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Paradise lost & new frontiers: Gede Mahendra Yasa’s landmark investigation into Balinese painting

"Tamiang" GMY 2011Tamiang, 2011, 150 x 200cm – Gede Mahendra Yasa. Exhibited in “Post Bali”

 

After the fall of President Suharto and the New Order Regime in 1998 Indonesian artists enjoyed new liberties, and their art became increasingly social and political in content. Representing a new generation of the Balinese avant-garde, Gede Mahendra Yasa was inspired by the freedoms of the post refromasi era, and dared to investigate his Balinese roots like no other artist had previously attempted – he questioned the popular ‘narratives’, along with the status quo. What transpired at the beginning of the new millenium has evolved into an ongoing project – a unique, yet essential, exploration into Balinese painting.

Born in 1967 in the island’s former capital of Singaraja, Mahendra Yasa grew up within a ‘multi-cultural’ environment where the Balinese Hindu’s had the freedom to choose a more open interpretation of cultural life. They were not subjected to the religious and cultural structures that were ‘imposed’ within the Gianyar regency during the 20th century, while it was being honed into a pro-Dutch colonial model of a ‘living cultural museum’ to stimulate tourism.

"Priest" GMY 2011Priest, 2011, 150 x 200cm – Gede Mahendra Yasa. Exhibited in “Post Bali”

 

Mahendra Yasa studied architecture and mechanical engineering in Surabaya, East Java from 1986 to 1988, yet he discovered this to be too limiting, being more attracted to the expressive freedoms of painting. He then began his autodidact journey, and an intensive learning into the history and discourses of Western painting.  Between 1998-2002 he formally studied at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Denpasar where he analyzed his practical and theoretical Balinese art knowledge.

Bali is generally considered to be exotic, and is stuck in a past cultural era. Balinese art is perceived as secondary, as a craft, and not as a legitimate part of Indonesian modern art history. These issues have arisen due to the dense bias of ethnography and anthropology (orientalist in nature) in determining the understanding of Bali, especially during 1920’s – 1930’s within the ‘golden age’ of Balinese development when Balinese traditional art was shaped as a colonial political tool – and this frustrates Mahendra Yasa.  An atheist, Mahendra Yasa was an avid detractor of the local culture, and took a critical stance to the art practices in Bali. This compelled him to continuously investigate and then seek out new frontiers in Balinese painting, in a career long pursuit into its thematic and aesthetic distinctions.

7 Magnficent Masterpieces #1, 2011, 200x150cm Newspaper Collage chinese ink on canvas7 Magnificent Masterpieces #1, 2011, 200 x 150cm, Newspaper Collage & Chinese Ink on Canvas – Gede Mahendra Yasa. Exhibited in “Post Bali”

 

“My entry point is from the contemporary, but using the traditional identity of painting,” he once said. In Post Bali, his landmark 2014 exhibition at ROH Projects, Jakarta, Mahendra Yasa adopted a unique methodology to other Indonesian contemporary artists, driven by his powerful intellect, and an obsession with painting, he delved into local Balinese issues from a western conceptual art perspective. Painting for the artist is not only about the object – it can function as a philosophical and analytical tool.

Post Bali combined an array of western and Balinese painting styles through which Mahendra Yasa revealed his investigation of the complexities of Balinese painting. He utilized various appropriations in his works that have been internationally recognized as modern or contemporary art masterpieces. The exhibition unfolded with photo-realism paintings from 2010 depicting scenarios of Balinese life. It continued via the acclaimed traditional Batuan narrative style of painting, with miniature photo realistic characters as the code through which he explained key parts of Balinese, Indonesian and Western art techniques and history. Within these works he also explored traditional techniques of making canvases, and Chinese ink painting.

