Ferial Afiff, a staff member from the Indonesian Visual Art Archive (IVAA) and a performance artist, taught me to get used to this ‘Indonesian style’ – where everything in the country generally happens about one hour late. At the same time, the many digits of Indonesian currency (rupiah) made me a millionaire and a lack of road signs made me feel disoriented. This ‘Indonesian style’ not only became a pet phrase among me and the performance artists that I befriended during my trip, but it also offered me a clue to understanding the culture, contemporary art and even performance art of Indonesia. 

My trip to Jogja, Bandung and Jakarta was part of a Research Exchange programme supported by the Arts Network Asia (ANA) and co-organized by Asia Art Archive and IVAA. I took this opportunity to obtain a glimpse into the performance art scene in Indonesia, first through a literary review at the IVAA and then through a series of artist interviews in three cities, throughout the month of July 2010.

The research trip has not only filled my suitcase with an abundance of collected material (more than 8kg of books and other printed materials, and more than 50GB of digital files), but I have also crafted valuable friendships with the artists I met. Indonesia is such an enclosed country – people have limited access to foreign cultures due to an insufficient amount of funding for traveling (not even for traveling to other cities in the country). Foreign books are expensive and the Internet is slow to download or upload large-sized data such as videos. Therefore, foreigners such as myself are important and popular sources of information from the outside world. At the same time, the warm and sincere personalities of artists that I met along the way made my trip fruitful and satisfying.

With the help of IVAA, I identified ten key performance artists or groups in the three cities for interviews. The interviews aimed to review their practices and the development of performance art in Indonesia. Most of the artists I met have visual art backgrounds, while some of them have also been working in theatre. However, they all have very clear ideas about performance art versus performing arts such as theatre:  the former is about real-life actions whereas the latter is acting characters in a play [1].  Take for example, W Christiawan, a Bandung-based artist who founded the Aesbesto Art Spacededicated to performance art and who is also a lecturer in the Theatre Department of Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Art College), Bandung. Christiawan mentioned that performance art is a way of experiencing reality through pain and torture. Performance art is a means to deal with real-life experiences of the artist and audience.

As my trip progressed, I began to observe how the Indonesian contemporary art scene is very divided.  On the one hand, tangible art forms that are easy to sell in the booming art market, such painting and sculpture, dominate the scene. On the other hand, performance art, mostly using an artist’s body as the medium of expression, seems to be the most handy and affordable alternative to other art forms. For artists in Indonesia, performance art is an immediate and low-cost way of expressing their ideas and delivering their message directly to audiences, while touching on a great variety of topics. Judging from the documentation I viewed at the IVAA or was shown by artists, the subject matter of performance artworks range from social-political issues to the environment, body, personal exploration and artistic experimentation. Artists also explore various forms including action-based or durational performance, the use of spoken language and text, daily life action and interaction with the audience. 

The 1998 reformation movement played a critical role in the contemporary history of Indonesia. Many artists during this time used performance or art actions to make political statements. Iwan Wijono’s The Greenman (1996), which questioned the problem of environmental destruction in the face of consumerism, is one of the most renowned art actions to touch on social-political issues. Art Football (2000) by acclaimed artist Tisna Sanjaya, whose work often blurs the boundaries between art and everyday life, is another example of the intertwining of art and social problems. There is also Mimi Fadmi, one of the few female performance artists in Indonesia, who dealt with gender politics in her work Should We Cover Our Outer Self with Everything When the Inner Self Has Nothing? (2002).

As the political situation became more stable, artists have become increasingly concerned with personal and artistic exploration, and performances are more than staged body actions but develop through performative practice.  From Letters to International Curators (2008) by Reza ‘Asung’ Afisina to the Secret Book Project (2010) where Angga Wedhaswhara worked with a group of children in a village during the Jatiwangi Artists in Residence Festival (JARF), the majority of action-based works are projects that intend to break through the framework of performativity in a conceptual form [2].

Insufficient funding restricts Indonesian artists from having access to the international art scene. When asked about their references or artists that influence them the most, the answers I received were limited: Boris Nieslony who was invited to perform by the Asbestos Art Space in Bandung, was the most cited example of references (especially in Bandung). Others included international artists such as Joseph Beuys and Marina Abramovic, whose works have never been seen live by the interviewed artists, but were learned about in books, as well as Arahmaiani, the pioneer of performance art in Indonesia. Books in university libraries and photocopies of books are major sources of knowledge for these artists, and word-of-mouth is an important method of transferring information among artists.

