Dea Widya's 'Dream Houses' recreates the eerie endlessness of new town development. (Photo by Hannah Ekin)

Artists Ask What Happens When Jakarta Collapses In on Itself


JUNE 03, 2019

The Jakarta History Museum in Kota Tua is currently hosting -2m: Voices From (Below) the Sea, a contemporary art exhibition that explores the spatial, social and ecological changes currently taking place along the Jakarta coast, the area's dynamic history, and the challenges the city and its residents face into the future. 

The exhibition is the first public showing of an ongoing collaboration between the Rujak Center for Urban Studies and a diffuse collection of local and foreign artists and communities (of which I am one). It is based on a yearly walking tour across the Jakarta coastline, the second of which was undertaken over 16 days in late February and early March by many of the exhibiting artists. 

suara map
Map of route walked along Jakarta’s coast, Feb. 20 - March 5, 2019. (Hannah Ekin)

During our journey, we overnighted on a bagang, a bamboo mussel farm at sea; a posh house in a heavily securitized residential area bound by a mote in the PIK development; a kampung controversially evicted three years ago; an artificial beach in the faded Suharto-era theme park of Ancol; a centuries-old vihara that also contains the tomb of an important Islamic figure; and a vast housing block outside of Jakarta where waterside communities have recently been evicted to. The housing block is intended to become the largest in Southeast Asia.

Perhaps my favourite work within the exhibition is entitled "Dream Houses," by Bandung artist and architect Dea Widya, situated in the former women’s prison in the basement of the museum.

Both the site and the work speak to some of the most challenging problems facing Jakarta’s north coast. This cramped, low-ceilinged basement is now permanently inundated with 10-30 centimeters of water, a testament to Jakarta's land subsidence problem. 

dream house
Dea Widya's 'Dream Houses.' (Photo by Hannah Ekin)

Jakarta's coastal area is rapidly sinking, a result of excessive groundwater extraction by large developments and industry. Kota Tua is one of the areas worst affected.

Dea integrates the spatial context of the basement prison into her work, both as a witness to a slow-moving human-made ecological disaster, and to muse on the architectural similarities of the "surveillance architecture" of prisons and gated communities. 

Dream Houses is an installation work utilising architectural miniatures, quite austere in appearance, built from a cement-gypsum composite with clay-sand façades. The miniatures are modelled on shophouses in a new town development along Jakarta’s north coast that declares itself to be "Flood Proof for 1000 Years." 

The buildings are laid out in neat crisscrossed rows, and mirrors framing the shophouse rows create an eerie effect of endlessness.

Dea writes of her work: "I try to invert the isolated spaces of the prison and the gated community. I turn the prison into a space of imaginary freedom by installing a mirror to obscure the prison walls. On the other hand, the miniature buildings reflected in the mirror-wall replicate the endless multiplication of mass housing typical of new town developments."

Dea’s buildings are designed to disintegrate over the course of the exhibition, their cement-gypsum structures sucking up moisture and causing the unfired clay-sand façades to break loose and dissolve into the water. The now muddied and swampy waters obscure the mirrors below, soiling the mirage of the boundless and uncramped freedom of the new town as the houses again foreground material processes of decomposition. 

dream house
A façade in an advanced state of decomposition. (Photo by Hannah Ekin)

Like marketing galleries for new town developments in Jakarta which disseminate an elite aesthetic of the "global city," Dea’s work purports to represent in miniature an anticipated future state. Her work condenses an anthro-geological process of land subsidence, groundwater salinisation and decay, processes visibly underway outside the museum's walls. 

-2m: Voices From (Below) The Sea is on at the Jakarta History Museum until June 16. The museum is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. during Ramadan and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on June 5-16.

The exhibition’s public program continues until the middle of June, with remaining events as listed below:

Lecture: "From Si Jagur, Pitung to Mbah Priok: Politics of Memory on the Jakarta Coast" - June 14, 4-6 p.m. Speaker: publisher, writer, Betawi expert J.J. Rizal.

Performative Lecture: "35 Years Under 33 Metres" - June 16, 4-6 p.m.  
Speakers: artists Irwan Ahmett, Tita Salina, Hannah Ekin, Jorgen Doyle.

Hannah Ekin is an Australian contemporary artist and geographer. She is part of the curatorial team of -2m: Suara-suara dari Bawah Laut.