7 Magnificent Masterpieces #2, 2012 Acrylic on canvas 200x150cm7 Magnificent Masterpieces #2, 2012, 200x150cm, Acrylic on Canvas – Gede Mahendra Yasa. Exhibited in “Post Bali”

 

Contemporary Art in Paradise Lost, Mahendra Yasa’s enormous 75 x 300 cm epic which included multiple scenes in the one work, taking the artist over a year to complete, was juxtaposed against his dual panel Pollock-esque abstract expressionist works. Post Bali explored three distinct realizations of Bali through different painting styles and ‘tests’ to what extent it is able to interact with materials and ideas familiar to contemporary art. The exhibition can be read as a chronological progression of his work and represents the start of a project that has now become much larger and more complex in nature. Post Bali has defined Mahendra Yasa as one of the few, truly important Balinese contemporary artists, while confirming his position within Indonesian art history.

"Silver Acrylic Paint on Face #2" GMY 2012 Silver Acrylic Paint on Face, #2, 2012 –  Gede Mahendra Yasa (self-portrait)

 

In early June 2018 the following interview was conducted by Richard Horstman and Gede Mahendra Yasa.

 

RH: Since early 2000 you have been driven by the need to question the popular ‘narratives’ and the status quo within Balinese art.

Why did you begin doing this?

GMY: In 2001, only 3 years after reformation and the fall of the new order regime, Indonesian artist enjoyed new freedoms, and political art came to the fore. For a few decades Sanggar Dewata Indonesia (SDI), Bali’s oldest and most influential collective which began in 1970, held power over the art scene. For me, however, they represented the new order regime, with much of their approach to art continuing on from the Dutch colonial methods. I was determined to change the game here in Bali.

The-Death-of-Gatotkaca. 1500x200. 2013The Death of Gatotkaca, 2014, 150 x 200cm – Gede Mahendra Yasa. Exhibited in “Post Bali”

 

RH: As an art provocateur it was essential to ask important questions in order to be able to move forward, as well as to inspire others to be more analytical and critical. Within the sphere of Indonesian and Balinese art, however, there is no culture of criticism, and such an approach is seen as confrontational. You had to move ‘out of the comfort of your studio’ and into the public forum to be heard.  Was this difficult to do?

GMY: Yes, at the beginning it was very difficult. But slowly the art public accepted my criticism.

RH: The formation of collectives has played an important role, while helping you in the exploration of your ideas. (This first began with the Klinik Seni Taxu. The young artists of Taxu reacted to the institutionalized “authority” over Indonesian art which prevailed during in the 1990’s – 2000. They were driven to promote the development of a Balinese art outside the traditional parameters of Balinese religion and culture and were active between 2001-06 releasing publications and exhibiting. In 2001, as students at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Denpasar, the Taxu group received funding from ISI to hold an art event they titled, Mendobrak Hegemoni (Shattering the Hegemony).

"Paradise Lost" GMY Chinese Ink on Kamasan Canvas 2014

Paradise Lost #2, 2014, Chinese Ink on Kamasan Canvas – Gede Mahendra Yasa

 

What occurred was a protest featuring abusive comments in various languages about the commercialization of art. They attacked copies of major artists works and produced effigies of the artists as mummies, posters proclaimed ‘art is dead’. The event shocked both the singled out artists, and the ISI authorities during an era when the pressures of the New Order Regime were still heavy. The protest was of national significance because Bali had become a key site for the formation of ideas about Indonesian art).

Can you explain why the Taxu group came about and what were their aims?

GMY: Bali has traditions like the banjar system of communal organization. I learned from the influence of the foreign artist during the 1930’s – 1940’s (Spies and Bonnet) and Nyoman Ngendon from Batuan, and in wider context from the first Indonesian community based artist groups (PERSAGI & LEKRA). I understood that organizing groups, following in the tradition of making “schools” of artists was a more strategic and quicker way to achieve goals. This belief pushed me to find artistic idioms for the groups to function as a“glue” (Social realism for Klinik Seni Taxu, and abstraction for Nu-Abstract, his latest collective which began in 2017).

