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Key art institution of Indonesia, located in Bandung. Interview with curator Agung Hujatnikajennong.By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Nov 2010
Selasar Sunaryo Art Space (SSAS) is the realization of artist Sunaryo's longstanding dream to contribute to and support the development of Fine Arts in Indonesia. The term "selasar", which means "verandah", reflects the design concept, an open space that welcomes all who wish to experience art in its unique setting on the slopes of Dago Hills, north Bandung, not far from the city center. Constructed over four years (1993-1997) by Sunaryo and BaskoroTedjo, Selasar Sunaryo Art Space has been open to the public since September 1998. Today, SSAS has become a key player in the arts and cultural landscape of the country.
Interview with Agung Hujatnikajennong, curator of Selasar Sunaryo Art Space:
Haupt & Binder: The 1990s were a difficult decade in Indonesia. Could you describe the context around the origin of the space?
Agung Hujatnikajennong: I will start with my personal experience. Back in 1997, I heard about the plans to establish this space when I was still a student, and the artist Sunaryo was senior lecturer at the University. Then the crisis happened, the 1997 Asian crisis that hit the country's economy hard, and the launching of the space was postponed until 1998, and inaugurated on 5 of September 1998. The opening was quite special ... You may know that after the economic crisis, the political shift happened in Indonesia, when the Suharto regime was overthrown by the students. Right before the opening, the situation in the country was terrible, because of the riots, the student protests, the killings. Every day the international television broadcast about our country showing that it was really at the lowest point. This inspired Sunaryo to give the title of the opening "Titik Nadir" (The Lowest Point), deciding to wrap all his works in black cloth, and some of the building as well.
H. & B.: Tell us more about Sunaryo himself.
A. H.: Sunaryo is part of the "Bandung School" considered as the representation of Indonesian Modern Art, especially from the 1960s to the 1980. He is not only sculptor and painter, but also an artist who got his reputation by building monuments and doing commissioned works for the government. But it was really his idea to build a space that is hoped to become the center not only for his work but also for Indonesian artists and the broader public. That way, he wants the space to contribute something amid the lack of art infrastructure.
H. & B.: What happened after that opening and when did you start?
A. H.: After the opening there was a period in which the space showed the wrapped works, attracting people to come, and a number of renovations as well as additions to the facilities were carried out. I was appointed in 2001, just after I graduated. I could gather some experience as assistant to Asmudjo Jono Irianto for about 3 years, who was in charge of Galeri Soemardja at the Institute of Technology Bandung. I accepted the offer to be the curator here, I was very lucky indeed.
Until 1999 the activities were limited to art exhibitions and theater performances, because we have an amphitheater, but after I started working here we tried to develop the concept of exhibition space more into a cultural center, despite its small scale, by including other cultural activities: music concerts and film screenings, public talks or discussions about architecture, literature, and of course about art and other disciplines. We transformed this place into a kind of cultural center, but not in the sense of Western or European cultural centers, which usually get proper funding from the government. Because this is a very private initiative, actually; until now, we haven't got very much support. Basically it is all paid from Sunaryo's own pockets. We do a lot of collaborations, of course, with foreign cultural organizations like the Goethe Institute, the Japan Foundation, the Center Culturel Francais, the British Council – we consider them our partners, and also we collaborate a lot with the university, the Institute of Technology Bandung, which makes in terms of the program budget more feasible.
Regarding the visual arts: from the beginning, Sunaryo wanted to focus on younger artists, because this is related to the fact that, compared with Yogyakarta, we don't have many artists in Bandung. So we want to make it a space for this younger generation where they can show their works. What I do here is I usually make an annual program, deciding based on proposals from these foreign organizations, for example a touring show, or a concert. For the program that is designed by our own initiative, we mostly focus on visual arts. We have this program called Bandung New Emergence that shows mostly work by young artists, this is once every two years, like a biennial group show. With this program we usually pick up one or two artists to be featured in solo exhibitions in the following years.
H. & B.: What are your criteria when you choose these artists? Because to start one's career in a space like this, with such a wonderfully crowded opening like we experienced at Wiyoga's, is already an amazing recognition and boost.
A. H.: Maybe I can't explain this in a very structured way… It all starts with the Bandung New Emergence shows. As a biannual exhibition, Bandung New Emergence (BNE) aims to present the artistic potential that is born from a variety of specific situations - social, cultural, economic, political - in the city of Bandung within a certain period of time.
The first exhibition of BNE (2006) attempted to map the artistic practice in Bandung into a more focused and selective presentation, considering the recommendations from the artists, curators and critics, who were active in the "cultural pockets" and art spaces in Bandung.
In 2008, the acceleration in the Indonesian art world, which then led to a boom and the symptoms of blind commercialism, forced me to develop a new strategy. So at the BNE v.2 we showed not only those who graduated from visual art studies but also architects, designers, musicians; so more than "visual artists", we were interested in what we call "creators", which for me gave a different perspective on Bandung, as a place for creative communities that interact with each other.
