Death by artwork

PEPE DON'T PREACH - Pepe Diokno (The Philippine Star) - December 4, 2015 - 9:00am

The Indonesian city of Yogyakarta is known for its archeological treasures — Borobodur, a massive 9th century Buddhist temple, is about an hour away from downtown; Prambanan, a breathtaking 9th century Hindu temple complex, lies just at the city’s limits. But it would be a mistake to say that Jogja, as the locals call it, is stuck in the past. On a recent trip, I discovered that the place is home to a community of brave, exciting and forward-thinking artists. Their work is on display at the Jogja Biennale, which runs until Dec. 10 at the Jogja National Museum. It is a must-see.

This year’s is the 13th edition of the biennale, which traces its roots back to 1992, when a renegade group of young artists set up an event called Binal Experimental Arts. It was a rebellion against an establishment that only exhibited artists above 35 years old and favored painted works over other mediums. And it was a naughty rebellion. “Biennale” in the Indonesian dialect is pronounced “bee-null” and written “banal” in Indonesian, which translates to “naughty,” as the current biennale’s website explains.

A tradition of naughtiness continues in today’s exhibition — a refreshing thing for me to see, coming from Manila. Our art scene tends to lean toward the market, I find. Even Patrick Flores, the curator of the Philippine pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, told me in an interview this year that the trend scares him. “It’s scary, the prices. We don’t really know why certain artists are bought for a very high price, for instance,” he said.

The result of a market-driven art scene, I think, is that many artists tend to chase trends to make sales. Buyers tend to plunk down money on pretty things, rewarding art that is only aesthetically impressive. Our city seldom fetes the artist who provokes conversations on society. In fact, our city can be very harsh to them.

The Jogja Biennale, on the other hand, is a conversation on society. The curators have gathered pieces that are not only impressive, aesthetically, but also funny, challenging, brash and profound. Many works are even politically charged — brave stuff, considering the country’s harsh and unforgiving censorship laws. (In October, before the biennale opened, several events at the famous Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in Bali were shut down by police for political reasons. Censorship at a literary festival? Too damn much.)

But history tells us that in the face of suppression, art rises to the occasion — to push people, provoke them, and inspire them to think and change things. On this page, you’ll find the pieces that roused me on my recent visit to the biennale. I’d like to share these with you as a dose of inspiration and a shot in the arm.

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For more photos of my travels, follow me on Instagram @PepeDiokno.


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