Hybrid: The Relationship Between Tradition and the Contemporary in Indonesian Art

Published with Carets and Sticks Contemporary Art Online
April 2013

What is the value of embodied knowledge, a relationship that requires time, devotion and often a recognition of the skill lineage from which it grows - aspects generally reserved for discussions of craft? Where does such a relationship fit into the contemporary arts which are decentralized, which love to move quickly through things, to cannibalize materials, and to change paths abruptly? Where does it fit into the vast and compellingly open nature of our current art world, a place where both speed and meditation are potential bedfellows, where there is no one defining feature to root our understanding of “contemporary art?” It is a confusingly ambiguous site, fertile and grumbling with questions.

Within the context of contemporaneity, I find myself constantly grappling with notions of tradition and skill, of art forms that are at once weighted down by their rich history and yet also unfixed, flexible, adaptable to change. The term “traditional” is just as slippery and fraught with misunderstanding and complexity as the term “contemporary.” Within artistic practice I find it necessary to maintain awareness of the potential conceptual power of media which invoke their own history. But I am also keenly aware of the potential tensions that exist between overly-simplified or romanticized notions of tradition and the complexity of ever-changing global culture.

So when I really delve into the terrain of trying to define and understand the meaning of such terms as “traditional” and “contemporary,” things get sticky. These are shifty words, difficult to define, overly broad and yet extremely loaded with implied meaning. One implies lineage or rootedness, the other progress or newness. Both are alternately defended and vilified depending on individual subjective opinions, and I think often misunderstood. Is an indigo-dyed and woven cloth from Sumba inherently traditional though the artist who made it drew her motif inspiration from a European museum catalogue shown to her by a tourist? Likewise, is a work of art which appears in an international biennale yet is made purposely from clay sourced in a traditional pottery village in Java inherently contemporary? I ask these questions because the notion of tradition as something that can positively identify or symbolize one’s own culture (and thereby identity) seems like slippery thinking within the context of globally-influenced contemporary society anywhere. So much depends on context. Traditions shift and move, following people from place to place and over time adapt to new influences. They are not necessarily fixed cultural entities, and as Gordon Marshall points out many “are in fact relatively recent inventions.”1

These lines of inquiry led me to and continue to sustain my current research in Indonesia. Initially drawn  by my interest in the mysteries of indigo dye as practiced throughout Indonesia, my research focus quickly evolved into a broader curiosity about the hybrid arts culture here. This hybridity comes from the heterogenous nature of Indonesia’s over 300 ethnic groups, myriad local societies and the mixing of traditional cultures with contemporary international influences. I observe that many artists working today in Indonesia are, like me, trying to reckon the often seemingly contradictory relationships between old and new ways of making, and what these processes signify on a cultural level. My inquiries into the relationship between textile traditions within the context of my own experimental practice are what drew me to the city of Yogyakarta in Java. This city is the heart of both traditional Javanese culture and Indonesia’s contemporary arts. It is a place of constantly surprising hybridity, of contradictions, of intellectualism, mysticism, religion, and so many different arts it can boggle the mind. There is a push and pull between Javanese culture and contemporary international influences (largely Western) that is quite apparent in this city. Often it manifests as a campuran, a fluid mixing of these various elements of culture.

In keeping with this cultural hybridity, art as I’ve encountered it in my time in Indonesia so far is not something that can necessarily be defined and isolated to one realm of cultural production. Art exists in the form of modernist paintings, in Balinese daily offerings, in ceremonially significant cloths, in dance, in wayang shadow puppetry, in carvings, in objects made for the tourist trade as well as installations and performances by artists produced by some of the country’s foremost art academies. Many people I talk with outside of the contemporary arts have expressed that they see all forms of making as art, without the sort of hierarchy between art, craft and design one finds in Western art discourse. However, I have encountered many opinions regarding the importance of traditional art versus contemporary, concept-driven practice. Many people involved in the contemporary arts believe Indonesia is “behind” in the development of more critical arts discourses. Many people also believe fiercely in the preservation of local culture and art forms and feel suspicious about these newer arts obviously influenced from the West. One way or another, the free movement between realms of thought, meaning or media implied by terms such as “liminal space” and “inter-disciplinarity” heard often in American arts academies is a natural element of both traditional and contemporary cultural production here.

Jill Forshee, a cultural anthropologist, has talked about this boundary-blurring tendency in relation to her extended research of textile production on the island of Sumba. She refers to “a certain playful unruliness” in the places where traditional arts such as textiles and contemporary culture meet. She describes such zones as “compellingly undefined areas....rife with peculiar creations stemming from wide-ranging sources.”2 She quotes anthropologist Janet Hoskins’ argument that “objects are used as vehicles for fantasy and imagination because they are saturated with both conventional and subjective meanings” in order to challenge the rarification of artistic production both past and present within Indonesia.3 Indeed, as we know, objects have the power to communicate both on a universal level and through locally understood symbol-systems. So naturally, when objects and materials carrying specific local symbolism are dislocated from their usual context and incorporated into experimental works of art they take on potent conceptual power. They become recontextualized elements of language, signifiers for the artist’s particular message, transcending their customary role. They become symbols rather than specific objects existing within their own context.

