Naima Morelli

After-Biennale reflections: The Indonesian Pavillion

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Since no one cares about the 55th Venice Biennale anymore, I feel like sharing my definitive thoughts about my favourite pavilion, without anyone there to contradict me.
So, chart lovers, my favourite pavilion was the Indonesian one, curated by Rifky Effendy.
In no other pavilion the installations of different artists work so perfectly together. The show almost looked like one single artist and yet it encapsulated such a richness of discourses.

If you were at the Venice Biennale in October, you would have seen me wandering in the Arsenal looking for the Indonesian Pavillion.
I actually overshot the main entrance, so I came in by the back door.
It was dark inside, and there was a soft music that I didn’t notice in the first place. The music though ended up being a background noise influencing the entire experience of the pavilion.
The soundscape was actually by Solo composer Rahayu Supanggah, the guy who reinvented traditional Indonesian music. For the Biennale’s composition he was inspired by the theme of the pavilion, which was “Sankti”.
As the press release stated, Sankti is a sanskrit word that refers to the primordial cosmic energy and the personification of the divine, feminine creative energy, as well as indicating change and liberation.

The first dark-metal work I encountered immediately struck me with his expressive power.
A group of man wearing a Muslim hat were sitting at a table. One man was laying with his head on the table, like someone who had been shot or something. One man was pointing his finger to another gentleman, who looked baffled. If you looked better at these two figures and you would notice that their legs where stretched under the table so to touch each other.
But the figure that really stood out was a matriarch in traditional clothes, upright at the end of the table. She was bringing a hand at his chest like saying: “Who, me?”
A weird lamp was falling from the ceiling, almost touching the table. It was shaped like something between an octopus and a tropical fruit.

The work was a clear allusion to Indonesian politic and intrigues, and that the characters portraited were former Indonesian presidents.
You don’t necessarily need to know all the details of Indonesian politic to appreciate the piece. Indeed, like all the best art, it was all about emotion and mood.
In my case, being passionate with ancient Rome intrigues, the pathos and the sense of conspiracy reminded me to the plots of Catilina, Julio Cesar, Caligola and the like.
In another piece in the corner there was a cabinet containing three heads. The dark colour of the metal and the dim light made everything look deeply dramatic.
“Well”, I thought “This pieces has to be by Entang Wiharso”.

Entang Wiharso also created a large gate decorated with reliefs who reminded to the iconography of the temples in Central Java, the candi, interpreted in a modern key like always in the work of this artist.
Entering the gate, a series of other very powerful works captured my attention.

The most blatant one was a series of big wooden chesses on the floor by artist Albert Yonathan Setyawan. As you came closer, you realize that there were no queen, or king, or rooks; the pieces were all pawns.
Coming even more closer you notice that the pieces were not in wood, but in ceramic and, even more surprising, they were forming a labyrinth.
Well, I always loved the art that looks like a riddle.
That particular installation, a part from being aesthetically beautiful for its symmetry, was a powerful symbol of society structure and relation between individuals.
“We are all the same at the core and part of the same ecosystem” Albert Setyawan seemed to say “But what makes us different is our place in society”.
Looking at the installation you can think about religiosity, bureaucracy or solidarity in the community.

Another piece based on repetition was the series of school desks by Titarubi.
They were made in dark wooden looked burned, weary and dusty. On each desk there was an huge open book, so thick that you could’t even read it. At the same time, because of the pages bursting out from the cover, it wasn’t even possible to close the volumes.
On the wall, dreary charcoal drawings of threes, framed in elegant gold, gave you a feeling of luxurious emptiness.
The title of the installation was “The shadow of surrender” and to me it dealt with a knowledge impossible to acquire and impossible to dismiss. The allusion could have been to a biased education in Indonesia during the colonial period or dictator Suharto’s period, but again, you could take it universal symbol that can be valid anywhere in the world.

There was another big installation at the end of the room. Artist Sri Astari decided to stage a ceremony under a porch structure, using life-size traditional Javanese wooden puppets.
Here the reference to spirituality and Sankti was pretty clear; soaked in the dark atmosphere of the room the puppets took a solemn and hieratic air.
The porch’s four columns had a base decorated with a brain, a heart, a skull and a rose. These symbols made me think that the tradition deals directly with human emotion, hopes and mysteries of life and is not so easily sellable to tourists as souvenir.

Least but not last, Eko Nugroho’s work was in a corner of the room, but it certainly stood out for its colours and its only apparent optimism. Of course, the pink-flowered characters and his two box-head friends were not in a great situation: they were drifting apart on a raft made of bamboo and old oil barrels.
The characters probably knew the saying “We’re all on the same boat”, but in this case the castaways didn’t seems to share the same preoccupations.
The fancy pink character was busy reading. Another guy had more initiative; he was struggling to push the raft even using his feets. The third shipwrecked looked despaired instead.
He understood that there was no point shouting in the megaphone, hoping that people would hear him. At this point was better to suicide thrusting a trident in his stomach.
This surreal situation was tragic and funny at the same time. It reflected the contradiction you can find as much in fast-growing Indonesian society as in other societies hassled by, for example, economical crisis. We’re in Venice so Italy, yes, I’m talking with you!

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