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Contemporary photography in Yogyakarta:

the Case of Mes 56


ZHUANG WUBIN
while Filipino conteMporary photographers today
may attribute the influence of eminent conceptual artist Roberto Chabet (b. 1937, Manila) as their source of inspiration, that kind of lineage is somewhat absent in Indonesia. For instance, none of the photographers at Yogyakarta-based Mes 56 the first contemporary photographic collective in Indonesia whom I have interviewed cites the Indonesian New Art Movement founded in 1975 as a possible reference point for their current experiments with photography. The Mes 56 photographers base their experiments upon the traditions of Indonesian photography, and given the dominance of press, commercial and salon photography, they represent a progressive addition to the field. Since the mid-90s, there has been an upswing of art and cultural groups in Indonesia, especially in Yogyakarta, that focus on various aspects of urban and youth culture, including Apotik Komik, which specialises in satirical comics, and Taring Padi, which makes social critiques using posters. In the post-Reformasi1 era, many art groups started leasing old houses in the city using half the space as residence while converting the remaining half into a gallery. That became the modus operandi for Mes 56. Cajoled into it by one of its founders, Eko Bhirowo, Mes 56 was officially founded in 2002 though the collective had existed informally since 1994. Several of its founding members actually met in 1993 when they enrolled in the one-year program at the Modern School of Design, Yogyakarta. A year later, the Indonesia Institute of the Arts (ISI) in Yogyakarta became the first academy in the country to offer a bachelor degree in photography. Many of the Mes 56 members are graduates from this program. The experience left them sufficiently disenfranchised to band together as a collective. There was no lesson on the theories of photography. We only did one semester of history. The study of semiotics came when I was about to graduate. If I had known the theories, I would not need to do all the experiments, recalls one of its founders, Wimo Ambala Bayang (b. 1976; Magelang, central Java), who studied at ISI from 1996 to 2006. Our training in the technical aspects of photography was also very basic. Thats one of the reasons why we rebelled.2 Angki Purbandono (b. 1971; Semarang, central Java) is somewhat more diplomatic. Enrolled in 1994, he left in
Eugne von Gurard, The Weatherboard Falls (detail) 1863 oil on canvas. Collection: Geelong GalleryGift of Alfred Felton, 1900

1999 without graduating from the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program though isnt so sure if the collectives early experiments in photography were consciously rebelling against ISI, despite Mes 56 members demand for a more comprehensive photography curriculum. Certainly, some of the lecturers were not qualified. A few of them were mere hobbyists while others were actually painters. And they provided only one standard formula for students who might be interested in different genres of photography. We needed

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Remote landscapes in Australian art that includes key works by colonial artists Nicholas Chevalier, Thomas Clark, Eugne von Gurard, Conrad Martens, William Charles Piguenit and John Skinner Prout.
This exhibition is indemnified by the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria.