"Between Me,You and the Bedpost #2 Mahendra YasaBetween Me, You and the Bedpost #1. 2014, 100 x 163cm – Gede Mahendra Yasa, Exhibited in “Post Bali”

 

RH: More recently the Neo-Pitamaha has been formed. Can you share more about this collective?

GMY: The origins of the Neo-Pitamaha began after my 2011 solo exhibition in Milan, Italy because of problems with my “identity” as a Balinese painter. I began to think a lot about my artistic roots, and then started to explore Balinese painting (focussing on painting from the last century – the Classical style referred to as Kamasan, and the Batuan traditional style). I believed that the Classical and traditional styles had come to a dead-end. And then I challenged myself to contemporize what the academic artists (especially the Yogyakarta Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) alumni) thought was impossible. And I proved them wrong! In 2013 I “assembled” a new group to push this idea further.

RH: Can you share please the ideas behind your series of paintings made between 2012 – 2018 which began with 7 Magnificent Masterpieces #1 & #2, and continues on with Origen’s Gambit?

"Contemporary Art in Paradise Lost" 2012-2014, 300x75 cmContemporary Art in Paradise Lost, 2014, 75 x 300cm – Gede Mahendra Yasa. Exhibited in “Post Bali”

 

GMY: I wanted to contemporize the Batuan painting style emphasizing the full compositions, with no empty spaces. Complete with the dualities and horror, the dense and decorative style – very Balinese. Unlike the Dutch miniatures such as Brueghel, Bosch, for example, who use the linear perspective. I use the bird eye’s view perspective, like the Batuan artists. I then realised that the series could be used for telling stories about art history (Balinese, Indonesian and global art history). My inspirations came from the American painter Mark Tansey, and also the comic genres, such as Marvel and DC Comics, and how they make alternative universes. I wanted to mimic their method to create my own universe – an art history universe.

Remember this miniature epic series has taken 6 years to develop, so many things have happened. This is on going, and in the near future, in the third phase of this series I plan my approach to be more a linguistic or semiotic exploration. I will “illustrate” a lot of “ideas” about imagery, icons, logos and symbols. Here, I have been influenced by Xu Bing a main land Chinese painter.

"Yasa Perburuan Rusa" GMY 2014                        Yasa Perburuan Rusa, 2014 – Gede Mahendra Yasa

 

RH: You have a long and ongoing relationship with abstract painting. In 2017 you formed the collective NU-abstract to explore further Balinese abstraction and the collective will be exhibiting at NADI Gallery in Jakarta in early July. Do you find exploring your feelings within this genre is the perfect creative pursuit while other concepts need certain periods of time to fully develop and to be successfully executed and expressed? Does this help you to achieve a type of ‘balance’?

GMY: Yes, I need to balance my other painting series as they demand too much logic. There is, however, another reason. I formed the NU-abstract group because there are some Islamic fundamentalist art groups (Rumah Warna, Khat, Khilafah art networks) in Yogyakarta, and Hijrah in Bandung, who want to use non-figurative painting as a tool to forbid the making of imagery of “living creatures”. They twist modern abstraction for their own political benefits while intercepting the potentiality of this new Indonesian art trend. I want to stop their ideas of controlling and polluting the Indonesian art world.

"Yasa Spiral Frame" GMY 2014                              Yasa Spiral Frame, 2014 – Gede Mahendra Yasa

 

Mahendra Yasa along with Neo-Pitamaha co-founder Kemal Ezedine set out to strategically impact upon the Indonesian contemporary art world in 2016 by participating in high level exhibitions and art fairs in Bandung, Jakarta and Yogyakarta. Their presence was especially visible during the two international art fairs, Art Stage Jakarta 2016 and 2016 Bazaar Art Jakarta that attracted large national and foreign audiences.

