multi-storied #21: The editing floor
Outtakes from Indonesia
In parallel with my reporting on the Jews of Nigeria, I’ve been speaking, for the past year or so, to the members of ruangrupa, an Indonesian art collective that is curating this year’s edition of Documenta, the massive contemporary art fair in Kassel, Germany. (Documenta started yesterday, June 18.) This wasn’t a piece I pitched; I lived in Indonesia much too long ago, when I was in middle school, and although I’m deeply interested in the history and practice art, that hasn’t (until now) extended to contemporary art. But my editor at the New York Times Magazine suggested I try, and 12 months of studying, reporting in Kassel and Jakarta, and Zoom interviewing resulted in this profile of ruangrupa.
Usually, when magazine pieces are assigned, the editor tells you how many thousands of words you have to tell your story, and nearly always, she sticks to that original brief. For this piece, I had 6,000 words, and my custom, in such situations, is to write to around 5,800, knowing that I’ll probably have to add a few things and remove some others in subsequent drafts. “Kill your darlings,” famous writers have advised: be ruthless in your editing. (Did Faulkner say it first? Ginsberg? King? Arthur Quiller-Couch, it turns out.) I usually have just one or two darlings per piece, but I’m reluctant to murder those. Better, then, to write below the limit and save your brood.
This time, though, I wrote 7,500. The extra words weren’t darlings, exactly—just things I figured the reader needed to understand ruangrupa and Documenta better. We cut those 1,500 words after all (my editor at the Magazine is clear-eyed and terrific), but I find they tell a little story all by themselves. So here it is: ruangrupa and documenta in miniature.
Documenta happens every five years, taking over Kassel and leaving relics behind all over the town. Once, walking by the Fulda river, I encountered a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, inherited from a Documenta in 1982: a tremendous blue pickaxe planted bit-first into the soil:
If you’re tempted to be pleased by the pickaxe—to think of its unexpected materialization as a fine interplay of public art and public life—ruangrupa would be glad to disillusion you. Through its 22-year history, ruangrupa has spurned the Western ideal of the art exhibit: the painting or sculpture sacralized just by being in a gallery. The pickaxe is outdoors, but it is still a lifeless object contrived for your gaze; a formal gap still separates artefact and audience. And Oldenburg himself fits the image of the artist that the global art market so carefully nurtures: the individual of genius, whose signature work can be profitably bought and sold by galleries, auctioneers, and collectors. Ruangrupa, though, believes the product to be less important than the process. In Indonesian, the words “ruang” and “rupa” mean “room” and “form,” so the mashed-up name prizes the physical space in which people collaborate, things take shape, and art is made. For ruangrupa, it’s the four years leading up to a documenta that are of interest; the hundred exhibition days are merely a happy excuse for artists to work together.
Ruangrupa’s emphasis on collectivity and process was, in part, a channeling of collective traditions (artistic or otherwise) across southeast Asia. But it was also a reaction to the particular politics of Indonesia in the 1990s, when many of ruangrupa’s members grew up. What the state or the establishment couldn’t provide—or wouldn’t—ruangrupa did: space for artists to engage, to try things, to fail. Perhaps without intent, these principles fit the new, stirring axioms of relational art:
To take a quick hit of theory: The French curator Nicholas Bourriaud coined the term “relational art” in 1998, to express an aesthetic born out of social ties. It doesn’t produce articles made out of paint or marble, to be pondered in some utopian gallery space. Rather, the stuff of this art is the ordinary relations between people, lifted into aesthetic consideration. The role of such work, Bourriaud wrote, is “to actually be ways of living and models of action.” When an artist named Rirkrit Tiravanija cooked for guests at the 303 Gallery in New York in 1992, for instance, he was showcasing not his pad thai but the interactions of everyone around his food.
Around 10 years ago, ruangrupa came to a cusp in their artistic practice, said Farid Rakun, a trained architect who, deciding after a decade of study that architecture wasn’t for him, joined ruangrupa in 2010. At the time, they had shows at two big festivals overseas: the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2012, and the Sao Paulo Biennial in 2014:
The Brisbane work was wild and engrossing, but it was still “closer to what people understand as art projects,” Rakun said. Sao Paulo, though, became “the first time we were staging ourselves—moving ruangrupa itself.” After that, he said, the invitations to art festivals abroad multiplied, “boom-boom-boom-boom,” and exporting ruangrupa—its exercises in collectivity—became the convention. Sometimes, Rakun said, he missed the older types of projects, “where we delve into a lot of things artistically.”