Little Malop Street Geelong 3220


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a space to be close to photography. We wanted to be artists, not workers, reiterates Purbandono3, railing against the perception of the Indonesian photographer as a tukang portret, or camera coolie, to use the translation of local photography curator Alex Supartono. Within the Indonesian photographic fraternity, the only artist influence generally cited by Mes 56 is Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo (b. 1964; Jakarta), who Purbandono first met in 1994. In 1999, the photographer-cum-curator Soerjoatmodjo gave some of the Mes 56 members a show at GFJA, the first public space in Asia dedicated exclusively to photography. He became my brain. He would take a pen apart and tell me about the meanings of the individual pieces. I would then look at my work and realise that I couldnt explain every part of the experiments. I learnt to find the different layers of meanings in art, recalls Purbandono.4 However, conceptual complexity is not always evident in Purbandonos work. Like some of the other Mes 56 projects, a few of his artworks are fuelled by play and boredom. In Wallet (2004 - ), he is obsessed with the idea of the wallet as a private gallery because people usually keep photos in their wallets. He would take an image of the wallet and an image of the owner with the wallet in an ongoing yet somewhat vague commentary on identity and the usage of vernacular photography. It feels inconclusive, especially in relation to the work that has already been done in Yogyakarta during the Reformasi by anthropologist Karen Strassler, who detailed the appropriation of passport photographs, originally conceived as a tool of colonial surveillance, by Indonesians into personal mementos and surrogate biographies.5 During President Sukarnos reign, photojournalism had been used to strengthen the unity of the pristine nation, which is one reason why the genre has since occupied such an important place within the historiography of Indonesian photography.6 It is therefore unsurprising to learn that Purbandono and some of the Mes 56 members share a certain indifference to (and need to distinguish their work from) the genre. We are not necessarily against documentary photography, claims Purbandono, but we are against conservatism. And since we cant move documentary, commercial or salon photography, what Mes 56 can do is to drop their concepts into a blender and make a new juice!7 The question looms: just how much of a new juice is, for instance, Wimo Ambala Bayangs work in Plastic Vision Fiction (2007 - ), which features a series of photographs on monuments in Indonesia and abroad shot using Holga and Diana cameras? Some renowned photojournalists are known to have used Holga cameras for their personal work, as with Magnum photographer Christopher Andersons book Nonfiction (2003). Perhaps what Purbandono means is the underlying motive behind each work. In Madness (2004 - ) he shot a series of close-up portraits of crazy people roaming the city. Aesthetically, the project looks like any documentary work but his impetus is rather curious. Purbandono talks about peoples irrational fear of madness as a result of parents telling their kids that should they misbehave, they will be given to these crazy people. By photographing these people in close-up, Purbandono challenges this fear. At the same time, he has used the opportunity to collect urban tales of

the city from them which becomes a way of mapping the city. The problem is that Purbandono chooses to present the work without captions, which makes it impossible to fully convey the details of his inquiry. It is worthwhile to compare Madness with the work of Agung Nugroho Widhi (b. 1980; Yogyakarta), who did his BFA in photography at ISI from 1999 to 2006. As a participant of the Asia-Europe Emerging Photographers Forum 2009, Widhi shot The Workers: Survival of the Fittest (2009 - ) with a Holga film camera in response to the forums theme of Creative Economies. Taken at the alun-alun (square plaza) of the sultan palace in Yogyakarta, the work features a series of portraits of locals with very little resources trying to eke a living creatively. One of Mes 56s younger members and also a video artist, Widhi recalls meeting Arif, a young boy who left an impression because of his idea of using a goat to pull a childs cart to attract customers. Widhi continues:
In the first place, the theme of the forum sounded as though we were at a G8 summit. It is not particularly photogenic. I try to take it at a very basic level, which is about how much money you have. When I told my subjects about the recent global crisis, they burst out laughing. We have been living in crisis since 1997! The talk about Creative Economies is nothing more than a solution for the West. Our basic issue is survival. In a way, this reflects the differences in the lives that Asians and Europeans lead.8

While he resists the label of reportage photographer, Widhis empathy with his subject is not that dissimilar to that of a concerned documentary photographer, and his work is clearly rooted in the socioeconomic conditions of Indonesia. The idea of mapping is a recurring obsession amongst Mes 56 photographers. Purbandono maps Yogyakarta through its madness; and Widhis Space for Rent (2007) maps the city through its mushrooming of billboards. Perhaps the most sustained attempt at urban ethnology is Frozen City (2008 - ), a work that consists of six slightly disparate subseries created by ISI photography graduate Edwin Roseno (b. 1979; Banyuwangi, east Java). Dropping out of product design studies in Surabaya in 2000, Roseno moved to Yogyakarta the following year to pursue a BFA in photography at ISI, and became a member of Mes 56 in 2002. A few of the sub-series in Frozen City are selfreferential, featuring Rosenos friends or the communities with which he identifies in Yogyakarta. Purbandono, for instance, makes a cameo on his Vespa in the sub-series titled Liburan di Taman Parkir (Holidays in the Car Park), in which Roseno utilised the illustrations of travel destinations in Indonesia on the tour buses that descend upon Yogyakarta on the weekends as backdrops for two portraits of his friends. The act itself references the traditional studio photographers who would pose their clients in front of meticulously hand-painted backdrops. As Strassler has shown through her fieldwork in Indonesia, technological and political changes in the 20th century influenced studio backdrop imagery in Indonesia, from the European milieu evoked in domesticated landscapes during the late colonial era to the iconography of the 1950s in which tropical landscapes shared space with modern architecture and in which people could virtually project themselves into the picture of capitalist modernity as glimpsed through film and other globally circulating images.9 Rosenos fascination with