The Neo-Pitamaha have taken their name from the legendary 1936 artists association established in Ubud during a revolutionary period when traditional art was being modernized for the new and expanding international market – the Pitamaha’s oversaw the successful development of this new genre of art that helped communicate the Balinese culture around the world. The Pitamaha was formed by the prince of Ubud Tjokorda Agung Sukawati, Bali’s modern master Gusti Nyoman Lempad, and the expat foreign artists Walter Spies, and Rudolf Bonnet.

"BipolarDemons" GMY 2017, 200x160Bipolar Demons, 2107, 200 x 150cm – Gede Mahendra Yasa. From the NU-abstract series and exhibited in the group exhibition “Celebrating Indonesian Portraiture” at OHD Museum Magelang, Central Java, continuing through until 8 October 2018.

 

With their ideology deeply rooted in the historical development of Balinese art during the past century, and with a new discourse about Balinese art the Neo-Pitamaha reinterpreted this art form from a contemporary art perspective – retaining the principles involved with the techniques and methods. By opening this to new viewpoints they awakened a new spirit and introduced a fresh model of possibilities into Balinese art.

 

After Paradise Lost 2014-2016In May 2016 at Christie’s Hong Kong Asian Contemporary Art Day Sale “After Paradise Lost” (2014) by Gede Mahendra Yasa sold for HKD 1,240,000 (USD 158,000), well above the estimated price of between HKD 350,000 (USD 44,500) – HKD 500,000 (USD 63,500).

 

Origen's Gambit" GMYAt Christie’s Hong Kong Asian Contemporary Art Day Sale November 2017, Gede Mahendra Yasa’s painting “Origen’s Gambit” (2016-2017) realised HKD 1,750,000 (USD 220,000), selling well above the estimated price of HKD 380,000 (USD48,000) – HKD 550,000 (USD70,000).

 

Gede Mahendra Yasa’s painting After Paradise Lost has been selected as one of the 15 finalists in the Signature Art Prize. The award, which is presented every three years, is organized by the Singapore Art Museum and sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Breweries Foundation. The winner will be announced at an award ceremony on June 29, and the works are currently on exhibit from May 25 to Sept. 2 at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

 

 

Words: Richard Horstman

Images: Coutesy of IndoArtNow, Gede Mahendra Yasa & Richard Horstman

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JAW (Jogja Art Weeks) – Indonesia’s evolving art infrastructure

"Bebas Dalam Keterbatasan" (free within limitations) 2017, Photography on Acrylic. Nofria Doni Fitri. Bakaba, Sakato Art Community, Jogja Gallery Image R Horstman“Bebas Dalam Keterbatasan” (free within limitations) 2017, Photography on Acrylic – Nofria Doni Fitri. Bakaba by Sakato Art Community, Jogja Gallery, during JAW

Indonesia is the biggest and most dynamic art market in the Asian region next to China, and the largest art producer of Southeast Asia. Increasingly gaining international attention via the mechanisms of global art, each year more-and-more foreigners venture to Central Java seeking out engagement with the many talented and diverse artists, and art communities in the area.

Jogja Art Weeks (JAW) is a month-long plethora of activities held May/June throughout Yogyakarta’s Special Regency, and north into Magelang. Organized by Heri Pemad Art Management (HPAM), founders of ART|JOG, since its conceptualization four years ago JAW has quickly evolved, this year’s program showcased 140 plus events.

“In the beginning many artists working in Yogyakarta needed presentation space. Both the infrastructure along with events were lacking. While ART|JOG quickly became popular, its capacity was inadequate to cater for the demand,” said Yogyakarta art visionary Heri Pemad. “So we invited galleries, art spaces, cultural and educational institutions, collectives and alternative spaces to create events at the same time as ART|JOG, aiming to accommodate as many artists as possible. The goal in mind, to create a unique cultural festival.”

"Wear You All Night" 2016, Sarah Choo Ching. "Supernatural" at Gajah Gallery. Image Richard Horstman“Wear You All Night” 2016 – Sarah Choo Ching. “Supernatural” at Gajah Gallery.

