Artist Fransisca Retno is among the next-gen talents featured in Exi(s)t exhibition currently on view at Dia.Lo.Gue Artspace, South Jakarta. (JG Photo/Nico Novito)

Jakarta's Budding Visual Artists Serve Food for Thought at Exi(s)t Exhibition


NOVEMBER 20, 2015

Jakarta. "How long did it take you to get here?" artist Ruth Amerina Marbun half-jokingly asked visitors to the "Exi(s)t" exhibition at Dia.Lo.Gue Artspace in Kemang.

It was Friday the 13th and the torrential rain hitting South Jakarta that night had kept most people attending to the exhibition opening stuck in heavy traffic for hours.

And yet, it did not dampen their spirit to take in fresh works of art by nine multi-disciplinary artists selected to participate in this annual art incubation program, which now enters its fourth year. To accommodate these late-comers, the gallery stayed open until almost midnight.

As if responding to the proverbial hunger of the flocking visitors, this year's Exi(s)t is themed "The Food Files."

Curators Mitha Budhyarto and Evelyn Huang challenged this group of artists — all under 30-years-old and based in Jakarta — to create artwork that would conceptually respond to the open-ended prompt.

"Throughout its history, art has always involved food in its practice and processes," explained Mitha and Evelyn in their curatorial writing, citing works such as Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans."

They also pointed out that discourse on food is related to almost an endless amount of issues, spanning organic farming movements to the economics of the food industry.

"As our identities become ever more dependent on what we consume, it is only appropriate that we look more closely to our foods for the roots of anxieties and happiness," the curators wrote.

The program, initiated four years ago by veteran artist FX Harsono with the help of Dia.Lo.Gue co-founder Hermawan Tanzil, serves as a platform for Jakarta-based visual talents to explore their fine art potential.

Over the past six months, these budding artists — whose backgrounds range from illustrator to video artist to graphic designer — participated in a series of discussions and workshops. They did not necessarily learn about art-making techniques, but rather exchanged ideas concerning various facets of food itself.

"We did almost weekly discussions and later gave presentations about the concept of our respective artwork," Ruth said. "There were also workshops with experts," such as coffee entrepreneur Andrea Peresthu and anthropologist Dave Lumenta.

Several frames of Ruth's mixed-media work, "Palatable Excuses," were displayed on one wall of the gallery. The collage combines together paper scraps of pastel-hued watercolor paintings depicting human figures and the cornucopia of food products they consume and take for granted — a bottle of sambal, for instance.

Critiquing the food industry

While Ruth kept her artwork rather humble in its ambition, other artists took on a more large-scale technical approach.

Ayu Larasati, a ceramic artist known for her nuanced pieces, said she felt strongly about the environmental and social issues brought up in the exhibition.

"There is this urgency that I cannot voice out through my traditional ceramic pieces," she said. "I don't have any background in making contemporary art, but this is a great opportunity for me to actually dip my toe in this area."

In "What I Thought I Knew About Good Food Was Wrong," Ayu critiques the notion of good food existing in the society, like the commoditization of the healthy-eating trend.

She created a tableau of clay-based dishes and eating utensils, on which she planted seeds of mung bean and spinach. Her work will literally grow throughout the exhibition, as the water dropping from the pippetes hung above gradually melts the clay.

Ceramic artist Ayu Larasati's artwork for Exi(s)t combines clay-based pieces with living plants. (JG Photo/Nico Novito)

Not far from Ayu's work, graphic designer Januar Rianto had installed a table populated by Indonesian spices like chilies, garlic and shallots. It was a participatory installation, complete with mini handbooks offering guidance to visitors on what they should do with those spices. One prompt encourages participants to "begin a story" by contributing five words which describe their memories of spices.

Januar, who owns an independent design agency, said he wanted to give viewers an opportunity to experience food in its essential form, as symbolized by the spices, amid modern industrialization.

"The audience is invited to experience the shape, sound, smell, taste and textures of food and how we think about, remember and imagine it," he wrote in his artist statement.

Offbeat works

Fransisca Retno staged a performance art piece called "Semoga Panjang Umur" ("Wishing You a Long Life"). Standing behind a table chock-full with vials and bowls filled with all manners of traditional and modern medicines, she could be seen combining those ingredients in a calculated manner  — crushing, slicing, mixing like a pharmacist.

Her performance made for a unique spectacle — some viewers had their mouths agape in equal parts fascination and confusion — yet it was not quite clear how her reflection on the medical industry directly responded to the theme.

Another offbeat work came from Faisal Rahman Ursalim, who experimented by creating a faux NGO called "Amigos Berkah" to empower street food vendors in Jakarta. He held a "lucky draw" competition — mimicking the marketing strategy of some restaurants — for people eating at the participating vendors.

Near the gallery's entrance, an array of certificates and photos proving his partnerships with many vendors were on display, with a poster promoting alluring prizes like the artist's own red Vespa scooter, which was parked in a corner. It was a head-scratcher at first, but the work eventually emerged as a tongue-in-cheek take on the profit-making act of selling food.

Faisal Rahman Ursalim's "Amigos Berkah" is based on a faux NGO the artist created to help street-food vendors. (JG Photo/Nico Novito)

Other unique works featured in the exhibition included Cempaka Surakusumah's hanging mobile of mini rubber-and-clay sculptures shaped like cooking utensils and ingredients. Through this work, arguably the most Instagrammed at the exhibition, she aimed to explore the state of chaos and order when one is cooking.

There were also two fairly interesting video works: Wangsit Firmantika's depicts an absurdist celebration of puberty with food whose shapes recall erotic body parts (phallic-shaped cucumber, say); while Grace Joetama created a triptych imagining a certain kind of human longing that having meals alone cannot fulfill.

Lastly, Ayu Dila Martina investigated the identity of instant noodles — which has become a significant part of most Indonesians' diet — as the national food in "Dari Sabang Sampai Merauke" ("From Sabang to Merauke"). She created an installation of mannequins wearing the costumes of a school choir — each printed with curly noodle strands.

"This work is meant to be cynical," Ayu wrote in her artist statement. "We accept [instant noodles] as part of our everyday food without caring where it comes from."

As food becomes increasingly scrutinized by the public, from the morality of eating meat to how factory farming contributes to climate change, new ideas proposed through "Exi(s)t" stand as a timely trigger for discussion.

The wide variety of art mediums presented by the promising artists here also further establishes the rich tapestry of Jakarta's current art scene.

In a manifesto written for the exhibition, the curators wonder, "Could food be 'monumental' in nature?"

If this exhibition is anything to go by, the answer seemingly points to the positive — and the audience is left hungry for second helpings.

“Exi(s)t #4: The Food Files” continues through Dec. 13. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Dia.Lo.Gue Artspace, Jalan Kemang Selatan No. 99A, South Jakarta.