Jakarta. A trio of Polish artists upstaged the Jakarta Biennale this weekend, transforming the courtyard of the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics into a shantytown.
Paweł Althamer, Michał Mioduszewski and Jędrzej Rogoziński built a ramshackle plywood space at the heart of Kota Tua in West Jakarta. Together with their Indonesian collaborators Oksa, Sukma Hadi, Irsad Abdillah, Dwi Penjol and Ayah Bagol Kedungeran they created a space for gotong royong – working together for a common purpose.
The experiment to create a "free art" space for egalitarian social interaction was intentional.
"Museums are not adapted for working with people [...] the space we've created in front of it is ugly, unseemly, unbecoming [of an arts institution]," Mioduszewski said.
From unwanted and disposed objects found on the streets, they created an environment-as-process space that engages all who enter. Crayons, paints, marker pens, pieces of clay scattered around the staircase-like construction become a means for communication and self-expression that is not contained by age, social background or even language.
"I thought it would turn into something chaotic when we went out to collect rubbish to build it. But then it became an awesome place to hang out, to make things together, to be cheerful together," said Oksa, who works for art handling agency Serrum, which supports the Jakarta Biennale.
The Polish artists, who often work collectively, draw on the themes of "common task," "common space," which have their equivalents in all human languages. They have created installations all over the world, from metropolitan Brussels to remote villages in Mali.
To the artists, people all over the world are very similar. Even though they live in different social structures, they are open for a good word, for helping another, for working together. When they were done building the construction, people just came and started to paint whatever they wanted, using the whole space, nothing needed to be explained or translated.
"There's good chemistry, we don't need to build bridges, everything just happens naturally, there's mutual openness," Rogoziński said.
The openness and transparency of their works follow Oskar Hansen’s theory of Open Form in urban planning, which involves the creative role of individuals as the co-authors of space. The process is classless, egalitarian, democratic and nonhierarchical.
Authors become users and vice versa. The works continue to live and serve, materials and energy do not get squandered. The created space allows people to meet, like neighbors on a staircase, and makes them join together, gratuitously.
"It's the first time for me to meet artists like them, even though I work with artists, help them present their works. [...] They respected and appreciated our contribution. When the organizers didn’t print our names, Paweł added them himself."
People of all ages and descriptions who visited the ugly open-air staircase have also become the contributors, leaving their artworks fastened to the riddled plywood walls.
"Barriers between the creator and the user, the actor and the spectator, are pointless. When you allow interaction, people will want to participate. There is another work like this at the biennale exhibition at Gudang Sarinah [in Pancoran, South Jakarta] – Hanafi's installation with pencils. [...] See, it takes courage for an artist to open his field, because it may turn out that others are better than him," Mioduszewski said. He added that the field needs to be opened for people to meet, learn to understand or at least be aware of the perspective of another.
He found divisions and a multilayered hierarchy that reinforces the "otherness," which is exceptionally visible in Jakarta. What initially had shocked the museum authorities is the reality for many of the city's inhabitants, who live and work in makeshift houses that are not much different from the artists' plywood staircase.
"People often cannot understand one another because they can't imagine their perspectives. But so little is needed to participate, to get engaged. In our plywood installation they get to meet – both those who disposed of the objects it’s built from, and those who survive on what has been discarded," Mioduszewski said.
With their work labeled "unbecoming," the artists have a lot of sympathy for former Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, who was imprisoned in May for blasphemy after a long, politically charged and controversial trial.
"His story is one of the things we've learnt here; his words were 'unbecoming.' Ahok was an inconvenient puzzle in the game, he could change history, but he was forced to stop; moved to the sidelines. This also happens to artists. Often, they are remembered and appreciated much later, when they are no longer around," Mioduszewki said.
The artists decided to paint Ahok's portrait to remember him. Jakarta residents participating in the exhibition joined in by adding their signatures, well wishes and expressions of solidarity in the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Some time ago, Althamer and his friends painted a portrait for Polish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Wałęsa, the legendary leader of Solidarity Trade Union, who has been attacked by the powers that be in an effort to discredit his legacy.
"He was in hospital then; the portrait was delivered by his friend. He was moved. [...] I think that support from strangers who sympathize with you is a good practice. It helps; it's soothing," Althamer said, expressing hope that the poster will reach Ahok.