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‘Hello World’: Finding a new approach to art collections

Katrin Figge
Katrin Figge

The Jakarta Post

Berlin | Thu, August 23, 2018 | 02:34 pm
‘Hello World’: Finding a new approach to art collections

Hello World offers possible answers to this question and potential alternative views on art history in 13 different chapters that touch on a variety of topics that range from moments of trans-cultural exchange and processes of transformation to museum concepts, both old and new. (Courtesy of Nationalgalerie — Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Anita Back)

The core of every museum is its collection, often accumulated over a long period of time, which is then presented to the public to highlight a certain genre, style or art form.

What is often forgotten, however, is the fact that every collection was formed and influenced by political, social and cultural conditions and therefore often represents merely one of many perspectives.

The Hello World exhibition, which runs through Aug. 26 at the Nationalgalerie — Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Gallery — Berlin State Museums) and is part of the Federal Cultural Foundation’s program Museum Global, takes a critical look at its own collection and aims to approach it differently by answering the following question: What would our collection look like today if its formation and understanding of art had been shaped by a more open-minded view — sans colonialism, wars, conflicts and other significant events that have rattled the world over the past centuries?

Hello World offers possible answers to this question and potential alternative views on art history in 13 different chapters that touch on a variety of topics that range from moments of trans-cultural exchange and processes of transformation to museum concepts, both old and new.

The chapter “Making Paradise. Places of Longing, from Paul Gauguin to Tita Salina”, curated by Anna-Catharina Gebbers, is a fascinating foray into the world of art in Indonesia as it uncovers the roots and exchange between artists of two continents, the transformation of Bali island into a “place of longing” and imagined paradise to works of contemporary artists today such as Tita Salina and Agan Harahap.

In preparation for her chapter of Hello World, Gebbers traveled extensively throughout Indonesia to network and connect to different artists, art collectives, galleries, museums as well as other important figures of Indonesia’s cultural industry and closely conferred with Indonesian curators Grace Samboh and Enin Supriyanto, discussing questions of painting practices in Indonesia and the country’s art canon.

Both Grace and Enin also contributed a lengthy article to the exhibition’s catalog, in which they suggest rethinking the ideas and ideals of paintings in Indonesia, referencing three essays by painter S. Sudjojono (1913-1986), artist Oesman Effendi (1919-1985) and Professor Sudjoko (1928-2006).

“It is a sensational introduction to the politically-led discourses on painting in Indonesia, which — as far as I know — has so far never been included in any European catalogue,” Gebbers said.

Going back to the Hello World exhibition, the starting point of the “Making Paradise” chapter is Raden Saleh, often referred to as the first “modern artist” from Indonesia. With the support of the Dutch colonial administration, Raden Saleh first came to Europe in 1829 to study painting as the first Asian, non-European artist.

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“He spent twenty years living and working in Europe, including Dresden, and was well respected as an ‘exotic’ figure at the royal courts,” Gebbers said, adding that Raden Saleh came to Europe during a time, when the stereotypical image of people from the Orient mainly consisted of salacious yet wily men and women sitting in the shade of tropical palm trees.

“Raden Saleh knew about these perceptions in the West,” Gebbers explained.

“Therefore, after settling in Dresden, he began to change his appearance. He didn’t wear Western attire anymore but played with the cliché of the Orientals, dressing the part, because it seemed to be more useful when it came to selling his paintings. He also incorporated Western painting styles into his works, alongside Orientalist elements.”

French painter Paul Gauguin, who was a contemporary of Raden Saleh, first set sail for Tahiti in 1891, longing to make a fresh start and the vision of a primitive idyll firmly fixed in his mind.

Walter Spies, a German artist born in Moscow, was another “adventurer” seeking lucrative opportunities and artistic inspiration beyond the borders of his home country. When he arrived in Bali in 1923, colonialism was at its height.

“The Balinese were proud people who fought and resisted colonialism and didn’t want to bow down to the Dutch rulers, which led to mass ritual suicides,

puputan. The images of these suicides resulted in international criticism and led to an image problem of the Dutch,” Gebbers explained.

“To put things right again, the Dutch changed course and presented themselves as protectors of the ‘real’ Bali and its culture, which was the beginning of the ‘Balinization’ of the Balinese. At the same time, they recruited Balinese rulers and kings to become leaders of their new administrative elite.”

One of the aforementioned new Balinese leaders was Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati, the Prince of Ubud, who invited Walter Spies, Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet and Balinese artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad to establish the artist collective Pita Maha whose main purpose was to promote Balinese culture, including traditional dances and also paintings.

“Pita Maha was beneficial to Balinese painters, some of whom were looking for artistic reorientation and therefore became interested in Western painting styles,” Gebbers said.

“It also meant they could earn an extra income after losing money because of crop failures. Both Indonesian and European artists were keen to discover compatibility in their techniques in order to further develop their style.”

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Thanks to Walter Spies and Pita Maha, the international trade in Balinese painting began to develop and visitors from all over the world were lured to the island, from fellow artists to writers, researchers and cultural anthropologists such as Margaret Mead. Together with filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, Andre Roosevelt and Victor von Pleesen, they presented the image of Bali as a largely untouched paradise to the rest of the world — the image Walter Spies had created for them.

Many of these semi-documentaries were released at a time when film productions played a crucial part in shaping public opinion and conveying certain images to the public in the West. Indonesian artist Tita Salina plays with these clichés in her video work “1001st Island — The Most Sustainable Island in the Archipelago,” where she is seen standing on a selfbuilt island, dressed in a black suit.

“The island is made from plastic waste that the artist together with fishermen collected from the harbor,” Gebbers explained.

“It’s her way to protest against artificial paradises and also tackles the issue of marine ecology, land reclamation and water pollution. And with this work, we have come full circle and are back in the present time.”

The curator added that the video seemed to have left a lasting impression on many visitors: since the exhibition started, staff of the museum shop reported that more and more customers have refrained from taking their purchases home in plastic bags.

Even those already acquainted with Raden Saleh and Walter Spies will find that “Making Paradise” offers unexpected insights. It is the first exhibition that showcases so many paintings by Walter Spies in one place. Another novelty is that it links Raden Saleh and Walter Spies in a unique way: it shows how the former traveled from Batavia to Dresden, while the other came from Dresden to Batavia (and later on, Bali), and they arrived at their destination during a significant historical time, when these places were in the process of nation-building. Both Raden Saleh and Walter Spies were interested in the art practices of their new surroundings, quickly became acquainted with local artists and eventually adapted their motives and styles.

The exhibition’s meticulously curated chapter “Making Paradise” is a treasure trove for everyone interested in Indonesia and Indonesian art, showcasing the works of more than 30 artists.

At the same time, it raises interesting questions about perceptions, stereotypes and the art canon in general — in an increasingly globalized world, tackling such issues and encouraging debate is more imperative than ever.

The core of every museum is its collection, often accumulated over a long period of time, which is then presented to the public to highlight a certain genre, style or art form.

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