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Creating a myth

Hahan’s cartoon depicting a pyramid of ambitious artists, an art dealer and a collector figure on top of them. Photo by Cynthia Webb

Publication Date : 18-02-2013


The Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art showcases Indonesian artists in Australia


Celebrating 20 years since its inception, the seventh Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art opened its doors at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), Australia, showcasing a major presence of Indonesian artists.

The event, which this year runs until April 14, has been a boost to the careers of many Indonesian contemporary artists, whose works, until 1998, were mostly protests against the Soeharto New Order regime.

Following the downfall of Soeharto, the art conversation morphed into social commentary and some anti-capitalist/consumerism commentary.

It seems that Indonesia’s artists are still in the process of finding their new inspirations, and a contemporary artist group, ruangrupa, has lightened the mood in a fresh new way.

Eight members of the group, invited from Jakarta to participate in the event, have created a large installation covering three walls and a lot of floor space, entitled Search for the Kuda — a mythical punk rock band from 1970s Jakarta.

A whimsical collection of battered items of the period — worn-out clothes, photos, old magazines, head-phones, tape machines, guitars, a classic Vespa motor scooter and hand-written documents — is lovingly displayed in glass cases, loomed over by two huge wall murals.

Supporting the installation on opening weekend, was a performance of punk-style music by some Brisbane musicians (now playing together as The Family Butchers), who claimed to have acquired tapes of The Kuda back in the Seventies, and shared them around their peers.

They said they thought the music was awesome, but weren’t sure exactly where it came from, and had even heard rumours that the group Kuda had died in a hiking accident.

The tenuous connection is that during that period, Queensland had a right-wing and corrupt government, whose police beat student demonstrators in the streets, and which later banned street demonstrations conducted without a police permit, an item that was rarely forthcoming.

Was it as bad in Brisbane, as in Soeharto’s New Order regime? No, but it was quite shocking in Australia, and had the rest of the country ridiculing Queensland, calling it “The Deep North”.

GoMA/ruangrupa legend has it that The Kuda only released one album, called Duka Kuda (Suffering Horse). It was titled as such, because kuda (horses) are strong, hardworking and live in sorrow.

GoMA and ruangrupa have drawn the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) into this game. Some respected commentators happily entering into the spirit of the thing have used recorded clips from various news-casts and other sources to create the story of The Kuda.

Playing this game, perhaps beyond the limits, ABC’s respected Radio National, enhanced The Kuda’s mythology, by mentioning them in the same sentence as The Sex Pistols and Patti Smith. On the weekly programme “Hindsight” — usually a serious documentary programme — they broadcast a tongue-in-cheek programme about The Kuda, which may well have baffled some listeners.

The event’s curator, Ruth McDougal said on air, “I think that all bands have a degree of reality and fiction and I think that this band is just a similar case”. Her interviewer (another knowing collaborator) replied, “Yes they are pushing that boundary as far as they can”.

Indra Ameng, coordinator and promoter for ruangrupa, said that to create The Kuda mythology, the group collaborated with an artist from Brisbane, Fintan McGee, who had been in Jakarta doing street artwork. He painted the two large murals on the walls of the gallery.

The preparation for the installation at the APT 7 exhibition took around six months and is clearly quite a major collaborative work, involving a lot of people with a good sense of humour, from Jakarta and Brisbane.

However, there is a serious side to ruangrupa’s work.

“In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Asia Pacific region became a focus of Western economic and political power. That’s why we wanted to review the Indonesia-Australia relationship in that period through rock ‘n roll music. Rock music reflects the era and the region and our project shows how society reacts to political tendencies,” said Indra Ameng of ruangrupa.

“It is ruangrupa’s tribute and also a parody. At the same time it’s a provocation and intervention into history and collective memory. It will allow people to question and even to re-create their own memories.”

When asked why create an imaginary band, another ruangrupa artist, Ade Darmawan, said that in Indonesia, people sometimes questioned the concept of “history”, referring to the many official lies that have been circulated.

“At one time the situation was vertical – we knew our enemy was the one at the top. Now, it’s horizontal — they are all around us.”

Indra Ameng said that he was “concerned that in today’s Indonesia, a lot of younger artists are superficial. In the post-Soeharto era, there is a new, more complex, systematic control. The enemy is harder to see. Young people are growing up with digital media, the Internet and other screens, and maybe they don’t always know which one is reality”.

He wants to see more depth of thinking in artists’ work “straight from their personal perspective”.


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