For Brisbane, ruangrupa invented a legend and populated it. To narrate the story of the ties between Jakarta and Brisbane, ruangrupa made up The Kuda, an underground punk rock band that purportedly played in Indonesia in the 1970s. In the myth, an Australian journalist visited Jakarta and returned home with copies of The Kuda’s music, touching off a punk revolution in Brisbane’s music scene. For their show, ruangrupa created a small museum of artefacts supposedly from that time: the band’s instruments; vitrines full of fake books and magazines about The Kuda, aged to look as if they’d survived the 1970s; band T-shirts; a Vespa; black-and-white films of the rockers ambling around in all their slouchy cool. Musicians in Jakarta composed an entire album of songs “by” The Kuda, which a Brisbane cover band played during the festival. Ruangrupa convinced old Brisbane rockers to appear on radio programs, testifying to the electric influence that The Kuda had on their music. Ruangrupa’s work isn’t ordinarily this high-concept, but the show was prime ruangrupa in many other ways: in its street-urban edge, its impudence, its affection for multimedia exhibits and the so-called lowbrow, and its elliptical take on politics. It delighted them, in particular, that the fiction leaked out of the museum and into real life. “Years after that, someone showed us a blog post talking about The Kuda,” Ade Darmawan said, one of ruangrupa’s founders, said. “and I think they didn’t know it was actually fiction, because it was very serious writing, talking about how the Indonesian punk scene influenced the Brisbane punk scene.”
In some ways, Documenta is a ideal venue for ruangrupa, having acquired a near-fantastic reputation for the avant garde. But in other ways, it is still the Establishment with a capital E, the kind that ruangrupa has always shied away from:
Documenta was born conflicted. In 1955, Arnold Bode , an artist and professor from Kassel, opened the first Documenta with the resolve to reconnect postwar West Germany to the world, and to amplify in particular the kinds of works that the Nazis had labelled entartete, degenerate. Kassel was still convalescing after being bombed into ruin; the Fridericianum, the town’s main museum, had to rebuild its roof. Even so, that edition, with its 700 works by artists like Picasso, Paul Klee, Matisse, and Kandinsky, was so successful that Documenta embarked on its five-year cycle. But the exhibition was peddling its own type of ideology, showing the sort of Western abstraction and minimalism—Jackson Pollock, Jo Baer—that could be championed as a bold counterpoint to the figurative art of East Germany and the Soviet Union. Last year, one investigation revealed that Documenta 3 may have received funds from the CIA. Another identified several of Bode’s fellow Documenta organizers as former Nazis. The bind of politics was inescapable.
Documenta has also fit snugly within the Western art establishment in other ways. For decades, it was guilty of mostly inviting white, male artists; only for the 2002 edition was the first director of color appointed: the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor. “That was when they started looking at the much larger world, trying to break free of a Western-centric model of making and showing,” the filmmaker Amar Kanwar, who first screened a movie at that Documenta, said. Until 2017, Documenta didn’t even pay artists for their work, assuming that their market value would rise amply just by showing at Kassel. It was rich, Saltz wrote, that Documenta’s artists and curators assumed an “endlessly idiotic ‘anti-market’ stance” when the market was so tightly braided into the exhibition. This was still, he argued, “art only for the .01 percent.”
As I write in the piece, trying to capture ruangrupa’s body of work is like trying to pin down smoke. What is there to see or describe, after all, in the bygone collaborations and conversations that form the essence of ruangrupa’s method? Or, as the question is often raised to ruangrupa: “Where’s the art?”
Rakun once told me: “Our aesthetic argument is to work with others.” The staunchest critique of this position comes from Claire Bishop, an art historian at the City University of New York. Bishop sympathizes with the noble social goals that collectives like ruangrupa harbor. But she too wondered, in a 2006 essay: “Where’s the art?” The results of such collective efforts, she held, resemble not art but “a slew of community-based practices that revolve around a predictable formula: workshops, discussions, meals, film screenings, and walks.” We may take avid part in these, but responding to them as art, or assessing them as the output of artists, becomes impossible. Artists are cast as ethical actors and “judged by their working process—the degree to which they supply good or bad models of collaboration”—an enfeebling of art, Bishop suggests. To Darmawan, though, this is a category error—a fixation with rigid, tired definitions of “art” and “artist.” “We don’t care if people call us artists or not, or if they call what we do as art or not,” he said. “We don’t really care.”
The whole piece—the main 6,000 words, after all!—is here. Also, if I had to pick my three favourite pieces of reading from my research, they would be:
Enrique Vila-Matas’ “The Illogic of Kassel,” a really gleeful, almost meta-fictional novel, in which the narrator is asked to be an exhibit at a Documenta by sitting in a Chinese restaurant and working on a novel.
Siasat, ruangrupa’s “manifesto,” or as they call it: “a short tactical guide for artist-run initiatives.”
Also-Space, by the scholar-artist Reinaart Vanhoe. The subtitle explains it all: “How Indonesian Art Initiatives Have Reinvented Networking.”