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On November 25, 2009, thousands of people thronged in front of the Jogja Expo Center, the trade fair center of the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta. Squeezed between a 7-meter horse in a batik cover, five presidential heads weighing tons, and numerous snack bars, the masses endured almost two hours of official speeches before the supposedly "greatest art exhibition in the history of Indonesia" was opened.
On the occasion of its 25th birthday, the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta invited 550 of its graduates to exhibit a total of 600 works on an 800m2 surface. "The goal of this exhibition is to show a broad public how art in Indonesia has developed in recent decades," promised the organizers of the mega-event Exposigns in their announcement. Whereby the art-filled trade fair hall had less to do with content or structure than with Yogyakarta’s art scene congratulating itself. Admittedly, that scene is Indonesia’s most vibrant and one of Southeast Asia’s most interesting.
"At exhibitions like Exposigns, art is no longer seen as a work of art, but only as a ceremonial purpose. Here, artists become the servants of the curators. However fantastic a work may be, it will never be properly appreciated there," scolds Nindityo Adipurnomo, himself an established artist and the head of the Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta, one of Indonesia’s most important galleries for contemporary art. "I consider events like Exposigns dangerous: this is no way for us to escape the dilemma in which the art scene here is currently stuck."
Since the enormous boom that in the last two or three years, at the latest, has swept many artists from Yogyakarta to the top of the Asian art market little remains as it was in the Indonesian cultural metropolis. Once-popular galleries, like the French cultural center LIP, are hardly booked anymore, because they are not commercially oriented.
Experimental art and socially critical topics have both grown rare; few artists still afford themselves these noncommercial luxuries, for which Yogyakarta was once famous. In the last three years alone, at least 15 new private galleries have opened in Yogyakarta. Most concentrate on decorative works of art, which are often created on instructions from collectors and auction houses.
But the scintillating bubble of the art boom in Yogyakarta burst spectacularly after the global financial crisis struck last year. In particular, young artists and students who were swept along by the commercial boom have now been left high and dry: without creative experience and without a concept. "The young people aren’t resistant to such developments yet; they initially go along with everything. They thereby create works that are technically perfect, but unfortunately without any substantive depth," explains Nindityo Adipurnomo. "Now that the boom is ebbing away, only those young artists will survive who manage to reorient themselves and develop their own concept. To support them, we must urgently begin to think more intensely about art practice."
Cemeti – which has always been ahead of its time – already ceased its regular exhibitions while art was being hyped and is now concentrating on intensive residency programs in which foreign and local artists work closely together and can learn from each other. Some other galleries in the city are also opening up again to more experimental art projects. Even this year’s Biennial has read the writing on the wall and is initiating a kind of soul-searching program for the city’s art scene.
"The artists in Yogyakarta often don’t dare to use traditional elements in their work, because they think that would not be contemporary enough. But precisely this mixture is their strength," says Samuel Indramata from the Biennial’s curator team, himself known for murals in public space. "With this year’s Biennial’s theme of Jogja Jamming, we want to call on all the artists in the city to come together in the spirit of Javanese gotong royong – traditional neighborly mutual assistance – to find a new structure for artistic work, in the wake of the boom. To keep this process from being disturbed, we consciously invited primarily local artists. In a next step, we hope to be able to return to the international art world with new concepts."
As at this year’s Jogja Biennale, the artists take the organization of practically all experimental projects into their own hands. The curators – in Indonesia this is a profession still in the developmental stage, anyway – seldom dare go beyond the galleries’ comfort zone. Support here comes from foreign cultural foundations and occasionally from private sponsors, if at all. The government provides hardly any financial assistance.
"This exclusively privately financed system is very risky: for many artists, it’s difficult not to slide completely into commercialized art, because with experimental art projects they usually have to bear all the costs themselves and then they can’t develop any further," explains Marie Le Sourd, the head of the French culture center LIP in Yogyakarta. As someone who knows the scene thoroughly, she warns that excessive dependence on sponsors can mean the loss of the "original craziness" of local art.
"So who should take new projects in hand, if not ourselves?" asks the painter Putu Sutawijaya. It was the record price that one of his paintings fetched at an auction in Singapore that heralded the art boom in Yogyakarta three years ago. "I still regard the boom as an opportunity: it made us known. In recent years, everyone oriented himself toward the market; now we have to work out a future ourselves."
The artist, who comes from Bali, is already building his own future: in the course of the Biennial, he just opened his second gallery, in which he wants to give young artists in particular a chance. The extremely modern building stands in the middle of the traditional artists’ village Nitiprayan just outside Yogyakarta and also aims to host workshops and residencies for foreign artists and cultural workers. "We simply need more room to experiment. What kind of a cultural city is it that has a plethora of expensive works of art, but no place to exhibit them?" asks Putu Sutawijaya. "Yogyakarta is a trend center that takes in all external influences. Now we need a vision out of which our art can develop a character of its own."
Based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Works since 2002 as South-East Asian free-lance correspondent for German media. Co-founder of the correspondent's network weltreporter.net