Visual art / “Contemporary Worlds: Indonesia”. At the National Gallery of Australia, until October 31. Reviewed by JOHN LANDT.
PAST and present, sound and silence, come together in this compelling exhibition of works by contemporary Indonesian artists.
“Gazing on collective memory” by FX Harsono is the opening work in the exhibition. It reflects on the lives of the Chinese people who have lived in the Indonesian archipelago over the past centuries.
The luminosity of numerous candles envelops the bamboo scaffolds that hold photos and other mementos.
There is a feeling of strength and warmth in this space, and of time for quiet contemplation about the sufferings experienced by Chinese people in Indonesia since the time of Dutch East India Company.
This sense of quiet is disturbed by the whirring sound of the nearby work by Julian Abraham ‘Togar’, “Tolerating the intolerance”, which comprises a roof ventilator, a megaphone and microphone within an architectural structure that may be a mosque.
It reflects on the relentless noise that characterises everyday life in current day Indonesia. Protest against this relentless barrage is impossible.
In 2018, a Chinese-Indonesian woman was sentenced to 18 months in prison for complaining about the volume of the local loudspeaker broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer.
Nearby, another work contrasts the noise of current day Indonesia with a poignant silence in memory of the mass killings of 1965-66 under the Suharto regime.
“Memanggungkan kebersamaan (Staging collectivism) by Jompet Kuswidananto shows a truck like that used to transport vocal supporters to current day political rallies.
Except here the shrouded figures seated in the truck are silent, and beneath them mechanical hands clap silently. In the mid‑1960s, hundreds of thousands of people were loaded onto trucks like this before they were killed. Trucks also transported their corpses to mass graves.
The final work in the opening space is “Tembok toleransi (Wall of tolerance) by Agus Suwage. The yellow bricks in the wall are lit from below. Brass cast ears are mounted on the bricks and the sounds of everyday Yogjakarta, including the call to prayer, become evident closer in to the wall.
In the next space are two outstanding video works. “The landscaper” by Mella Jaarsma shows a whirling Dervish on a ridge overlooking the coastal road built at the cost of many lives during the Dutch occupation.
The rhythmic accompaniment to the dance is barely audible. The dancer’s costume contains idyllic landscapes. The camera zooms in and the viewer is transported into a realm of constant motion and colour. Finally, the dancer collapses.
On a nearby wall, a video shows a woman in Jakarta Bay picking up pieces of plastic from the piles of floating refuse. In front of the video is a raft made out of items of plastic rubbish. This is “1001st island – the most sustainable island in archipelago” by Tita Salina.
These are only a small selection of the works in this powerful and important exhibition. They embody the complexity of the world that is current day Indonesia, and an engaging directness and honesty when thinking about the legacies of the past, and the challenges of the present.