Interview with Tintin Wulia

AAA’s Enoch Cheng talks to Indonesian artist Tintin Wulia about global citizenship, the prevalence of maps in her work, and the secret that haunts her family


Enoch Cheng (AAA): Nationality and cultural identity are recurring themes in your work, for example in the kinetic installation Invasion, where you used a passport to make kites and Collection of Togetherness, where you actually painted a passport. Can you tell us what your interest in these issues stems from?

Tintin Wulia (TW): In Invasion, what I used were not passports. They were copies of my family's legal identity documents. They are usually kept in secrecy and have an aura of untouchable value. These documents have been in my family's possession since the 1950s when the Indonesian government began to implement discriminatory regulations on the minority group that they defined as Chinese Indonesian. My family is a part of this minority group. One of these discriminatory regulations forced Chinese Indonesians to close their businesses in rural areas and relocate into urban areas, and in its implementation, many Chinese Indonesian families were taken from their homes in the villages, loaded into trucks, and transported to the city, in many cases with violence.

Not long after this, the Indonesian government required the Chinese Indonesians to 'choose' between an Indonesian citizenship and the Chinese citizenship (that they never had). Many lost faith in the Indonesian government and chose to 'go home' to China, a 'home' they had never known, whose language they had never spoken. Some of my relatives chose to go to China though the only language they really spoke was Balinese. They have since become rootless, moving through continents on the earth like lost kites. The ones that chose to remain in Indonesia, including my parents’ families, had to change their Chinese names to Indonesian-sounding names, and had to renounce their Chinese citizenships, citizenships they never knew they had. Subsequent to this was the banning of Chinese language and culture in Indonesia.  

I grew up not knowing about these regulations, because they were not really talked about. But I sensed that I was different, and that I was treated differently. One of the things that made me feel different is a family secret: in 1965 my grandfather was taken from the family home during one of Indonesia's biggest political turmoils that the government defined as a communist coup. His body was never found. I grew up, during Soeharto's regime, with this story as some sort of mix between a bedtime story about my grandfather, and a secret that had to be kept deeply. Because it was a secret, I felt I should not ask questions that might lead to the revealing of the truth. At school, history lessons taught me that people who were killed in 1965 were evil, they were atheistic communists and as such they deserved to die. All these history lessons glorified Soeharto as the saviour of the country, though he was a dictator for 33 years.

The Soeharto regime fell in 1998, the year I finished my bachelor-level studies. But it was not until 2002 that I was able to talk to my friends about the secret I had to keep. Talking about it made me realise that many families had similar secrets. In 2005, I finally found out more about the secret, and what happened to my family and many other Indonesian families in 1965.

By then I also had been traveling internationally to film festivals and exhibitions. Traveling as an Indonesian citizen, I had to constantly deal with endless visa applications in which I had to, practically, prove myself innocent and capable. An Indonesian passport is never enough—inside Indonesia government officials would ignore the fact that I have an Indonesian passport and always ask for my parents’ citizenship documents, and outside of Indonesia it has to have a valid visa sticker attached in it. So both ‘at home’ and 'abroad', I have always been purposefully identified—spotted, in many cases—as having a certain pedigree that requires me to constantly prove myself in order to have the common human rights—to be free of fear, to have a good education, to move freely.

During my travels I met with other travelers who experience similar issues—political refugees, exiles, other ethnic minorities experiencing similar treatments in their home countries, also just common people wanting to have common rights, really, like friends with different nationalities wanting to get married. That was when something that had been very personal for me was transformed into something quite universal.

In 2007, I began a project to collect passports from all the legitimate countries on earth, imitate them, and keep this collection current. I call this project (Re)Collection of Togetherness. Inside each of the passports, I swatted mosquitoes and next to the blood specks from the swatted mosquitoes I wrote names of people that I know. I show this work in stages, like a photograph of a certain moment in the progress of the project. This project is never-ending because as I see it, what I am doing is simply tracing the geopolitical movements of borders on the earth - which is never ending.

AAA: As I understand it, you carry two passports: Australian and Indonesian. Would you ever give one up? And speaking hypothetically, if you could ever create an identity or a nationality of your own, what would that be? Can you think of a combination of countries that you like and why? (I am thinking of your metaphor using the mosquito as a mixed-blood creature?)

TW: You've misunderstood. I do not have an Australian passport. If I did, I would have to renounce my Indonesian one. So giving one up, right now, would make me stateless. Maybe that could be the best choice for me . . . But, in reality, being stateless would simply prevent me from traveling. I don't want that.

As a child, I wanted to be a citizen of the world. But as an adult, I know that that's a fairy tale that will never happen in my lifetime. Garry Davis, a former Broadway actor, retired World War II bomber pilot, and now a peace activist, has created the 'world passport'. This is his newly created identity, as 'world citizen'. Davis claims to have been admitted into about 150 countries so far using his world passport - but at the risk of being jailed. But why would I want to create an identity or nationality of my own? The government has done that for me, and as an individual, I feel that a definite identity or nationality is the last thing I would want.

