A Radical Collective Takes Over One of the World’s Biggest Art Shows

His father taught him to draw, placing a toy next to the window to show how sunlight lent it highlights and shadows. When he was 14, he had a cartoon published in a national newspaper: a sketch poking gentle fun at Indonesia’s military, featuring goofy soldiers who might have been Beetle Bailey extras. After school, he studied printmaking at the Indonesia Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta, a course burdened with the staid principles of Western realism. It reflected nothing of the city’s heritage of collective art workshops, called sanggars, or its recent crop of socialist artists, who built many of Jakarta’s grand leftist monuments during the two-decade rule of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first post-independence president.

Darmawan spent his time meeting other artists, and together they published zines, played gigs and griped about capitalism. (In one show, he plastered a wall with handwritten text copied from the overheated advertising copy of deodorant packaging.) These small experiments and joint projects were a reprieve from the notion that art must convey big social messages; in Indonesia, Darmawan said, earlier generations of artists felt cursed by that compulsion. In 1998, he grew still more discontented after entering a two-year artists’ residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. The facilities were excellent and the residents diverse, but they were all given their own studios and left to themselves. “It was like an office,” Darmawan said. The Rijksakademie was an exclusive space; a passer-by couldn’t just pop in to see a painting or a sculpture. “You needed a magnetic key card to get in,” he said. The practice of art seemed an asocial, even antisocial activity. It felt, he said, “restricted, elite, clinical.” He longed for the easy, fertile collaborations he’d left behind.

From Amsterdam, Darmawan watched Jakarta burn. Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, had ruled the country since Sukarno was ousted in 1967, overseeing not only a savage repression of the left but also a financial meltdown in the 1990s. Afisina, who was studying cinematography at the Jakarta Institute of Arts in those years, was so short of money that he lived in an art-school studio. In the dreadful summer of 1997, when the economy pitched into a full-blown crisis, political clashes spilled into the arts. Demonstrators fleeing the army and police burst into a dance festival, and when soldiers followed, they attacked the audience. “This was the first time we were being beaten, and we didn’t know how to deal with it,” Afisina, who attended the festival, says. The next year proved both worse and better. The army shot and killed four students during a demonstration at a university, kindling unbridled riots, looting and arson. Suharto was forced to resign. When Darmawan returned in early 2000, his country was deep in reformasi, chasing a freer, more liberal democracy.

The founding of ruangrupa later that year was a recognition of the end of Suharto’s stifling cultural climate — the monitoring and censoring, the curbs on dissent. But ruangrupa didn’t necessarily set out to thumb its nose at political power. Its earliest members were from Indonesia’s middle class, then just a couple of generations old, says Supartono, the art historian. As a result, ruangrupa was almost post-ideological in that it didn’t aspire to effect sweeping political change. Rather, it wanted to be obdurately local, fixing the problems created by the commercial temper of Jakarta’s art scene: the pressures to sell work, the tedium of the galleries, the deference toward Western trends. Like many cities, Jakarta had few physical spaces that could support anything new in art. Ruangrupa’s chief order of business was to offer a ruang: a place for artists to meet each other, try things and fail and ignore for a while the demands and dogmas of the world outside.

One morning late in March, when I was visiting Jakarta, Darmawan asked me to meet him at a house in Tebet, a neighborhood in the heart of the city. When I arrived, he was sitting on the sidewalk, chain-smoking and shooting the breeze with a stocky young man, whose father used to fix cars on the street, when ruangrupa rented the house back in 2008. It was the fourth such house — or ruruhouse, you might say — that they occupied; the annual rent for the 1,300-odd square feet began at around 65 million rupiah ($4,500), but when it doubled in seven years, ruangrupa decided to move. Today, a cafe occupies part of the ground floor, its tables and chairs distributed under a leafy bower on the veranda. The house’s biggest space is a drab conference room. Darmawan and I stood there for a moment, trying to imagine it in ruangrupa’s day: as a venue for exhibitions and late-night gigs, a meeting point, a place to steal naps. The street had changed, too, from a quiet residential lane to a congested thoroughfare. We sat in the cafe for four hours. Not a minute went by without motorcycles bawling past us.

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