Art Collectives in Indonesia -Part 1-

Two Rounds: From Post-New Order to the Decentralization Era


Gatari Surya Kusuma

When we discuss art collectives in the context of contemporary Indonesia (post the 1998 New Order era), we would find that art collectivism is not merely a form of collective coping mechanism and celebration. This practice also serves as a spirit or a movement. This could be traced back through the timeline of visual arts, in which the movements that emerged to oppose a regime were collective-based movements. The following subchapter will discuss this further. 
Moreover, within the art history timeline, the rise of art collectives in the late '90s and early 2000s marked the spirit of celebrating the end of the new order or also known as the reformation era. During the dictatorship era of President Soeharto - or the New Order era, government surveillance had reached through domestic spaces and personal privacy. This included monitoring the opinion and activities of the public. There was even a ban on groups that were not legally registered. Back then, this kind of group was called the 'wild' groups. 
Aside from being the spirit of celebrating the end of a repressive regime, art collectivism is also purely a collective survival strategy for art school graduates towards becoming artists. Some also employed this method in their creative processes and completely surrendered the collective spirit into capitalistic values, where they eventually only calculate everything with numbers and productivity. This is in contrast with art collectives that emerged and survived until the 2000s. These collectives valued maintenance works in the domestic space of the collective in addition to their productive works in public spaces. 
Undoubtedly, when addressing art collectivism as a movement, there is an echo that resonates this practice with other movements. I will not limit the context of movement in this case only to a certain activity that emerged in public space. I will rather include models of collectivism associated with collective spirit as a survival method and that actively incorporate maintenance works in their collective practice. However, not a few movements that produce ambitious figures to become geniuses with the initiative to expand to a broader scope. Such a tendency is not limiting this writing. Instead, I am using the tendency as a tool to understand the expanse and diversity of collectives that emerged from the end of the New Order - and the impact of the Indonesian New Art Movement - up until now, the era in which contemporary art is being massively hyped and debated simultaneously.    
In this writing, I intend to do an analysis on art collectives in Indonesia starting with discussing how they have emerged, grown and became sporadic. I then proceed with searching for answers to the questions: has the function of art collectives changed as challenges arose throughout the changing of times? What makes art collectives an option in art practice?

Round I: The Spirit of Collective in the Indonesian New Art Movement (GSRB) and the Excitement of Post New Order Art Collectives

Upon delving into the overflowing records related to the Indonesian New Art Movement, I found a writing by Jim Supangkat. As a person closely associated with the movement, he managed to write openly and objectively about how this movement grew and fell, without sinking into the romanticism or  collectivism of the movement. The Indonesian New Art Movement is a part of contemporary art history. There are several points of this movement that I consider necessary to be mentioned in this writing, particularly in regards to understanding art collectivism as a spirit and movement. One is the reason behind the founding of this movement, and another is the reason behind their fall. The two important events of the Indonesian New Art Movement serve as an approach towards understanding the spirit of art collectives now and in the past.
According to the art critic, Jim Supangkat, in his writing entitled Sekitar Bangkit dan Runtuhnya Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru(1983:32), he explained that the embryos of the Indonesian New Art Movement derived from two art schools, namely ASRI Arts Academy in Yogyakarta and Visual Arts Faculty of the Bandung Institute of Technology. Both parties had encountered similar challenges, which is the ideological tension in art practice between teachers and students. The teachers at ASRI Arts Academy highly appraised emotional upheaval and cherished feelings. Hence, they prohibited their students from using rulers or other measuring tools and encouraged them to surrender their work completely to the lines created by emotions and feelings. Meanwhile, the students felt that such rules were actually limiting their creative process.
Likewise, teachers in Bandung highly valued order and discipline over lines and emphasized the use of measuring tools in every art-making process. The students rather perceived this as limiting than liberating. These two conditions triggered the emergence of the Indonesian New Art Movement, which was very closely related to the youth movement. 
The tension between teachers and students in Yogyakarta escalated at the 1974 Great Indonesian Painting Exhibition in Jakarta. In this exhibition, a group of emerging artists from Yogyakarta challenged the decision of juries that seemed to favour decorative arts. In reality, the teachers in Yogyakarta were supportive of decorative arts. This protest was turned into a statement widely known as the Black December Statement. At that time, students were against "decorative arts" as they perceived such an art form to be merely presenting beauty and restraining the function of art that could actually be further expanded. For instance, art could be used as a tool to criticize political situations or to talk about everyday problems that were not easily expressed. This resonated with the socio-political climate of Indonesia at that time, where freedom of expression was repressed by the New Order government. 
This protest eventually led to the dismissal of students involved in the Black December Statement by the campus (then ASRI Arts Academy, now the Indonesian Institute of the Arts, Yogyakarta). This incident obviously triggered an even more powerful and larger movement. Students in Yogyakarta and Bandung then gathered and planned steps as collective strategies and managed to hold the first Exhibition of the New Art Movement by 1975 in Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta. 
The Black December Statement and the act of openly criticizing teachers by the young students were their efforts to reclaim freedom in their artistic expression and creation. They demanded that art must be expanded beyond aesthetics and decoration. There were three points they demanded to achieve: art must not lean on only one single narrative, art must embrace all visual art entities, and art must be expressed rationally and prioritize statements that are based on the aesthetic of liberation.[1]

