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People’s Biennale

The following reflection was originally published on the now-defunct

A wave of people hit you in the face in Jakarta. The busy Soekarno-Hatta International Airport features throngs of them. The city’s infamous traffic jams begin the moment the taxi hits the highway and continues on and on until the vehicle arrives at the hotel. If lucky, the driver would expertly manoeuvre his way through the numerous vehicles that endlessly join the road from little nooks and crannies (that might also be roads) off the side and you will arrive at your hotel in slightly more than an hour. Catch Jakarta at the wrong hour, however, and you should be prepared to stay on the car for about three hours. Don’t worry, though, you will be well attended to by the five security guards, three bellboys, three porters and three receptionists once you arrive.

Jakarta is a city filled up to its ears with people. It is a city made for people: mysteriously tiny ‘sidewalks’ make sense when its residents use it as hangout areas or resting spots. The disproportionately large market square at Fatahillah comfortably accommodates families who are out to explore its old town. Chairs and tables appear regularly at irrational public spaces, like on the middle of the road. Most importantly, the residents are actually using this infrastructure all the time. This is a city whose people want to be out and about.

Indonesians’ sociability is keenly felt when visiting Museum Sejarah Jakarta and Museum Seni Rupa & Keramik, two of the venues for Jiwa, Jakarta Biennale 2017. Works at these venues intervene in the permanent exhibition of the museums, which charges a nominal entry fee. At both museums in early December, the crowd is comparable to those we might experience at the Tate or MoMA and a visitor has to follow a strict pathway in its rooms in order not to obstruct the flow of human traffic. Yet they were not there to see Jiwa, which opened on 4 November and whose symposium ended on 14 November. Most of them did not seem to know that the Biennale was happening at all. They were just there to be out of the house, see and do things and hang out in the inner courtyards with other people. They were there to be at the museum, and incidentally encounter some art.

The perpetual crush was, surprisingly, also present at Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem (GSE), a warehouse space in South Jakarta. There is no other excuse for the substantial crowd of people at GSE, since there were no other attractions nearby. This was a test of the Biennale’s true mettle: were they able to retain a crowd one month in? Indeed, there were enough people to persuasively believe there was a quiet opening reception going on.

What is the point, in a summary of the Jakarta Biennale 2017, of spending so much time talking about the country or its people? More space should be given to the artwork or the curatorial concept, a critic might remark. But do we then neglect the certain point of such large-scale festivals, which is to reach out to people both in the art scene and outside of it? While other biennales have found it difficult to maintain visitorship after the opening weekend without performances/ conferences/ workshops/ other events, Jiwa has quietly managed to be a success. And they have done this not by mimicking others, through flashy gimmicks or getting an international inflow of people but by successfully reaching out to the locals, integrating art into their daily lives without compromising on either quality or content.

At Jiwa, the works remains integrated into the honesty and closeness of communal life. This metaphor is sometimes unpleasantly literal: I Wayan Sadra’s recordings at GSE, right next to the booming sound system for David Gheron Tretiakoff’s Ceremony, was disappointingly impossible to listen to. But most of the time, Jiwa presents itself as satisfyingly full of spirit, or the soul. The remnants, or performance installation, of Jason Lim’s Under the Shadow of the Banyan Tree at GSE calls out to one we lost at The Substation. The memory and the wound of its loss break through the terracotta while an inexplicable presence is simultaneously made whole.

As a final note, Dana Awartani’s I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming. at Museum Sejarah Jakarta was a notable work. A video projection shows the artists sweeping up coloured sand off the floor, destroying the exact and intricate tiling pattern created in the sand. This pattern is echoed in the real floor of Sejarah’s room, where Awartani had re-created the tiles with coloured sand. Some time during the presentation, an excited child had ran through the sand, a Duchampian crack that completed the work in an unexpected way. Perhaps, even flavoured it with a little bit of Indonesian jiwa.

Jakarta Biennale 2017: Jiwa
5 November – 10 December 2017
Jiwa catalogue here.