For BNE v.3 (2010) earlier this year, in order to see the actual result of the extent of polarization and fragmentation of artistic ideas in the practice, the artworks, and the profiles of Bandung’s current artists, we conducted a simple experiment, a simulation, by arranging a meeting of artists from different generations. Fourteen artists from a younger generation (Bagus Pandega, Banung Grahita, Dilla Martina Ayulia, Dita Gambiro, Endira FJ, Erwin Windu Pranata, Faisal Habibi, Leyla Aprilia, Maradita Sutantio, Mariam Sofrina, R. Yuki Agriardi, Reggie Aquara, Syaiful Aulia Garibaldi, and Wastuwidyawan Paramaputra) were "reunited" with three artists, namely Nurdian Ichsan, RE Hartanto and Prilla Tania, who represent a more senior generation. For several months, these three artists were involved in various discussions regarding the process of the artwork preparation of these young artists.
The result was quite surprising. During the workshop there were many approaches and concepts that were really "not connected" between the younger and the senior artists, which shows that this younger generation has different artistic orientations. In the 1980s or 1990s, one could always see a clear connection between senior artists (e.g. Tisna Sanjaya) and younger artists (e.g. Isa Perkasa). But now it seems that the role of the art school (ITB) is not central anymore. In comparison I see that the artists tend to be more open to global information, for sure, the Internet is very important for them, and somehow this makes it more difficult to identify what sort of major artistic tendency is happening in Bandung. Art practice in Bandung has become polarized.
For the selection of artists for the solo show, for me it's important to see the records of their work, and also how they have a unique approach to the theme, the medium or the material, in terms of conceptual basis or artistic investigation.
H. & B.: What is the response of the audience?
A. H.: During my first year I got comments from some people who felt that it is a waste to have such "a luxurious art space", considering the situation of a large part of the population here that still is very poor and maybe needs other things and help. But we always respond to that criticism with the programs that are all free for the public, opening up to all segments of audience. We do kids’ programs, students’ workshops, and educational tours, and we cooperate with a foundation that supports disabled people, etc. Last year we had approximately 35,000 visitors. On average, attendance keeps growing around 5-10 % each year.
H. & B.: How is the contact with the official local cultural authorities?
A. H.: The Bandung Council for Tourism and Culture prefers to support traditional art, like traditional dances, puppet theatre, etc. There has not been a collaboration on an institutional basis. But in 2008 we got an award from the government as the most active art and cultural organization – at least they give us recognition.
H. & B.: Are there any sensitive issues that you have to be careful about? In terms of politics or something related to critical issues?
A. H.: Of course we have to keep sensitive issues in mind. We have to think about the sustainability of the space. We haven't got any problems so far. In 2005 we showed works by Mochtar Apin, who paints female nudes, curated by Jim Supangkat. But it was fine, there wasn't any protest or rejection from the public. I think it really depends on how we can communicate the educational side of it.
H. & B.: What would you consider your major achievement, what are you particularly proud of?
A. H.: From my personal point of view, I am always proud of being able to fulfill my curatorial roles, despite my lack of formal education. I was not trained as a curator. I just learned by doing. Curatorial work is simply to mediate between art and the public, and that's it.
H. & B.: In 2009, you curated the exhibition Fluid Zones as part of the Jakarta Biennale, which was a huge success. What was the greatest challenge for you in the realization of that show, compared with your experience at Selasar Sunaryo?
A. H.: Regarding the challenges of working on the Jakarta Biennale, I think we still have many infrastructural and human resource limitations on our ability to organize good international biennials. This may be typical to other biennials as well. I think that a biennial or triennial can only give a measurable contribution if it is intended and implemented as a long-term program or project. In the initial design, the organizers should be able to set a clear agenda for the gradual implementation of a planned management mechanism as a whole. Continuity and coherence of the development of the format, theme, shape and scope or scale from year to year is very important. I think these parameters should also apply to the Jakarta Biennale. I am well aware that visionary thinking, good, solid organization, effort and adequate funding are needed to achieve an ideal organization of a biennial. Among the many complex issues in the planning of the Jakarta Biennale, as a branding event of the Jakarta Art Council is the existence of "institutional barriers" that are difficult to overcome in the current circumstances. The Council shuffles the organization from one period to the next; its management has different visions of activities. That actually makes the Jakarta Biennale an event without a clear agenda. That is the big challenge that must be met in the future.
H. & B.: What are your next curatorial projects?
A. H.: Among projects that I'm working on right now are the solo show by Tisna Sanjaya (3 December 2010, at NUS, Singapore), Ruangrupa's 10th anniversary show (titled, "ruru and friends", 28 December 2010, at the National Gallery, Jakarta), and a solo show of Jompet Kuswidananto (February 2011, probably at Ark Gallery, Jakarta, and tour to Selasar Sunaryo, Bandung). This will mean a hectic time for me, but also a very exciting one.
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt
Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art. Based in Berlin, Germany.