  • The Black December

The core purpose of the Indonesian New Art Movement is to diminish barriers in visual arts that uphold the values of a singular truth as well as the creation of singular figures as absolute masters. This is the spirit they intended to plant and nurture with the Indonesian New Art Movement[2]. In practice, nurturing is way more difficult than starting it. By 1979, the Indonesian New Art Movement ceased to exist. 
Jim Supangkat recounted the reason behind the fall of the Indonesian New Art Movement in chronological order. Ironically, the movement was disbanded as they eventually fell onto their version of ideal values and were slowly walking towards the creation of a singular visual art narrative. The group split into two. On one hand, some members wished for the Indonesian New Art Movement to keep growing and expanding. On the other hand, some individuals were unwilling to open to progression and to accept new members. Many of the members were becoming what they have previously been opposing. They became arrogant and made offensive comments on the works of the new members, such as "not good" and "inappropriate". They were reluctant to admit the new growth introduced by new members. It was as if they were not ready to accept that this movement was not solely theirs and that they must be able to resonate with the conventional social values of the time. 
The failure of the Indonesian New Art Movement caused the Indonesian visual art realm to be even more complex and clueless. The most obvious impact was a wider gap between the arts that talk about social problems and the ones that focus on aesthetical functions. This issue derived from the two polars that the Indonesian New Are Movement were opposing. However, it is also possible that those whose artworks are part of gallery collections were consciously or subconsciously forming their own clique. Thus, explained by Jim Supangkat regarding the collapse of the Indonesian New Are Movement and the situation at the time.
The long term impact of this event is the neverending discussion of social-based arts within the visual arts realm. This is also because the works of the New Art Movement members strongly emphasize political and social aspects. In other words, they were activating the function of art as the leading force of politics and a medium of expression. However, they overlooked the effort to connect their work with their society or community. The Institute for the People's Culture (LEKRA) [2]  had also stressed this issue. Unfortunately, the struggle did not last long because the Suharto regime had put an end to it.
Lekra upheld an artistic method called ‘descend from above’ or ‘going down to the masses’ (known as Turun ke Bawah - Turba). This method emphasizes that artists also feel and experience firsthand what is considered as the "lowest" at that time[3]. Lekra's art forms varied and were not limited to any particular medium. For instance: a mobile ketoprak show that travelled from village to village. Quoting the story told by Hersri in his book entitled “Dunia Dikepung Jangan dan Harus”, people used the phrase “watching/seeing Lekra” when talking about seeing the mobile ketoprak show. This movement emerged as a critique towards the arts and cultural situation of that era, where artworks were confined to the walls of museums or galleries. However, the reality of Lekra's end represented the cruelty of the Suharto regime at that time. Again, narratives and art practices had to return to galleries, museums, and eventually experienced confusion afterwards.
The spirit of collectivism from the Lekra era to the Indonesian New Art Movement time was the spirit that emerged as an attempt to break the norms of necessity that had dulled the sensitivity of artists to their social environment instead. Surely, this aspect still applies to this day when art is still running in the midst of the hectic art market and the demands to be somebody or something in the midst of ecological damages, violence, and social injustice.
However, a slightly different tone occurred after the New Order era. There was a collective wave that emerged in the 1999-2005 period. This span of time is the time when young people felt the turmoil of freedom, particularly when they celebrated their success in overthrowing Suharto from the throne of the President. They finally had the chance to experiment in any form. This uproar also contributed to the emergence of collectives in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Makassar. The three collectives possess a special character because they responded to social conventions at that time.
[1] The manifesto of the Indonesian New Art Movement (Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru) 1987.
[2] Lekra or Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (Institute for the People's Culture) is a people's organization formed in 1950 and had to discontinue at the hands of President Soeharto in 1965 because it was considered part of the Indonesian Communist Party.
[3] According to the notes of Hersri Setiawan, a member of Lekra, in his book entitled "Dari Dunia Dikepung Jangan dan Harus" (2019: 249), 'down' refers to the people who suffer the most in their lives. This method was formulated in response to the bohemian lifestyle of 1945s generation artists who were reluctant to see and bound themselves to the conventional social life. Therefore, this method attempted to break such a lifestyle.

→ To Art Collectives in Indonesia -Part 2-

About the Writer

  • Gatari Surya Kusuma

Gatari Surya Kusuma is a art researcher, writer and curator based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. After graduating from the Department of Photography at the Indonesian Institute of the Art in 2016 (BA), she has been developing and sharpening her collectivity practices with her two collectives, doing action research and deepened critical pedagogy with KUNCI Study Forum & Collective and the School of Improper Education. In addition to this, she also does artistic production and ethnographic research related to food the Bakudapan Food Study Group.