In 2015 the first JAW event featured a smattering of events in a number of galleries and areas around Yogyakarta. 2016 and this year though, included the new and comprehensive JAW Guide Book. “Last year’s publication registered about 60 events, in 2017 however, listings tallied 147, and continued to grow on JAW’s website & social media,” Pemad said.

The 2017 JAW Guide Book, a free 207-page index brought added stimulus to traverse the far corners of the regency, while opening the big city up to visitors. Most of the activity was found in the South West in Bantul. Listings included exhibitions, performances, music events, film screenings, cultural festivals, tours, and a diverse array of workshops including photography, ceramic painting, collage, batik with electric canting tools, Japanese Shibori tie dye techniques and installation making. This year’s publication also catalogued 40 different museums in the region.

"Shadow Dance" #18, 2017, 200 x 400 cm. Nyoman Erawan. "Linkage" OHD Museum. Image R. Horstman“Shadow Dance” #18, 2017, 200 x 400 cm – Nyoman Erawan. “Linkage” OHD Museum, Magelleng

As the main draw card of JAW, this year celebrating its tenth edition with ART|JOG|10 Changing Perspective, every year additional foreigners and art industry insiders experience Indonesia’s oldest art fair, with it’s unique model that supports artists over galleries. This extraordinary grassroots event evolves each year, its new venue, the Jogja National Museum (JNM) practically, and historically a precise match with the event. The JAW Guide Book functioned perfectly as a hands-on information source, and while professionally organized art tourism is in its infancy in the country, the Guide Book is a bonus to the sustainability of the local art eco-system. Such supporting infrastructure aids the development of art tourism in Yogyakarta, which inevitably becomes a model for other parts of the Indonesia.

“Initially we believed that the popular idea of city branding during ART|JOG and JAW was the responsibility of the government as the increased tourism helps drive the local and wider economies,” Pemad said. “HPAM requested financial support for the making of the guide-book, and finally this year the Yogyakarta Cultural Office agreed to help sponsor its implementation.”

20170518_111858            Made Mahendra Mangku “The Gift” at Sangkring Art Space

One of the JAW highlights involved the hour and a half journey to Magelleng for the annual opening at the OHD Museum. Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the museum founded by the leading patron of Indonesian art, Dr Ooi Hong Djien, Linkage celebrated 51 Indonesia artists who had been a part of the museum’s collection for over two decades. Twenty-four artists were invited to create new works that were presented alongside their older works. This exhibition of outstanding quality attracted many international visitors, works by Ivan Sagita, Nyoman Erawan, Handiwirman Saputra, along with others underlining the uniqueness of the OHD collection.

Amok Tanah Jawa was an exhibition of paintings and installations by East Javanese artist Moelyono, known for his interactions with traditional artists highlighting subversive narratives, in collaboration with Yusuf Muntaha. Featured were paintings of excellent technical precision, along with in-depth investigation of East Javanese performance art at Lenggeng Art Foundation. Wood, leaves, rattan and mending (Chinese water chestnut) were the medium of historical, educational and environmental exploration by Nindityo Adipurnomo, Adek Dimas Ajisak, Maharani Mancanagara and Zulfian Amrullah in Meraka-reka at Galerie Lorong.

"Pengantin Revolusi" 2017 Moelyono. "Amok Tanah Jawa" Langgeng Art Foundation Image R Horstman“Pengantin Revolusi”, 2017 – Moelyono “Amok Tanah Jawa” Langgeng Art Foundation

Nancy Nan’s Red Base Art Foundation has quickly established its presence in Indonesia, it highlighted photography with two separate exhibitions, Processione Dei Misteri by Anastasia Darsono and RAW by foreigner Vanessa Van Houten.   West Sumatran Sakato Art Community presented their 6th annual exhibition Bakaba. Themed IndONEsia, and at the Jogja Gallery, well-known members exhibited with their counterparts. Open for one month, exploring ideas of what it means to be an Indonesian artist, this was one of the strongest collective showings during JAW. Works by Gusman Heraldi, Jumaldi Alfi and Erizal were noteworthy, while artists such as Dwita Anja Asmara, Fika Ria Santika, Zulfirman Syah, Tariq Muntaha reveal enormous talent within Sakato.

