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Trickery at Jakarta Biennale

The Jakarta Biennale opening night was an event best enjoyed in shorts, slippers, and hair pulled up in a bun. Underground parking lots are a rather unusual place for public gathering, yet it is the center stage of the bi-annual contemporary public art exhibition. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead and slowly trickled down my chin. It was easy to get lost in all the art displays, but for one’s own sake, it was best to stay alert. Most of the crowd moved sluggishly, but there were zig-zaggers with flaming cigarettes between their fingers and cameras poised in the air. There were puddles of water on the ground from one of the performances and the slippery cement floor proved to be rather tricky for those in heels.  One needs to be tactical in maneuvering the atypical art space, just like how one would in the streets or markets of Jakarta.

If the intention of the brains and hearts behind Jakarta Biennale is to convey a microcosm of Jakarta through art, I think they are definitely successful. Although I still may not completely understand what the artists are trying to convey, I think I “get” them because I too live, breathe, and have to use trickery – siasat – to make Jakarta my own. I am quite a literal person and usually find myself completely at loss in deciphering the symbolism of art, but for once, it felt effortless to connect with art and feel that the installations, performances, and paintings speak to me.

Take the ‘Trash Squad’ installation by Wok the Rock, for instance, which showcases videos of and orange vests worn by a punk troop that cleans up after the mess left by people hanging out at 7-Eleven. As a Jakartan who has been guilty of making fun of the convenience shop-turned-hang-out-space and yet enjoyed the affordable, 24 hour place to be with friends and take a stab at being an urban anthropologist, I can relate to the playful attempt to disrupt stereotypes against the punk community in the one hang-out space that can be accessed by people from different social background.

Amenk’s ‘I Need Just More Affection ModjokIndehoj’ mural reminds of Tiza Mafira’s recent Jakarta Globe article on the habit of Jakartans to mix-up English and Bahasa Indonesia in daily conversations. In between drawings of a young family in swimsuits and a hijab wearing woman tilting her head for a kiss, the phrases ‘Broken Hearted Sontoloyo’, ‘United of Manja’, and ‘Come back to me ayang’ sneakily indicate that the mixed language could be really on its way to become Jakarta’s vernacular.

The most attention grabbing piece we saw last night was definitely Melati Suryodarmo’s ‘Sweet Dreams Sweet’ performance, which is responsible for the aforementioned puddles of water. Pairs of intertwined, white-clad performers silently lied on the floor, sat stiffly, dipped their feet into a bucket of blue paint, and walked in slow motion around the area. Eerie. And definitely confusing, at first, but then some form of understanding quickly clicked in upon reading the description of the performance as ‘when diversity is imposed to become uniformity’.

I went with Twosocks and his little brother, and the three of us unanimously voted Saleh Husein’s ‘Arabian Party’ as our favorite. The installation is a gallery wall full of black and white paintings that traced down Arabic influences in Indonesian politics and culture throughout history. Not only that are the paintings captivating, it is also a breath of fresh air in the age of FPI screams and shouts to learn about the commitment of young Arab Indonesian youth way back in 1934 to call Indonesia their homeland.

Above the parking lot, merriment also ensued. DJs were spinning classic Indonesian tunes, queues snaked to grab free, piping hot putu mayang from street carts, the Jakartan governor Jokowi came, and many were waiting in anticipation for OM Iler PMR (Irama Teler Pengantar Minum Racun – how awesome is the name?), a band that I’m not familiar with yet eager to see just because of the name. However, my trickery in maneuvering Jakarta Biennale’s opening has come to its limit. My asthmatic lungs couldn’t take the cigarette huffs and puffs that permeated the air no more, so we retreated from the celebration rather soon.

The Jakarta Biennale festivities, luckily, continues until 30 November 2013. Exhibitions, Saturday night concerts, artist talks, street art tours, community gatherings, and art workshops will spread in Taman Ismail Marzuki, Komunitas Salihara, Cemara 6 Galeri, the Art and Ceramics Museum, and Jakartan streets. I’m looking forward to drop by, with my hair up in a bun and rubber slippers, to enjoy more of the trickery the artists have up their sleeves in engaging with Jakarta, the city of many faces.


Jakarta, 11 November 2013



P.S: for more info on Jakarta Biennale 2013, visit or @jakartabiennale on Twitter.

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