'The Letter Writing Project' by Lee Mingwei. (Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN)

The Artists Are Present: Museum MACAN Goes All Out Conceptual


NOVEMBER 30, 2018

Jakarta. Conceptual art puts concepts or ideas above everything else. The work itself can be anything from photography to performances. Often it invites audience to participate in the work, to become an integral part of it.

Dada icon Marcel Duchamp is one of the pioneers of conceptual art with his readymades (remember the "Fountain" urinal?), the artist who paved the way for other conceptual artists by challenging the formalist conventions of art.

The conceptual art movement went full steam in the 1960s and 1970s with artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Mary Kelly and Joseph Beuys.

Interested to get to know more about conceptual art, and become part of one? Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum MACAN) is hosting an exhibition featuring three local and foreign conceptual artists until March 10, 2019.

Museum MACAN director Aaron Seeto said during a press preview on Nov. 14 that the exhibition will put an emphasis on performance and participatory art and that audience should expect an experience "very different from what you've experienced when visiting other museums in the past."

"You are about to experience a multi-sensory journey through live performances and human interactions," Seeto said.

One of those works is "One Million Years" by the late Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara, who lived in New York from 1965 until his death in 2014.

The work involves a booth where two volunteers read Kawara's work, a list of years from 998031 B.C. to 1001997 A.D.

The booth is located on the museum's sixth floor, one floor up from the main gallery, showing MACAN is making good on its promise to expand its exhibition space.

You may wonder what would be the point of seeing people read out boring numbers, but when you do, instead of looking for something to stare at, close your eyes and simply listen.

The readings are hauntingly beautiful and will make you ponder the meaning of time itself.

Seven Intimate Stories

Before you enter the glass doors of the main gallery, you will see Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei’s "The Mending Project," part of his "Seven Stories."

Underneath a white wall filled with colorful rolls of thread, sits a volunteer.

Bring an old piece of clothing and give it to the volunteer, and talk to him/her while he/she is mending your garment.

Suddenly a simple transaction becomes a site for human relationship.

The artist said he likes to observe human intimacy through simple activities in everyday life.

His "The Dining Project" allows you to sign up for a dinner date with the artist after museum hours.

In the exhibition, visitors can see a video of the previous night's dinner with Mingwei.

"Food becomes a catalyst, a medium for strangers to get to know each other," MACAN curator Asri Winata said during the press tour.

The work was inspired by Mingwei’s experience studying at Yale University in the mid-1990s.

He didn’t know anybody there, so he put up posters inviting people to have a meal with him.

Another work by Mingwei is also derived from personal experience. It's called "The Letter Writing Project."

After his grandmother passed away, Mingwei started writing copious letters to her.

In his art work, you are provided with a wooden table in a booth, where you can to write a letter to anyone, then store it in one of the slots on the wall.

When you walk around the museum, don't be surprised if someone comes up to you and ask you, "Excuse me. May I offer you the gift of a song?" This is part of a performance in another work by Mingwei.

You'll be asked to sit on a chair and listen to a rendition of "Lieder" by Franz Schubert, a song Mingwei and his mother used to listen to when he took care of her after a serious surgery a few years ago.

This performance is called "Sonic Blossom."

The Past Has Not Passed

The third conceptual artist in the MACAN exhibition is Arahmaiani Feisal, who was already a "global nomad" before the term became a new normal for Indonesian artists.

At MACAN, Arahmaiani presents a "best of" collection of her paintings, installations and videos of her performances since the 1980s.

Presented in a kind of anthology, the works reveal the artist's bold statements about religion, gender, environmental issues and global politics.

Her "Lingga-Yoni" lit up a storm in 1994 when Muslim hardliners accused the artist of combining a holy verse from the Koran with lingga and yoni, the ancient symbols for the penis and the vagina.

"I was accused of blasphemy. But the writings are actually 'arab gundul,' Arabic script without vocal marks that can be adapted for local languages. It says in Indonesian, 'Alam adalah buku' ['Nature is a book']. I took the lingga and yoni symbols from Sukuh Temple in Central Java, put together they're a symbol of balance," Arahmaiani told the press.

Being a Muslim herself with a kyai (cleric) father, Arahmaiani was shocked when she started receiving death threats declaring that her blood was halal (allowed) to be spilled and drunk because she had offended Islam.

With the help of other artists, she fled to Solo in Central Java and then to Australia after selling the painting to someone in Thailand.

You can see another of Arahmaiani's takes on religion in "I Love You (After Joseph Beuys Social Sculpture)," a set of giant, fluffy pillows that form the sentence "I Love You," also in arab gundul.

The work is meant show a friendly and peaceful face of Islam, but it was rejected by the 9/11 memorial exhibition in Manhattan because the organizers were worried about its Arabic script.

A bedroom installation titled "11 June 2002," which doesn’t allow photography, shows photos of the artist in several states of undress.

According to the artist, the work represents an invasion of privacy from being constantly under surveillance.

It was inspired by Arahmaiani’s experience of being detained by US immigration officers, to the point that a male officer had to watch her every movement while she stays put in her hotel room.

Her "Do Not Prevent the Fertility of the Mind" – two portraits of herself hung on a wall covered from top to bottom with sanitary napkins – questions why menstruation is still considered a taboo subject.

Her "Memory of Nature" criticizes the destruction of nature. It lets you witness how seeds, arranged in a mandala, grow into bean sprouts.

You can form your own mandala with the seeds provided on a table beside the work.

The title for Arahmaiani's whole exhibition is "The Past Has Not Passed," a very fitting one since her works not only convey messages that are still relevant today, but also show how she has never shaken off her habit of adopting ancient Nusantara philosophies, whatever form her art work takes.

There will be an afternoon tea session with Arahmaiani on Dec. 16. More information on tickets and a complete schedule are available on Museum MACAN’s website.