Within the contemporary arts in Indonesia the act of mixing traditional art forms with contemporary methods such as performance and installation is often employed as a specific conceptual tool. Contemporary art here was birthed and grown from a spirit of protest, out of critical response to authority both political and institutional. Many of the young artists who shaped its beginnings used traditional media and symbols of local culture as tools for the critical examination of their society. Such artists learned to mix contemporary methods such as installation and performance with older, culturally-specific signifiers in a sort of cultural jamming within their artwork. This type of work has often found its audience in the international art scene. Regarding international art events involving artists from developing countries, Asmudjo Jono Irianto writes that “the issues focused on tend not to be theories of art, or new styles, but rather of cultural difference and transformation...” Issues such as “identity, the place of tradition within rapidly changing societies, the issue of religion, ritual, mysticism and spirituality, the role of women, social and political concerns, migration and alienation.” The question remains whether this is due to selective curating or an inherent thematic tendency among artists from such countries. Irianto also points out that the efforts of internationally recognized Indonesian artists to mix old and new art forms “might be seen as an attempt to find some connection with the present in past values and meanings.”4

The curator Apinan Poshyananda reflects upon the struggle in many Asian megacities between preservation of perceived “true” or “authentic” culture and the desire to contend with western technological and economic advancement by saying “... the main tactics for cultural rejuvenation become nostalgia for past traditions and attempts to restage authenticity in response to external dominating forces.” Often, he says, “Indigenous juices are squeezed to the last drop in order to reinvent traditions.”5 This complicates the view that traditions are valuable within contemporary reality precisely because they facilitate a collective remembering of the evolution of one’s own culture. “Tradition” is not so broad and all-encompassing. It requires placement within specific time periods, it requires context, and it is always subject to change.

Which leads me to wonder if tradition is necessarily something separate from or in opposition to contemporaneity. Within the arts in Indonesia I definitely see how fluidly the two notions are woven together, both taking on aspects of the other, resulting in the sort of hybridity I discussed earlier. In her essay “East West, Home’s Best - Cultural Identity in the Present Nomadic Age,” Kitty Zijlmans addresses some of the complexity inherent in the development of newer, internationally-influenced art within cultures deeply steeped in their own ancient art forms. She says: “Contemporary art shows modern man’s struggle with his identity and with his positioning relative to his fellow men. This struggle arises from the dynamics of a global cultural exchange, urging man to a critical re-analysis and re-definition regarding the concepts of culture, the role and place of the arts therein, and the links with identity.”6  

Internationally recognized Indonesian contemporary artists often seem to achieve their success and visibility precisely because their work addresses cultural, social, political and ethnically specific themes. In short, their work exudes both an international savvy as well as a cultural specificity, employing signs, symbols, materials and topics particular to their cultural heritage, and often through a critical lens. Embodied knowledge runs deep here and adaptation within the ever changing, expanding reality of contemporaneity necessarily persists. The weight of cultural history and the richness of both old and newly invented traditions mix fluidly in the complex liminal zones of Indonesian arts. As Jill Forshee has observed, being “contemporary” or “traditional” is “not an either/or proposition, but rather, conceptual moves in a process by which people account for themselves--in times, in places, in the world.”2

1.    Cheesman, Patricia. Lao-Thai Textiles: The Textiles of Xam Nuea and Muang Phuan. Studio Naenna; Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2004. p.17
2.    Forshee, Jill. Between the Folds: Stories of Cloth, Lives, and Travels from Sumba. University of Hawaii; Honolulu, 2001. p.vii.
3.    Forshee, Jill. Between the Folds: Stories of Cloth, Lives, and Travels from Sumba. University of Hawaii; Honolulu, 2001. p.198.
4.    Irianto, Asmudjo Jono. “Tradition and the Socio-Political Context in Contemporary Yogyakartan Art of the 1990s.” Outlet. Ed. Melissa larner. Cemeti Art Foundaiton; Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2001. p.78.
5.    Poshyananda, Apinan. “Roaring Tigers, Desperate Dragons in Transition.” Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions. Asia Society Galleries; New York, 1996. p. 25-26.
6.    Zijlmans, Kitty. “East West, Home’s Best - Cultural Identity in the Present Nomadic Age.” GRID Project Catalogue. Yogyakarta, 2003. (page and publisher’s information unknown)