So, realistically, as an adult, if I want to be a citizen of the world, the only thing feasible in the current passport system is to have as many passports as I can have. Arthur Cravan, in his time, announced that he was a citizen of 20 countries. The number of countries that founded the League of Nations back then was 42, so I think by claiming himself as a citizen of 20 countries he was actually claiming that he was the first 'citizen of the world' that ever existed. That would make me the second, because I have 140 passports in my collection right now.

I think what you read about the mosquito as a mixed-blood creature is an interpretation from Landung Simatupang. It's interesting how we tend to relate identity with blood - because I don’t think the two are really related. Would a mosquito become me if she had my blood in her belly? I'm supposed to have 'Chinese' blood and that's exactly why I'm pigeonholed as a minority in Indonesia. But I am—everyone is—a minority everywhere, actually, not because of our blood but because of the way each of us was brought up. The belief that blood is related to identity is something imposed by the government, out of their needs to control their citizens.

This might sound like I somewhat disregard the physical, but look at how physical borders have been generally dissolving in the last decade. If we see the streaming cameras in the Texas Virtual Border Watch™ website, we rarely see any fence or wall - it is the social networking of the border watchers (you can register to watch the border from anywhere in the world) that is becoming the real border. In 2002, Heath Bunting did his BorderXing Guide project, commissioned by the Tate. The parts of the border that he crossed were the ones that of course didn't have a control mechanism. And so physically there would be a sign saying that it is the border, but there was no social mechanism done by the immigration officials that blocks the access between countries. Without this social mechanism, the physical border is not functional. So of course the physical is important, but it's the social values, the social mechanism, that actually gives life to the physical.

Before the age of nation-states, control of people’s movements was in the hands of religious bodies and landlords. Historians have argued that borders might have been more fluid back then. It is interesting how something like the Internet that has connected us to such a great extent has also made it easier to strengthen borders . . . like how the printing press, initially a means of freeing expression, became one of the crucial tools of nation building and control.

AAA: You involve your audience in the process of making a lot of your work. For example, in Nous ne notons pas les fleurs, you invited your audience to trace their routes, from where they were born to where they have been since, with flowers and spices to form a map. Or you have asked the audience to claim their land in Terra Icoginta with a cocktail umbrella. What have you learned from your audience member's reactions about their mobility and their sense of identity?

TW: Actually, Nous ne notons pas les fleurs, is not just one work. It's a cycle of process-based installation and performance works. So far, I have done four works in this cycle. I work with maps and flowers. In Nous ne notons pas les fleurs, Patna and also Nous ne notons pas les fleurs, Jakarta, I asked the audience to trace their routes. But in Nous ne notons pas les fleurs, Singapore, and recently (in process now) Nous ne notons pas les fleurs, Fort Ruigenhoek, the participation is a bit different, although still dealing with the theme of borders. In Terra Incognita, et cetera, I asked the audience to claim their land and write their last names next to their claimed territory.

Generally, people love the maps. It is very easy for maps to fascinate people. There is a sense of pride in knowing where they are in the world—and where they have been. When they think that my map doesn't represent their country correctly, they complain. This also happens with the passports in (Re)Collection of Togetherness—as though the shapes, the dimensions, the colours, the locations associated with their countries are very important and very personal to them. Recently, a woman looking at the arrangement of the map of Fort Ruigenhoek claimed that she knew the world map so well that she could recognise it from all different angles. Travel and mobility is usually highly regarded, and people who have not traveled dream of traveling. There is also pride, for example, in having passports from multiple countries. These issues are interesting because our (national) identification systems are geared towards rootedness; having a valid identity enables you to travel but you need to be living in one place, and have one address in order to do so.

Young children, however, look at these maps as unknown patterns of colour. In Jakarta, several toddlers brought by their parents were simply more interested in playing with the loose flowers and seeing themselves in the monitor. Some of them also tended to sort the flowers, as though wanting order. In the opening of Kaap 2011 at Fort Ruigenhoek, I asked the audience, which was made up of mostly children, to match pots to coloured saucers on the ground. A group of boys were really interested in putting the orange pots into the map, orange being the colour of the Netherlands . . . which became quite interesting because in the Fort Ruigenhoek map, orange represents Australia, so Australia was the first continent that was populated. A 3 year-old came with her parents and immediately picked up a pot, brought it to her dad asking him to smell the flowers—she did this repeatedly. For her, smelling the flowers was obviously more important than the fact that the flowerpots were arranged in the shape of the world map, and her parents were wise enough not to try explaining.

It was interesting how some people refused to claim a territory in Terra Incognita, et cetera, because they were ‘not interested in owning land’. Mainly, people were excited to mark the wall; some tried to claim as many lands as possible, cheerfully—I think it's human nature. When I first did Terra Incognita, et cetera at Bus Gallery in Melbourne, I saw that some of the handwriting on my map matched handwriting I found on the walls of the gallery’s toilet. When we think of it in the context of toilet graffiti, it is interesting how people tend to want to mark the places they have been. A group of people took photos in front of the country they are from in reality, which they had claimed on the map as well (before anyone else with a different nationality could claim it). Someone from Indonesia claimed Malaysia; she didn't tell me why, but I knew that it had something to do with the recent unofficial battle of cultural property rights between Indonesians and Malaysians. When I did this work in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, someone from Maluku claimed the Maluku isles, saying that Maluku should be independent from Indonesia. It is interesting to see how emotional and personal border issues can be.