Balinese artist and long-term Yogyakarta resident Putu Sutawijaya and his Malaysian wife Jenny have created an important community complex Sangkring which presented 3 separate exhibitions. Following on from last year’s Jogja International Miniptint Biennale #2, Jogja Editions Print Fair displayed selected graphic works, both conventional and contemporary from Indonesian and international artists at the Sangkring Art Project. The Gift celebrated the tenth anniversary of Sangkring Art Space and featured a selection of some of the Indonesia’s finest, including eleven Balinese artists. Included were Nasirun, Ugo Untoro, Sutjipto Adi, Made Djirna, Mangu Putra and Yunizar. Bale Banjar, the latest addition to Sangkring, featured BergerakYogya Art Annual #2 a strong and diverse showcasing of over 40 local artists.

Agung Prabowo - Seven colors linocut print on washi paper, 2017. Jogja Editions Print Fair, Sangkring Art Project. Image R. HorstmanAgung Prabowo – Seven colors linocut print on washi paper, 2017. Jogja Editions Print Fair, Sangkring Art Project

Gajah Gallery is renowned for presenting not only Indonesian, yet regional contemporary art into Asia, and beyond. Taking advantage of the captive international and local audience Gajah surveyed some of Singapore’s best in the group exhibition Supernatural, at their Yogyakarta complex. Presenting a level of quality that set it apart, it featured 18 Singaporean artists exploring ways in which their practices meditate with the perceptions of nature, reality and belief systems. Incredible depth, including Sarah Choo Jing, Zen Teh, Ruben Pang, to name a few, while Ng Joon Kiat’s Untitled Cities 3, 2016 his 3-dimensional abstract composition inspired by his fascination with maps and Asia’s vastly changing terrains and territories, is a masterwork.

As a university city, Yogyakarta attracts the youthful, energetic talent of ethnic groups from all over the country. The depth of this is cultural diversity translated into enormous array of creative expressions and the long list of musical events and performances during JAW was world-class, along with being a HPAM organizational feat. JNM hosted daily ART|JOG music and performance events, while many others within the JAW program were hosted around the city. Special mention goes to Satan Jawa, the silent black and white movie directed by Garin Nugroho, with live gamelan orchestra and music composed by Rahayu Supanggah. On a closing note was the charity tribute group exhibition at the Tanah Liat Museum for the iconic Yogyakarta artist S Teddy Darmawan (1976-2016), who passed away last year after a long battle with cancer.

20170519_184023               Ruben Pang from the exhibition “Supernatural” at Gajah Gallery

The development of Indonesian art has suffered greatly due to the lack of institutional and government support, along with local galleries without strong international business models.

Infrastructure like JAW, and especially ART|JOG which has now become the ‘voice’ of Indonesian contemporary art, defining its unique character, helps consolidate Yogyakarta onto the global art map. First time visitors are guaranteed many wonderful surprises! JAW is a boon for the region, and a repeat destination for collectors and art lovers.

20170520_094728 PemangkasanHandiwirman Saputra – Bakaba #6 Sakato Art Community, Jogja National Gallery

Ali Umar by Ali Umar, 400 pen sketches on paper & sculptures 1997-2017 during JAWAli Umar by Ali Umar, 400 pen sketches on paper & sculptures, 1997-2017, during JAW

"Above, 2016 - Willy Halaman, Banjar Bale during JAW  Above, 2016 – Willy Halaman,  Bergerak – Yogya Art Annual #2, Bale Banjar, during JAW

20170519_184112Untitled Cities 3, 2016 – Ng Joon Kiat, in the exhibhtion Supernatural at Gajah Gallery

 

www.jogjaartweeks.com

Words & Images: Richard Horstman