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P15: Angki Purbandono, Untitled found photograph from the Anonymous series (2006 - ). P17: 1/ (clockwise from top left) 1/ Wimo Ambala Bayang, Everybody is a Vampire, 2004, digital colour print. 2/ Edwin Roseno, Liburan di Taman Parkir (Holidays in the Car Park), subseries from the Frozen City series (2008 - ), digital colour print. 3/ Anang Saptoto, Bareng Idola (With my Idol), 2005, digital colour print. 4/ Jim Allen Abel, Fuck You, Im from Makassar, 2003, digital colour print. 5/ FX Woto Wibowo (Wok the Rock), Who is Daniel Scully? (2007), digital colour print. All images courtesy the artists.

these tour-bus backdrops can be seen to extend Strasslers argument into the post-Reformasi era, in which a mixture of freedom, pluralism and confusion has returned to the vast archipelago. Portraiture is the other ongoing obsession for Mes 56 photographers, with the work of Jim Allen Abel (b. 1975; Makassar, Sulawesi) deserving special attention. After completing the one-year program at the Modern School of Design, Abel studied photography at ISI from 1997 to 2005 while shooting documentary pictures for a popular band in Indonesia. Despite its title, his early work, Fuck You, Im from Makassar (2003), neednt be construed as an aggressive stake on cultural identity. Wearing a print of his portrait in three distinct phases of his student life on a pail, Abel returned to his schools in Makassar to take this new set of self-portraits in a critique of the education system in Indonesia. History lessons, for instance, teach students where and when an incident took place, and the names of the people involved, but students are not told what actually happened, explains Abel. The work is also a playful attempt to rescue his identity from the media stereotype that Makassar and all Makassans are violent. By comparison, Anang Saptoto (b. 1982; Yogyakarta) uses snapshot portraits in Bareng Idola (With my Idol; 2005) to pay tribute to his friends and family members whom he sees as his idols. A graduate in TV studies from ISI in 2009, Saptotos practice encompasses video, installation and photography. He joined Mes 56 in 2002, and did a module on basic photography as part of his coursework. In Bareng Idola, Saptoto reacts against the phenomenon of young people who worship celebrity-strangers as their idols. He elaborates: I idolise my grandmother, for example, because she has taken care of me since young. I dont even idolise Andy Warhol, even though Im an artist. I know his work through catalogues but I dont care about him personally.10 For Bareng Idola, Saptoto took snaps of him and his idols, and then printed out the images for them to write their comments. Not surprisingly, several Yogyakarta artists, including his friends from Mes 56, are seen making a cameo in his portraits. Like some of the sub-series in Rosenos Frozen City, Bareng Idola is largely self-referential. Even though it has captured the spirit of the art community in Yogyakarta, it is hard to see the work beyond anything autobiographical.

