Diaaalogue Editor Susan Acret spoke to the Indonesian artist Jompet about his home of Yogyakarta, his Yokohama Triennial work, and the idea of 'Javanese Syncretism'
Susan Acret: Your work often features sound and is somewhere between music performance and art installation. I understand you worked as a freelance cameraman/video editor, and your background is in music. How do you define your practice?
Jompet: A very long time ago I worked as cameraman and video editor. Sometimes I make documentary films for social movement purposes, but now I work as a full time artist.
Ten years back I was not in art school, I was a musician, I joined many kinds of art communities; I was involved in many multidisciplinary art projects. My music and sound performances were then curated and performed in many visual art events. Then I found myself a visual artist.
I experienced how in a country like Indonesia, which doesn’t have a proper education infrastructure, informal communities become very important and effective for the younger generation to learn something and to present their practice. Especially in my hometown of Yogyakarta, where community-based organization networks are growing massively, it’s almost impossible to be unconnected.
I work freely for my arts, I use many kind of mediums, I talk about many issues, I work independently and collaboratively. I am also affiliated with some non-art communities like eco-social movement groups.
SA: You often incorporate elements of the Gamelan orchestra, and in your work Garden of the Blind figures sometimes resemble contemporary wayang puppets, hooked up to electronic sensors that react when the body moves. Tell us about the influence of traditional Indonesian culture in your work.
J: If you come to the city of Yogyakarta, you will see that various cultural values meet and mix or interact in parallel to build the social-cultural landscape of the city. I am really inspired by how Javanese people absorb these values and then produce a unique way of living.
I really do live and learn from the tension between traditional–modern, old–new, mystical–scientific issues of Javanese culture today. This kind of dialectic is the spirit of my artworks and the history behind the objects and the techniques I use in my work shows this tension.
SA: Can you explain your idea about ‘Javanese syncretism’ and also tell us about your work for the 2008 Yokohama Triennial, Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria.
J: The history of Java is a history of intersections, contestations, juxtapositions and negotiations between different beliefs and values. Java has been in contact with Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, European Colonialism, Christianity and modernity. Instead of opposing incoming cultures and religions, the Javanese were thought to have taken everything as necessary ingredients to form a new synthesis: a basic Javanese syncretism. This ‘system’ became the island's true folk tradition. The ‘fuel’ of its civilization. The ‘machine’ of its culture.
Syncretism then became a strategy for Javanese to reconcile, to manipulate, or to overcome disparate or contradictory beliefs; between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’; the ‘genuine’ and the ‘alien’; the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’; between ‘us’ and ‘the other’. Hence, beside being a defence mechanism, you could see syncretism also as a device to reconcile and to alleviate such binary oppositions. As a result, Java is always a ‘collage’; filled with series of layers of beliefs and values. A phantasmagoria.
In Java’s Machine: Phantasmagoria, fifteen figures of Javanese Royal Army stand in rows without bodies in the installation space. There are videos projected on the wall and some are screened on the monitors placed on the figures. Musical instruments are attached on the figures. Globally, this installation performs a video and mechanical music orchestra.
The Javanese Royal Army costume is a portrayal of how Javanese syncretism trys to merge divergent beliefs and cultures that have come to Java. Since the middle of 18th century, when the Dutch colonized Indonesia and started to intervene in cultural and political affairs of Javanese kingdoms, Java's royal soldiers have not had a military function. Their existence seems only to serve a symbolic status, but this should be seen as a new strategy. The army uniform was re-designed and various cultural symbols were collaged. Since then, the army of Java has not fought a war but they entered a new battlefield with a new enemy. A war that required a new defensive mechanism: the Javanese army is now opposing the idea of homogenization.
SA: Tell us something about the contemporary art scene in your home of Yogyakarta.
J: Yogyakarta society provides an interesting dialectics for many artists who live there, many wonderful and powerful artworks are produced and departs from this dialectics, and the most important thing is that the artists’ initiative networks are growing very well and strong as reaction to the minimum role of the state.
SA: Indonesia is a huge archipelago with over 230 million people: are there many definitions of being an ‘Indonesian artist’?
J: I just can say: I can be an Indonesian artist but it is impossible to represent Indonesia.
SA: Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
J: I’m not a busy artist, so I still have enough time for my domestic affairs. I’m now working hard for my solo exhibition at the end of this year at Cemeti At House in Yogyakarta, and working harder to be a father, since my baby was just born in the last month.
- Wed, 1 Oct 2008