On Getting Art

Unless you've been living under a rock, if you're in Jogja you must have at least heard about Biennale Jogja, the biggest art event in town that's currently on show since mid-November until January 6th. This year sees the the 12th Biennale Jogja, which is also the second in its Equator series, a 10-year-long program which will last until 2022. The program brings together art practices from Indonesia and other countries and regions which are located along the equator, with the current edition being a meet-up between Indonesia and the Middle East countries. Taking 'mobility' as its big theme this year, the main exhibitions are spread in 5 different venues around town.

With that said, I've visited four of the venues, and I have to admit this: even though for the past two years I've been trying to acquaintance myself better with the local art scene by regularly going to various exhibitions, I still didn't get most artworks that I saw at the Biennale —or at the other said exhibitions, for that matter. I can't even say whether I like them or not (sometimes liking something doesn't have anything to do with understanding it), because the artworks just didn't leave much impression on me. A lot of them just seem like random objects cobbled together. They certainly look unusual, but I can't decide whether being unusual means they're interestingThe only one I did like and could appreciate was Ahmed Mater's work (displayed in Jogja National Museum) on the muslim pilgrimage in Mecca, because he utilized the visual language of photography which I could understand much better. Moreover, the photographs were taken in New Topographics approach that I'm familiar with, so it was easy to see the theme of mobility in the images of ocean of pilgrims who crowded the city, in a religious tradition which has significantly changed the physical landscape in which it takes place. But again, this was the exception. I'm not sure how I should react to or read the other artworks. 

All this confusion reminds me of the first time I went to Biennale Jogja with my college friends. I checked my photo archive, it was a night in January 2008 (which means it was the 2007 Biennale). Up until that point, I think I had never been to any major art exhibitions, which I guess is pretty ironic given the fact that Jogja is considered one of the leading art centers in the country and I've been living here since 2000. I'm not sure why, perhaps because art galleries often seemed... intimidating. They're open for anyone, sure, but there's always this lingering feeling that you need to have a certain level of sophistication to go there. I still remember my friends and I joked that we needed to go to art shows like Biennale so we could be more "cultured and civilized." So when we found out that Biennale Jogja was held in Jogja National Museum (which we thought were more accessible to visit than most art galleries) it seemed like a good opportunity to check out what it's all about. I completely had no idea what to expect. And well, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. We certainly enjoyed seeing all the artworks. But... probably not in the way the artists or curator intended. I'll let the photos from that night do the explaining: 

As you can see, for us the artworks were nothing more than "nice things to take pictures in front of and goof around with." We weren't exactly touched by the artworks. In fact, we were touching them. In all the silly ways. 

Now, I don't mean to justify what we did. We were certainly uninformed, we didn't know how we're supposed to treat an art object, and it was an embarrassing thing to do. I'm just saying these things happened, and they still do. But really, what can I say? For regular people like us which had no background whatsoever in art history and the likes, there's no way we could connect with what these artworks were trying to convey. The venue was accessible, but the exhibits themselves were not. We could only see the surface of things. I don't remember if there was a curatorial text in the 2007 Biennale Jogja  which could explain what it's about, but even if there was, considering that most texts on art are written in a particular way that seems to be understood only by certain circleswith all the complicated language and difficult jargon, I doubt it would have helped us out anyway. Probably it 's another reason why the art world seems so out of reach by most people; instead of being inclusive, it feels exclusive. And instead of enlightening, it's alienating. I often find people saying that they don't feel like going to art shows or reading texts on art because they make them feel stupid and inadequate. 

When I recently made a round trip at the 2013 Biennale Jogja with a good friend of mine who is more well-versed in the art scene, she explained that Biennale differs from most other art events in that it's intended to be more public-oriented. So that's why they usually take place in public institutions instead of private ones. She also said that Biennale usually addresses socio-cultural issues that happen in the place where the event is being held, so it's important that the artworks can reflect those issues and present them to society. This educative aspect of Biennale is certainly admirable, but I think my own personal experience above shows there are problems in the execution. Namely, how are you able to educate if the message is lost in the delivery? Is the message really meant for all the people, or only to a few of them (who already knows about it in the first place)? I'm not an expert in education, but I believe it's not about how much you can give, but rather how much the audience can get. Biennale might attract a lot of visitors, but how many are actually getting what the art is saying? Is this even considered important?

All this is of course a mere personal observation. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps art isn't meant to be understood like that, but just to be experienced. We're free to come away with anything we want from it, regardless of the original intentions of the maker. Though for me that would lead to another question: if what message people get from your art doesn't matter, is it then still necessary to have a message at all? Why even bother? 


As an aside from the musing above, here are some photographs which were all taken at the venues of 2013 Biennale Jogja. But not all of these are of the artworks being exhibited. Some are just things I found interesting within the venues. If you've visited it should be obvious, but if you haven't, try to guess which one is part of an artwork, which one isn't. 

Kumpul Buku Foto Yogyakarta

You might remember that a while back in June, Budi Dharmawan and I made a little photobook gathering event at the end of our mini exhibition Eye to Eye. At that time, I said that I would love to make a bigger one in the future. Well guess what, it's happening this weekend!

The basic premise is still the same as the previous gathering: if you have some photobooks you'd like to share with other photobook lovers, just simply bring them to the venue. We will list your books and then put them on display where other guests can freely browse them. After the event is over (or anytime you want to leave) you can take back your books. Rest assured, we have volunteers who will make sure that your books is well cared during the event. Oh, and even if you don't have photobooks to bring, don't hesitate to come all the same! 

Aside from looking at photobooks, on Friday you can also attend a talk by Mohammad Safir Makki and Aji Susanto Anom who have both published their own photobook this year. All in all, I hope this gathering will be even more fun than the previous one in June. See you guys there!

Open hours:
  • Friday, November 15th: 9AM - 9PM (Talk with Mohammad Safir Makki and Aji Susanto Anom at 3 PM)
  • Saturday, November 16th: 9AM - 4PM