Published  18/12/2015

Jompet Kuswidananto: ‘I am dealing with a culture that is never really fixed’

Jompet Kuswidananto: ‘I am dealing with a culture that is never really fixed’

The Indonesian artist explains his work for Sonica 2015 and how he seeks to use sound installation and performance to evoke the feeling and experience of living through a political regime change


Jompet Kuswidananto (b1976) started out as a musician, producing records and performances while at university. Trained in communications, he went on to learn about visual art from the local community in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. His productions developed, and he now works both individually, on installations, videos, sound art and performances, and collectively with Teater Garasi, a contemporary theatre group based in Yogyakarta. His work has been shown widely, including at the Yokohama Triennale (2008), the Lyon Biennale (2009), the Moscow Biennale for Young Art (2012), the Venice Biennale (2011) and the Taipei Biennale (2012). Having recently begun producing work in association with Cryptic, a Glasgow-based multimedia art house, Kuswidananto took part in Sonica, an international festival encompassing music, performance, sound, multimedia and visual art.

Kuswidananto spoke to Studio International about the development of his work, the research behind it, and how it might be preserved for posterity.

Anna McNay: You’re here in Glasgow as part of Sonica, which is a sound art festival. You started out as a musician, playing guitar in a rock band while studying communication at university in Yogyakarta. How and when did you extend this to creating sound performances and then also accompanying visual installations?

Jompet Kuswidananto: I played music from when I was very young until about 13 years ago. I have also worked with theatre for a long time now. About 15 years ago, I began developing my music into a more performative kind of art by combining music and visuals, and I found I was quite comfortable as a visual artist. Now my personal projects are mostly installations. I use a lot of sound elements.

AMc: Would you say your starting point is the visual or the sound?

JK: The sound. I didn’t study art anyway, so I don’t have such a strict discipline. I studied communication in the social and political faculty at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, and I learned a lot about journalism and video productions, so sometimes I make video art as well. I don’t have a need to define my medium.

AMc: Let’s talk about your work here for Sonica, Order and After (2015). The damp and musty ladies’ pool in the disused Govanhill Baths has provided you with the perfect setting for an installation in which a number of red flags rise and fall in the mist to the soundscape of narrated and sung testimonies. You say that you start with the sound. What is the idea behind this work? I know a lot of your work is very research-based.

JK: My art projects are mostly based on Indonesian history. In particular, I focus on the history of cultural transitions, of which Indonesia has been through a variety. From the fifth century on, first Hinduism came, then Buddhism, then Islam, then colonial history, and then independence. A lot has happened in quite a short timespan. I am interested to see how Indonesians deal with these states of transition. This last year, I have been looking at more recent history: from the colonial to now. I am also interested to see how the rise and fall of the regimes during this time have affected the way in which Indonesians understand or perceive their history. The political ups and downs during this period have been very significant in shaping people’s collective memory. Many victims fall at each point of transition, but this is never discussed properly. The state never admits to any kind of violence. So I’m interested to see how Indonesians perceive this passing of time.

I started to collect historical notes, interviews and testimonies from people who, for me, represent these points of transition – for example, the testimony of a soldier, who was in prison for 32 years, accused of killing a general and subjected to an unfair trial; governmental statements of apology for military violence from the previous regime; and the transcript of an interview with an activist, who was kidnapped during the pro-democratic movement in 1990. I collected this narrative of transitions, of the rise and fall of regimes, to give a sense of the feelings. In this particular work, the rise and fall of an object is, I think, quite a direct metaphor for the rise and fall of the regimes. I took excerpts from the different transcripts I had collected and invited two of my friends to sing these lines.

AMc: Obviously the audience here can’t understand what is being sung. Do you worry that they might be missing out on something important?

JK: Not necessarily. I don’t intend to give any clear message to the audience. I just want to share the feelings and the interior experience of being in that kind of a situation. But if the audience wants to know more about the content, there is usually some text to accompany the installation: a general explanation and also a transcript of each song.

AMc: A lot of your work has been shown abroad at various biennales and triennales. Is it received differently by international audiences than by Indonesian audiences?

JK: I am sure it is differently received, yes. My work is based on my local issues, but I believe that was has happened in Indonesia is related to the wider reality out there. It is always exciting for me to share any kind of local story with the rest of the world. Each time it is differently perceived, it gives fresh input for me.

AMc: You were talking about feelings just now, and the atmosphere in the baths is really not like anywhere I’ve ever been before. How did you end up in this particular venue? Was it your choice?

JK: No, I didn’t select the venue. I only came to visit last month to see the space, so my work doesn’t really respond to the historical narrative of the place. I came here with the work I was going to show already in mind. But I am dealing a lot with the space as a physical space.

AMc: Did you create this work especially for Sonica, or did it already exist?

JK: I created it new for Sonica. I had already done a piece that worked with flags, but it was very different from this one.

AMc: You say that the sound always comes first. So did you have the idea, come and see the venue, and then create the work accordingly?

JK: Not really, no. I had, as I mentioned, previously had quite a similar piece with the flags going up and down, albeit with a different narrative. I knew that I would be in this festival before I saw the space, so I had already begun to develop my project and narrative. I came upon this narrative and thought I could present it through the flags. When I came to see the space, it just confirmed my idea that it was going to work.

AMc: Is there a particular significance to the colour red?