The notion of community is an important element in the contemporary art scene in Indonesia where one can find remarkable numbers of performance art communities. These groups are not only artist collectives but also present performance art events in different cities. Koloni Hitam (or Black Colony in English) is a loose interdisciplinary performance art group formed by students at Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia (Indonesian University of Education), Bandung in 2005. Core members Agung Jek and Ackay Deni are still sustaining the group by initiating collective performances from time to time, in addition to their own individual practices. Similarly in Jakarta, Rewind Art Community, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2011, first started as a student group in the Fine Art Department of the Universitas Negeri Jakarta (State University of Jakarta), organizing annual performance art events on the campus since 2001. Both groups, which have never performed outside Indonesia, are good examples of artists performing collectively as well as supporting and learning from each other in an enclosed setting. Meanwhile, Performance Klub in Jogja, founded by Iwan Wijono, appears to be a more open group as they organize the annual festival Perfurbance and other projects that involve international artists.

Despite the burgeoning festival scene in Asia, it is rare to meet Indonesian artists at these events. However, when I do meet such artists in festivals they often enthusiastically tell me about the events organized by themselves or their friends in their cities. I was surprised to learn about the abundance of small, local events organized by various artists in different cities rather than a large-scale and long-running international festival. There have been a few over the years. The Jakarta International Performance Art Festival (JIPAF) in 2000 was organized by Arahmaiani after her participation in the influential Nippon International Performance Art Festival (NIPAF) directed by Seiji Shimoda in Japan. Two Bandung Performance Art Festivals (BaPAF) took place in 2000 and 2003, and on the occasion of the International Association of Performance Art Organizers (IAPAO) meeting in 2004 an international festival was organized by Yoyoyogasmana Durangduraring. The Asian Youth Imagination (2009), meanwhile, is an example of an international performance art event organized by the younger generation.

Until now, the most sustainable international festivals have been  Undisclosed Territory organized by the German-based Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo (since 2007, it held its fourth edition this April), and Perfurbance in Jogjakarta (since 2005, it held its fourth edition in 2008). Undisclosed Territory is a platform for local and international performance art, facilitating intensive study programmes including lectures and video screenings. Positioned as a social event, Perfurbance adopts a stance of goodwill by using art to build society and takes place in a rural area in Jogja. However, this makes performance art even more marginalized in the mainstream contemporary art scene and amid the general public. Small events featuring local artists take place occasionally, for example, on the occasion of my visit to Bandung, the Aesbesto Art Space organized the Bandung Calling: Mini Festival of Performance Art. The performance art scene in Indonesia has never been quiet, yet still the opportunities of international exchange remain limited.

A lack of funding support and limited access to the outside world have brought about a unique environment for the contemporary art scene in Indonesia. How can it open up to wider horizons?  Located at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and the boundary of Asia, Indonesia stands in a special position in the Asia-Pacific region. Frequent cultural exchanges with visiting Australian artists have at least opened a window to the outside world for Indonesian artists. The performance art scene in Indonesia, based on my observations in Jogja, Bandung and Jakarta, is more laid-back and seems to retreat from the thriving festival scene in Asia. At first glance, life in Indonesia can be confusing but there is always a system within the chaos. After all, what does ‘Indonesian style’ mean? There may be a long road ahead for Indonesian artists to developing a performance art of their own characteristics. Mapping Indonesia in the Asia-Pacific, will we be able to see possibilities of opening up such an enclosed culture in the so-called global context? How should Indonesia catch up with the trend of more frequent international exchanges across the world? What are the cultural politics involved? There are a lot of questions to be explored and answered. At the very least, I hope that my research will serve as a preliminary observation of the performance art scene in Indonesia and entice further investigation in the future.

1. It is often said that in performance art, as compared with traditional performing arts, has no plot or storyline and no characters, the artist are performing definite tasks in front of the audience in real-time and real-space or everyday life settings instead of a momentary and imaginary world created by a writer, actors, dancers, choreographers or director.
2. Please refer to the images for further details of these projects.

Special thanks to Aesbestos Art Space, Indonesian Visual Art Archive and the following artists for their contribution of time and materials in my research: Ackay Deni, Agung Jek, Angga Wedaswara, Arief ‘Nganga’ Darmawan, Ferial Afiff, I Gede Made Surya Darma, Iwan Wijono, Koloni Hitam, M Lugus Syllabus, Mimi Fadmi, Rewind Art Community, Reza ‘Asung’ Afisina, Ronald Apriyan, Tisna Sanjaya and W Christiawan.