Sunday, March 1, 2009

Asian Youth Imagination 2

Jogja Gallery, nestled into the northeast courtyard of Yogyakarta palace's alun-alun lor alongside a jointly owned restaurant purportedly serving 'royal food' and a crafts store, is currently hosting the second of a series of performance art exhibitions showcasing works by emerging Asian performance artists (ages 19-33). The first of these events was held in Japan in December 2008.

I attended the opening of this exhibition on the rainy afternoon of 28 February, which featured videos by artists from India, Korea etc along with performances by emerging Indonesian performance artists from Yogya, Bandung and elsewhere. It was a slightly chaotic event, thronged by amateur and professional photographers and videographers (including, I admit, yours truly- how could I resist taking a video of this?). The audience, mostly made up of Indonesian students and young artists and budayawan in their 20s and 30s, entered more-or-less readily into the spirit of play, and showed a ready familiarity with performance art as a genre. (For a good review of a recent performance art festival in Yogya see

It was hard to grasp the point of some of the pieces. In one room, there was an installation with children's clothes arranged into a pattern, an Arabic text carved on a transluscent heart-shaped piece of crystal, a mega-mendung like hanging cloud. A half-naked male performer garbed in paper bills from around the world roamed the gallery blindly until he collapsed in a chair. A shaman-like drummer persuaded some young men to climb a scaffold, handed them glasses of water, and then madly pushed the scaffolding around the gallery- to their terror and (later) amusement. The trappings of a room were arranged on a wall and a video camera set so that a black-dressed performer appeared to be climbing this wall.

The two most interesting pieces both thematised Islamic issues and questions. Both were by performers originally from Bandung (though one has been living in Yogya for the last years.) Sorry I didn't get the names.

In one, a woman dressed in bright sneakers, leggings and an Arabic scarf executed senam exercises with a video backdrop of a group of men doing the same exercises, with bright 1980s pop music. Cahya, a young woman who works for the American Corner library at UGM and coordinates American cultural activities for the US Embassy, told me that the woman was doing the mandatory senam exercises required at all schools and government offices on Fridays during the 1980s and 1990s under the Soeharto regime. As the video rolled however, it turned out that this was laskar jihad (an Islamic fringe group which is seen as a terrorist organisation by a number of countries, including the US) doing exercises to prepare for jihad action. The artists/performer said that she had been intending to show a video of 1980s/90s official senam but accidentally ran across this video while searching for material on youtube and decided to use it instead. She executed the motions over and over, and invited audience members to join her, standing in back of her, imitating her imitating jihadis. The loud musical track played over and over again (ironic? defiant? naive?), and became a kind of soundtrack for the entire event.

The other performance of interest was by a young man dressed in a skeleton t-shirt, with a chef's apron and a heavy-metal motif bandana wrapped around his head and a short beard (of the sort sported often by Islamists here). This took place on the gallery's upper gallery - the only performance there - against a backdrop that read (ironically) 'please don't touch the artwork.'

He stood behind a counter with a gas stove, rice cooker, cooking pots, knives and the raw materials for a meal. First he put together out of raw vegetables and (I think) toothpicks the simulacra of a machine gun - without seeming to express much emotion. He then walked calmly to the edge of the stairs with the 'gun' in hand and shouted out 'Allahu Akbar!' Everyone in the gallery froze.

The performer then returned to his counter and prepared a traditional meal - fragrant rice (nasi gurih), fried salted fish, stewed vegetables, sliced raw cucumbers - and invited an audience member to make sambal (hot sauce) with him. He joked and talked affably with the audience. He asked people to try his cooking, asking if the food was salty enough, for example, and commenting about how people have different tastes. As each dish was done, he put the food onto two large platters covered by banana leaves. When he had finished cooking, he calmly brought the platters down the stairs and put them on the gallery floor.

He then roamed the gallery, and the reception room outside, and invited people who 'had yet to eat' (belum makan) to eat his food. He told audience members to introduce themselves to each other, and spoke in an affable manner about the philosophy of food, and the significance of eating together. Senior Indonesian performance/video artists Arahmaiani (Mbak Yani), who was one of the diners, answered back and they had a brief dialogue on the matter. The diners enthusiastically finished both platters within a few minutes - eating with their fingers. The performer then scraped the remnants into a single plate and forced himself to eat everything that was left over - mostly sambal hot sauce - taking small sipsfrom a glass of water. He then washed his fingers with the rest of the water, and with a nod indicated that the performance was over - to the applause of the audience and diners.

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