JK: Not really. I just thought it was the best colour for the space, as all the cubicles are painted red. I wanted the work to unite physically with the space.

AMc: The industrial fans are part of the work as well, I presume?

JK: Yes, functionally they are there to blow the flags. And the smoke machine is part of the drama, too. I don’t have a tendency to make a beautiful piece – the mechanics are quite exposed. You can see the fan and the machinery. They’re just there and I don’t cover them. Sometimes, the voice of the singer is out of tune too.

AMc: It works like that, though, because it adds a rawness to the piece.

JK: Exactly. That’s what I want. The work is raw and it is not a fixed entity.

AMc: Having seen some of your earlier works, I was expecting this one to also have some of your standard features, such as military costumes – worn by figures that aren’t there. You haven’t got that this time, but there is still a sense of presence, of absent figures hoisting the flags up and down.  

JK: Yes, this work is quite different visually from my earlier works. I am not sure if this is because it comes from a different point of departure. Working with these states of transition, I am dealing with a culture that is never really fixed, never really in a state in which you can grab it or touch it. It’s like a ghost. That’s why I create ghost figures. But, this time, I wanted to borrow people’s personal experiences of remembering or forgetting, and I found the way in which Indonesian people remember and forget to be very ephemeral: one day something is celebrated; the next day it is forgotten. And this cycle repeats, like a flag repeatedly being hoisted and taken down.

I had a solo show in Amsterdam this year, where I showed some of my costume pieces. I invited Cathy from Cryptic [Cathie Boyd, founder and artistic director of Cryptic], whom I’d met when she was on a research trip in Indonesia, to come and see it, and she liked it and brought it here to Glasgow, where it was shown at the Glue Factory. I have enjoyed working with Cryptic because it is not like the art institutions I usually work with – it is not visual arts-focused, it is more music and performance-oriented. It gives a slightly different way of producing art works. I also work with theatre and performance in Indonesia and it creates another kind of experience.

AMc: Do you consider your theatre work to be separate from your artwork?

JK: I work both collectively and personally. Collectively, I work with the theatre group Teater Garasi. We’ve been working together for something like 15 years. When I create a performance piece with them, it is Teater Garasi’s piece, not my personal piece. My installations are mostly my personal work.

AMc: When you were talking about Indonesian history, you used the word “celebrated” and the text to accompany Order and After talks about its being “anthropological and celebratory”. On the one hand, of course, it is, but is it not also critical of the regimes and the deletion of this history?

JK: No, this piece is not criticising the thread of history. It is more of a comment on the way in which Indonesians see Indonesia in their minds. One example is how, in 1998, everyone was excited to take the regime down. Everything related to the regime was taken away. But, at last year’s presidential elections, we had only two candidates and one of them had been a high-ranking general during this previous regime, who had ordered the kidnapping of activists. Now, a few years later, this is all apparently forgotten. People have forgotten what they don’t want to remember. He didn’t win the election, but it was very close – the winner only had 52%, or something like that.

AMc: So your work is more of a social comment than a political comment, would you say?

JK: Yes.

AMc: You’ve made a previous work about marginalised communities that have been forced to move to the peripheries of the cities. Do you consider artists to be marginalised in Indonesia? What is the art scene like there?

JK: Indonesia is very big and the contemporary art scene there is located in just four cities. Its size is not comparable with the hugeness of Indonesia. But, in South East Asia, the Indonesian contemporary art scene is the biggest. First of all, I would say that Indonesia doesn’t have a good education system. People have to get their knowledge from different sources. There is no funding from the government for artists – especially for contemporary art. The state government understands only traditional art for tourism. Both contemporary and traditional art are mostly funded by private collectors. I only make installations though – I don’t paint – and most of the collectors are buying paintings. There are only a few collectors who are crazy enough to have installations in their collections. But it’s OK. For a contemporary artist in Indonesia who is serious about being an artist, the network system is good and Indonesia is connected to most of the South East Asian countries.

AMc: Do you use the research that you do as part of your work for any educational purposes?

JK: No. I do research, but I am not a scientist. My methods are not scientifically rigorous. Every artist has to do research in one way or another. I’m not a good researcher. I’m not confident to share my research with people. I work with a real researcher, however, and share information and knowledge.

AMc: Do you have plans to show this work anywhere else?

JK: Not yet, no. It is very site-specific, so if I were to show it elsewhere, I would have to make alterations. The size of the flags is specific to this space. I don’t have any plans yet.

AMc: So how will the work continue to live? Do you have documentation?

JK: Yes, I document it and film it.

AMc: If a collector wanted to buy the work, what would he get?

JK: I’ve had a lot of strange experiences with this issue. Usually, my work is quite big. It is not easy to display in a private house – not as easy as a painting. I have had some private collectors buy my big installations, but they never display them. They just put them in a box. My works travel and are shown in many countries. Sometimes, private collectors will buy a work, knowing they can’t display it at home, but they are happy to lend it to be shown elsewhere. I don’t always understand the way these people think. But my work is not like a sculpture – it doesn’t have a fixed form. When it is shown in a new space, there is an open possibility to modify it.

Order and After was at Govanhill Baths, Glasgow from 29 October to 8 November as part of Sonica 2015.
Jompet Kuswidananto has just started a residency programme at NTU CCA Singapore for two months and has a solo show at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney, 24 June – 3 September 2016.

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