant breeze that blows across the ‘Sekar Mataram’ green space used for community events, creating absolutely spellbinding movements.
Similarly, the monumental sculpture The Rice Collector by Bucharest based Dan Vezentan made of bamboo and natural fibre wires accentuates rather than imposes on the beauty of the agrarian landscape.
There are also interactive works such as Sudamala by pre-eminent Indonesian sculptor Anusapati, produced with a group of skilled local bamboo weavers. Built like a low-roofed hut with a low entryway (which amusingly resembles the iconic Beijing National Stadium), the small enclosure becomes a private meditative space to appreciate the craftsmanship and high level of architectural detail achieved with these materials.
Another participatory work, We keep on coming back to where we belong, is a product of Nepalese artists Dipak Lama and Shreeti Prajapati’s immersive research and experimentation with the local community. Created mainly out of organic material – rice plants, corn, rattan and clay – it appears slightly mystical and perhaps ritualistic, but the most scintillating aspect is the invitation to touch, spread, and feel the rice grains trickling through your hands, and to tug at the meticulously braided ropes of corn. This sensory work prompts contemplation on the communal rituals of food production, and on how much could be learnt from the people involved.
The feminine spirit
Although feminism was not explicitly a curatorial directive, Alia says collaborations by many of the female artists inadvertently resulted in female-led community groups being involved in the production of art, imbuing many of the works with a feminist spirit.
Wadas Lestari by Fitri DK and Ovarium Alam by Lian Gogali and the Institut Mosintuwu for example, incorporate weaving, handicraft and traditional medicine to highlight knowledge coming from the domestic spaces.
Grassroots projects such as Asolola by Arum Daya and News Medley by Alicja Rogalska are a celebration of female artistic identity expressed through song and dance, and have been integral to the artists’ own socio-political activism.
Wombscape, a collaborative work with artist Monica Hapsari and members of the Panggungharjo Village performance group Paguyuban Gejog Lesung Maju Lancar Miri Sawit, literally and physically draws the viewer into this feminine spirit. An entire room in the Karang Kitri Cultural Centre has been transformed into a “womb” – using plastic waste purchased from the villagers, and the floor is carpeted with rice husks. Just as with We keep on coming back to where we belong, the participatory aspect of the work – where viewers are invited to create their own rhythms and movements with tools used in a traditional Gejog Lesung performance – is a powerful and poetic way to transfer knowledge in tactile and auditory forms.
Aside from its explorations of ecology, Titen is also driven by a decolonial directive to create dialogues between what the curators call “histories sharing the same spirit” beyond Indonesia and the Global South. Over at the relatively secluded Madukismo Sugar Factory on the fringe of the city, the staff food court has been transformed into a site for some of the strongest trans-historical dialogues.
On one side of the space are a set of archival photos, maps and research on the history of the colonial sugar industry in Yogyakarta – part of ongoing work by the Roemah Toea Community historical heritage group. In the room opposite are four videos by artist Ilona Nemeth consisting of interviews and footage of defunct sugar factories across Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary run by a conglomerate known as Eastern Sugar. Walking back and forth between both works, the viewer is faced with synergies in the historical trajectories of the sugar industry in both Java and the Eastern Bloc countries in Europe.
Adding another dimension to the dialogue is the raw footage War of Java, do you remember? which Jompet Kuswidananto filmed in the same factory in 2008. A man performs the Jathilan, a traditional Javanese folk dance which Jompet says expresses “the otherness, the unfamiliarity and the ungoverned”, an antithesis to royal court dances. As the dance gathers intensity amidst the whir of factory machinery, it creates an “other(ed) version of reality” – an alternative narrative that challenges dominant power structures of this industrial institution.
By looking to the village communities for new ways to create and showcase art, and in the resultant multi-sensory experiences and site-specific dialogues, Titen ultimately succeeds in its objective of creating art that challenges perceptions of who can make “good art”.
However, Jompet cautions of the tendency to romanticise the concept of “titen”, for example by over-simplifying traditional cultures. Indeed, it is very easy to fall for rural charms and to be captivated by the Jogja countryside. The serene green landscapes not only provided calm and contemplative spaces to take in the works, but also opportunities to learn from the locals.
From the young farmer at the Lohjinawi papaya farm project, to managers of the community spaces, (some of whom helped out at the surrounding farms, and whom were all happy to share their knowledge on local culture), my interactions with the local community were arguably the best parts of the entire show.
Biennale Jogja 17 is ongoing till 25 Nov 2023.