The initial idea for this exhibition came after reading a thesis by Spencer Holleman titled “A Popular Critique of Pop Culture: A Close Listening to the Music of Radiohead.” This thesis cast the spotlight on how a popular rock band encountered frictions with contemporary issues and became compared with thinkers such as Albert Camus, Theodore Adorno, etcetera, the explorers of such literary ideas as exile, ‘last man on earth’ and anxiety. This thesis gave the impetus to read other visual artworks of current artistic tendencies within the framework of social relevance and contemporary issues. Developing these ideas further, the curatorial framework for Utopia Negativa was assembled.
This exhibition is unique, firstly due to its selection of participants. The artists invited to this exhibition have the following similarities. They produce works that belong to a different lineage in the development of visual arts today. Their works are a common ground between the development of contemporary arts with lifestyle, music and sub-culture idioms. Their artistic vision’s relevance and territory appear in enigmatic themes that are often not fully understood. Despite the bizarre visual expressions of these youngsters engaged with popular culture, they still say something that reflects contemporary life and social relevance. Their different platform of working then comes to the fore with a visual language that is fresh and close to the popular reality.
Several large arts events in Indonesia are increasingly displaying what Robert Williams postulated succinctly: “there is no more outlaw art.” Works of art previously hard to categorize as important or not considered fine art (read: high art) have begun to make their appearances in great arts events. In the seventh Jogja Biennale, for instance. This exhibition heralded the arrival of works by Eko Nugroho (Daging Tumbuh or Meat Growth), Nano Warsono, Bambang Toko and RM Sonny Irawan who had adopted comics, mural, graffiti, clothing and posters as art.
Earlier, Apotik Komik (Comic Apothecary) baptised Jogja as a city of murals with its golden project, Mural Kota Sama-Sama (Mural the Town Together – read the research outcome of Bambang Toko, an academic and one of the initiators of the late Apotik Komik). Eko Nugroho’s Daging Tumbuh had phenomenal success in getting this multi-talented and creative artist invited to various international exhibitions. In the opening throes of this millennium, a large-scale event for comic artists from various communities appeared under the banner Kabinet Komik Indie (Indie Comics Cabinet) at Gelaran Budaya Yogyakarta, becoming a celebration for groups of alternative comics creators such as Daging Tumbuh, Tehjahe Komik (Comic Ginger Tea), Taring Padi (Rice Incisors), etcetera. Small graffiti groups appeared, including the Love Hate Love phenomenon decorating the town of Jogja. The presence of this enigmatic figure was then set in more concrete terms in Indonesian arts when his works were smuggled in among the Shout Out! FKY 2007 Exhibition (curated by Arie Dyanto, among others) in Yogyakarta, which then continued with antics in a number of art spaces. In Jakarta, Tembok Bomber (Wall Bomber) dedicated his/her site to document the various phenomenon of street art. In Yogyakarta, Nano Warsono initiated a site on “lowbrow” Jogja artists in www.yk300cc.com.
Younger ‘boy scouts’ interrupted the arts with project after project, such as “Sneakerssneakers”, “New Cock on the Block”, “T-Shirt from March”, “Ride the Lighting”, “Agrarian Cowboy”, “Youth Gone Wild”, and various creative antics. These youngsters are so creative they need several pages to recount all their arts activities, from music, MC-ing, DJ-ing, making toys, etcetera.
In truth, the main issue is not about whether these works are beginning to be accommodated by the social scene of contemporary arts. In the international arts stage, artists in the category of lowbrow art have developed special gallery spaces more in line with the tendencies of their works, as well as building their own audiences. Starting from America, which then had an international influence over artists attached to a mutual foundation of genres such as psychedelic art, animation, anime, commercial art, comic books, graffiti and street art, Japanese art and Chinese art, kitsch, kustom kulture, manga, pop culture, propaganda art, punk rock culture, retro, illustration, pulp magazine art, science fiction, surf culture, tattoo art, tiki culture, toys for adults, and notably vinyl figurines. The established arts world is accommodating them, such as Mark Ryden’s “Wondertoonel” in Pasadena Museum of Califronia and the works of Robert Williams (the initiator of Juxtapoz and lowbrow artists) in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1992. There we have seen how art critics and the arts social scene in general are taking lowbrow art into account.
In Yogyakarta, this unique development cannot be separated from the involvement of trained young artists, be they established academics or still students. Those with a strong arts education background spearheaded Apotik Komik, which “broke ground for the movement of artists seriously bringing visual considerations down to the streets.” Established artists in the Yogyakarta arts world also dominated among producers of photocopied comics Daging Tumbuh. This also goes for those who are active bringing their art to the popular pockets of culture such as distro apparel, product design, clothing, etcetera. It is true that outsider artists continued along this path more boldly, but the entry of these ‘schooled’ artists into these forms of art created a more serious arena of creativity in developing visual elements.
These developments in street art are now being broadened in the arts world with public arts projects initiated by institutions such as the Cemeti Arts Foundation, also known as the Indonesian Visual Arts Archive (IVAA) and Kedai Kebun Forum. What is more impressive is that those mentioned artists have now received many invitations to various events, whether open events or from private galleries. They are even dominating large events such as the Yogyakarta Arts Festival, Yogyakarta Biennale, etcetera.
The second is the theme or title of this exhibition, which is Utopia Negativa. This theme is adopted from the terminology ‘negative utopia’ which is the perception of anti-utopia or dystopia. Dystopian products are far removed from optimistic attitudes and moral developments. These pessimistic books voice anxiety towards the direction of human development that is perceived as going increasingly astray.
This theme is considered appropriate to frame how these artists are producing their work. This is due not only because the Utopia Negativa theme is reflected in their works, but also on how they produce those works. The themes that are present in their work, similar to their contemporaries in other arts fields, give commentary on the social situation. However, there is some difference in how they approach the issues in their work. Environmental issues, social change, humanity, lifestyle and even issues surrounding art itself manifest in their work in a way that is closely relevant to their daily lifestyles and creative vision.
This Utopia Negativa project wishes to acknowledge the presence of their unique works in a more concrete fashion in the development of Indonesian regional art. In this phase, while all kinds of works are being accommodated well in the regional Asian market, their works offer a different discourse in their familiarity to the lifestyles they live in. Their artwork is born of a situation in which they are engaging with the popular creative field.
On the other hand, this exhibition also looks into how these works then correlate with the social contemporary universe. This exhibition analyses how these artists participate in the growth of cultural commoditisation and economic culturalisation. Their ambivalence in this participation can be found in their choice of media and styles, such as what they choose to do in their arts practice, such as their affinity to ‘non-mainstream art’ (although the majority of them come from an academic arts background) such as toys, mural, graffiti, comics, posters, etcetera. These artists are also familiar with the use of ‘non-art’ media, such as neon box, photocopy, digital print, etcetera. The mediums they have chosen highlight their involvement in alternative media and their entanglement with contemporary social issues.
In painting and sculpture, which are present as the central media in the development of modern arts, they continue to leave traces from their common ground with popular culture. These traces are visible in their use of popular idioms that sometimes become their daily consumption. Some of them have started to take a closer look at local popular culture, such as traditional painting, wayang, etcetera as part of their references. At this stage, their common ground with contemporary issues becomes clearer in revealing the social issues around them.
Translated by Kadek Krishna Adidharma