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Biennale Jogja: Quo Vadis?

Review of the biennial, reflections on the Indonesian situation, and notable artworks in the show.
By Arahmaiani | Jan 2008

Biennale Jogja [1] is one of the oldest regular exhibitions in Indonesia. The embryo for this event was conceived in 1983 when the Yogyakarta Arts Centre (Taman Budaya Yogyakarta) organized an exhibition with the full support of the Association of Yogyakarta's Artists (Himpunan Senirupawan Yogyakarta). The history of the biennial can be traced back as far as 1988, when it still focused on painting. It wasn't until the fourth Biennial that the coverage became more varied, including sculpture and installation. The seventh edition in 2003 adopted a new format to keep up with the latest developments in the visual arts. It not only offered a 'space' for exhibition, it also opened a platform for discussing the artists' works and contributions to society.

The current Biennale Jogja, entitled "Neo Nation," appears to be 'bigger than its capacity'. Intended to provide the latest reading on the wobbly identity search for "Indonesianness", it turns out to be hampered by the nitty-gritty of technicalities in organizing it, as if the organizers' focus and the involved elements poured more into "the struggle to make this event work at whatever cost and risk".

It seems that this has affected the curators' performance. A large number of participants were selected and their works mixed as if randomly. There is no sign that the curators tried to group them in any way to make it easier for the viewers to access these works. Moreover, the curatorial concept offered by the curators' team is not clear in direction. Although there is a basic principle that became a conceptual foundation, namely the issue of identity and the process of giving a meaning to "Indonesianness" that may offer a new point of view and new ways of thinking, it seems that the curators are having difficulties in elaborating their assumptions and in articulating conclusive thoughts in a clear theoretical framework. The issues of identity and nation appear to have neither a start nor an end, while what is highlighted is simply today's situation – but even this is done in a superficial manner.

Despite the many shortcomings and flaws that eventually sparked some criticism, this event still displays a number of works that are worth seeing. Most of them are by young, unknown artists. The strategy of the new works as well as the visual execution still yearn for improvement but the ideas and issues they bring up are important, since they deal with Indonesia as a (multicultural) society negotiating to live as a nation.

The themes of capitalism and consumerism are at the heart of several artists' works. Jompet & Friends feature an old car tipped over, with the Nike logo emblazoned saying: "Putting the Right Brand on the Right Emergency" (in English in the original). In "Woman N(e)o Nation!", Dona Pravita Arisuta created shopping bags in ceramic with portraits of female public figures on the sides. While the globalized world controlled by the free market economy brings wealth and comfort to some groups of society who are capable of accessing it, it also creates an imbalance in the ecosystem and various social-cultural problems. Edie Prabandono & Wilman S' sculpture of a giant made of clay lying down is completed with a collaborative performance by Made Surya Dharma, who planted rice seeds inside the statue's body. The piece by Michaella Jarawiri & Mella Jaarsma entitled "Nama Saya Michaella Jarawiri" (My Name is Michaella Jarawiri) refers to the oppression experienced by the Papua, an ethnic minority in West Papua whose local culture and identity are in danger [2].

Frino Bariarcianur's photograph "We Are Tatung", and Octora's installation "Nyonya's Armor" (Armor's Lady) [3] question the ambiguous position in this country of the Chinese ethnic minority, which is prone to psychological and physiological abuse, barring them from freely expressing their cultural and religious identities.

In a video performance "Bird's Prayer", Arya Panjalu and Sarah Nuytemans show four performers whose heads uphold miniatures of four different religious temples that are recognized by the state. They walked around a bird market and went to the greenery and pasture of the rice paddies. The sensitive issue of the freedom to practice one's religion is addressed in the work in a subtle approach. It points out the individual spiritual freedom behind the confine of religious institutions that tend to monopolize our understanding of faith.

Human beings unconsciously uniform themselves, wear the same clothes, eat the same food and have the same addiction to the same goods and dreams. Where is creativity if life has become so uniform? Where does a different voice have to be placed? The artists' group Petak Umpet P.T. refer to this in their piece "Symbio Robotic Mutualism", which shows a stiff robot watching TV. Samsul Arifin's piece "Untitled" - in the form of a giant pencil bent and inscribed with the word: Education – delivers a strong and timely answer. Only by means of a good education system will a society be capable of identifying its problems and finding solutions.

To be able to step forward, we need to introspect and take unusual routes. Wedhar Riyadi's piece "Small Flag", a sculpture of a little girl who collects hearts, as well as Petrus Chanel Fajar Teguh Triyanto's "Masih Ada Ruang Kosong" (There's Still Space Available), a performance photo of a man's silly dream of wishing to be Superman, caught my attention. Both artists dare to question their 'manhood' and try to fathom the women's world.

The bravado to destroy masculine domination and its way of thinking may be a big step that will lead us to a real change. Our awkwardness in comprehending the concept of living as a nation is tied to our understanding of the relation between power and its political implications. Perhaps we are unconsciously trapped and continue to preserve the feudal culture that tends to ignore and sideline those who are weak and oppressed. Imagination and fantasy are toppled and only float on the surface – we are not capable of diving into the depths – what we are good at is simply to put some make-up on our rotten face, covering our flaws.

This is a national culture that faces difficulties in giving a meaning to its own nationhood. It often lacks thoughtfulness and tends to just apply an instant solution, as is reflected in this year's biennial. Lack of funding made the organizers take a reckless step: turning a public institution like the Biennial into a commercial gallery: they clearly did not consider that the implications of such a decision could harm the art world in the long term.


  1. Jogja refers to the city of Yogyakarta (the official spelling), capital city of the province of Yogyakarta Special Region in Central Java. People often shorten it to Yogya, Jogja or Jogya (derived from the Dutch spelling Jogjakarta). Organized by the city government, the Biennale Jogja features artists from the province of Yogyakarta. T.N.
  2. Logging and mining activities of multinational companies, as well as governmental relocation policies (sending people from other islands to settle on Papua), are among the causes of marginalization and alieantion of the indigenous people. T.N.
  3. 'Nyonya' refers to the Chinese diaspora women in Indonesia. T.N.


Performance artist, born in Bandung, West Java. Key figure in the current art scene in Indonesia.

(Translation from Indonesian: Helly Minarti)

Biennale Jogja IX

28 December 2007 - 28 January 2008

164 artists with various media and strategies

Sujud Dartanto
Kuss Indarto
Eko Prawoto
Suwarno Wisestrotomo

Jogja National Museum
Taman Budaya Yogyakarta
Sangkring Art Space

Biennale Jogja

Taman Budaya Yogyakarta
Jalan Sriwedani no.1
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