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Portraiture is also an integral part of Wimo Ambala Bayangs work, which tends to be direct with a marked emphasis on humour and parody. In conventional portraiture there is a persistent drive for perfection. In Everybody is a Vampire (2004), Bayang subverts convention with a series of portraits shot in Jakarta and China of people with fake vampire fangs. The fangs prop became a device for him to meet new friends. On the other hand, We are Everybody Else (2007) started out as a wedding commission in which Bayang was given licence to take a more experimental approach. He decided to cast the wedding couples faces into a pair of masks and have other couples wear the masks for these portraits. The tendency, admits Bayang, is for artists and writers to talk of the work as a commentary on the institution of marriage yet he traces it back to his desire to subvert the ideal in portraiture. Unlike Bayang, FX Woto Wibowo (aka Wok the Rock, b. 1975; Madiun, east Java) hesitates to identify himself as an artist. Wibowo got acquainted with the (then as yet) founders of Mes 56 around 97, when they stayed in the same student share-house. That was when he started discovering photography through informal discussions. On a technical level, a camera image is always realistic. But the elements can actually be arranged, posed or manipulated, which is when an image becomes hyper-realistic. This is what attracts me in photography, explains Wibowo.11 In Who is Daniel Scully? (2007), Wibowo plays Daniel Scully, an Irish photographer who he met during the 2007 edition of the Asia-Europe Forum at Cork, Ireland. Visiting Scullys family ranch at Limerick County after the event, Wibowo decided to make a series of self-portraits in which he became a member of the family. In the images he is seen rising early to feed the cattle or enjoying food in the kitchen. He cant help but look like a sore thumb against the Irish landscape, much like the adopted Indonesian orphans who are seen alongside their Dutch parents in the family portraits of Tino Djuminis Nice Boy (2001-3). In this age of globalised travel, Wibowos work calls into question the issue of belonging, a construct that has been partly shaped by maps if not by downright racism. Wibowos other projects, such as For Me and You (2003), take him beyond portraiture into another area of interest for several Mes 56 photographers: to go lo-fi. Shot on a digital compact camera (on a night of heavy weed), For Me and You tells a ludicrous love story between the Virgin Mary and a robot, set against whatever belongings Wibowo had in his room. For Wibowo, born into a Catholic family, the work approaches a personal archaeology which seems to play on the contrast between tradition and modernity. For Bayang this work is the antithesis of still photography because it avoids being aesthetically pleasing or conceptually meaningful. The archaeological impetus is even more pronounced in Purbandonos Anonymous (2006 - ), in which he puts aside his camera and becomes a collector excavating for old photographs at Yogyakartas Alun-alun Kidul flea market. As an artist Purbandonos role is to categorise the collected images into themes like Wedding or Alone, and to repackage them into new visual products.12 In his 2007 exhibition at Cemeti Art House, apart from exhibiting the collected photos, Purbandono made a few light boxes using the images. He also recreated a 1940s studio portrait found in

his collection and invited fellow artists to produce the backdrop at the gallery, so that visitors could make new but similar portraits during the show. Nowadays, Purbandono seems to have distanced himself from those attempts at repackaging history, choosing to focus more on the old photos themselves. It is a return to his initial starting point for pursuing the project. Photography, according to Purbandono, has sometimes been too arrogant to recognise its vernacular voice. These practices, he feels, may in fact reveal the actual roles of photography in life as well as peoples contributions in visualisation and posing inventions.13 From this brief overview of Mes 56, it is clear that an exciting community of contemporary photographers has emerged in Yogyakarta. Not surprisingly, while there are obvious overlaps in terms of interests and concerns, the works of Mes 56 photographers differ in terms of rigour. Nevertheless, the diversity that they bring to the photographic narratives in Indonesia can hardly be undermined. C
1. Triggered by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the Reformasi movement led to the fall of Suharto a year later which was met with widespread looting which targeted Indonesian Chinese and well-off indigenous families in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities. 2. Wimo Ambala Bayang, interview by author, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 23 June 2009. 3. Angki Purbandono, interview by author, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 24 June 2009. 4. Purbandono, 2009. 5. Karen Strassler, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and the Indonesian Culture of Documentation in Postcolonial Java, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 2003, pp. 233-37. 6. Rifky Effendy, Portrait of the Contemporary Indonesian Through Photography, in Tino Djumini (ed.), Indonesian Dreams: Reflections in Society, Revelations of the Self, Yayasan Obor Indonesia and KITLV-Jakarta, Jakarta, 2008, p. 31. 7. Purbandono, 2009. 8. Agung Nugroho Widhi, interview by author, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, June 23, 2009. 9. Karen Strassler, Cosmopolitan Visions: Ethnic Chinese and the Photographic Imagining of Indonesia in the Late Colonial and Early Postcolonial Periods, The Journal of Asian Studies 67, no. 2, May 2008, pp. 419-26. 10. Anang Saptoto, interview by author, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 24 June 2009. 11. FX Woto Wibowo, interview by author, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 23 June 2009. 12. Nuraini Juliastuti, Landing Soon #1: Anonymous, exhibition catalogue, Yogyakarta/The Hague: Cemeti Art House/Artoteek Den Haag, 2007, pp. 13-14. 13. Juliastuti, 2007: p. 13. Zhuang Wubin is a Singapore-based researcher specialising in the contemporary photographic practices of Southeast Asia (ASEAN). He is also a photographer. wwwseasiaphotography. wordpress.com; www.last-harbour.com

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