AAA: You have a very interesting background. You studied film scoring and architecture but you ultimately pursued your Ph.D. in Fine Art. How did this path lead you to become an artist? Why did you feel the need to pursue a Ph.D.?

TW: I have been involved with music since I was very young, but I decided to study architecture after high school. There was a moment of revelation in the beginning of my architecture study that I hadn't really been using my eyes too much, so I started learning to use my eyes properly. I also learned about the significance of space and how the composition of architectural elements ultimately functions in defining space. I started studying music in a formal setting when I was in my fourth year of architecture school, and since then I have realised more and more how music and architecture are so similar. When I studied film scoring, I also had a multimedia job. That was when I started getting acquainted with digital video as a medium. At that time, firewire was unheard of and MiniDV technology was being anticipated with great enthusiasm. After graduating, it was more viable for me to get jobs in the music industry, so I didn't practice architecture. I also continued doing video jobs on the side—mostly editing. At one point, however, doing things for other people under tight deadlines became too exhausting and I vowed to start making work that was truly for myself. That's when I started making art, or film, as that is what I was focused on back then.

At one point, people started to label me—as a filmmaker, a video artist, as a filmmaker-slash-video artist. I was uncomfortable with these labels and realised that even when my work seemed to talk to a lot of people, I didn't have a big picture of what I was doing. This feeling went on for several years actually, and so I decided to find the time to really reflect on my work to be able to go on. Honestly, I really don't know what a Ph.D. will offer me in term of status, because the academic world was and still is quite foreign to me. But this practice-based research Ph.D. that I'm doing has been quite helpful in sharpening my practice. I see it like a very long residency.

AAA: I know you are very close to your grandfather and he has inspired some of your work. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

TW: I was close to my late grandfather through my late father. The only place I have met my grandfather, once in my life, was on a beach in a dream. He was silent; I was too. He did not look straight to my eyes; he kind of looked over me. But somehow in that dream, I knew that he knew I was his granddaughter. We communicated through speechlessness. They say that the dead don't talk in dreams, so I knew that he was dead. When I awoke, I realised that one of the few images of him that is very familiar to me was a painting of his face. In this painting, he was not looking at us, but looked slightly over us. Apparently, I brought this image into my dream.

So really, I was never close to my grandfather. All the things I have known about my grandfather have come from my father, and yes, I was very close to my father. In each of his stories about my grandfather's disappearance, my father said that I had to keep my mouth shut about it. There was always a sense of danger, which makes me think that the story must have been very important to pass along otherwise the risk would have prevented it from being told.

My father told me that my grandfather used to stage theatre plays, usually comedies. My father's first stage experience was as a crying boy in one of these comedies. His father, my grandfather, was running short of actors that day, and so he called my father and told him to just come up on stage on cue, and say that he was hungry, that he wanted some bananas to eat. My father did exactly that, and convincingly cried on top of that. The crying, he said, was more because he was so frightened to stand in front of so many people in the audience. I wonder what the play was about - my father didn't really know. But I know that during that period a lot of people in Indonesia were hungry. I like to think that it was a critical satire that my grandfather had staged. When my grandfather was taken away from home, he had just finished meditating. That was one of his routines.

AAA: You seem very sensitive to the liminal space between one place and another. Can you talk about the metaphor that the door represents to you in the videos Slabangricketychuck and Ketok?

TW: These doors are only metaphors in retrospect, actually. It is interesting that in the same year I did those 2 short films and in both of them the door is a prominent element. I made them both in 2002. In 2003, after about 18 months of waiting, my Australian permanent residency was granted. I think it was a nice coincidence that while I was waiting to enter Australia, I made films with doors.

AAA: What are you working on now? Do you have any upcoming projects?

TW: I'm working on several projects at the moment. A new video, The Most International Artist in the Universe, is being screened as part of 'Commercial Break', a project shown during the Venice Biennale, curated by Neville Wakefield with Defne Ayas and Davide Quadrio (Arthub Asia) as content consultants. I'm also working with Espace culturel Louis Vuitton, on a show curated by Hervé Mikaeloff that's opening in June, making a new work that is stage 6 of (Re)Collection of Togetherness, where the audience wrote their names directly to the passport that they were assigned to through a lucky dip and where at the end the pedestals fall like domino blocks. I'm still working on the new Nous ne notons pas les fleurs, Fort Ruigenhoek, with Kaap 2011, curated by Tiong Ang, which will go on until 10 July 2011. After that, I will do a 6-week residency at ZKM Karlsruhe as part of their ‘Global Contemporary’ project in September and October. I'm also working towards a few solo shows this and next year, and of course, trying to finish writing my Ph.D. exegesis.




Enoch CHENG, 鄭得恩

Fri, 1 Jul 2011

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