Foreign Familiarity in a Heavily-Saturated Land

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places”[i]


At my first encounter with the Artists’ Camp artwork, I was astonished by the excessive amount of work they produced in such a short time. “They must be excited”, I thought. I imagine that their excitement was so overwhelming, so unbearable; that there is no other way to cope up with the flow of thought other than transform them into paintings, drawings, and sketches. They absorbed what they see, feel, and exist around them. On the first glance, the results are easily read as a visual travel journal with work ranging from large-scale collaborative and individual paintings, to works on paper and notes. All of which are portraying the richness of color, texture, and sensation presented in this land. On that context, traveling can act as an artistic exercise of the familiar as well as the newness of everyday life. This exercise, apparently, was very much cherished by the six artists in this Artists’ Camp.

Stepping into the unknown will give that giddy feeling and sense of curiosity. One that often provoke wanderlust in the future. To find surprises in things that are strangely familiar can be just as interesting as finding less obvious differences hiding in plain sight in each landscape. For me, this means finding comfort and commonality in the lifestyle, food, and weather of Darwin. The familiarity of the city cast away any trace of homesickness and confusion. It reminds me of how similar the world is in spite of geographical and cultural differences. On the other side, the foreignness that I feel from even the simplest act of grocery shopping keeps the excitement and curiosity flowing. While I, coming from Yogyakarta, see a certain similarity of Darwin in terms of lifestyle. These artists might experience another level of similarity between the Balinese culture and that of the indigenous community. A balance between those two is suggested in the title, Cruise Control, portraying the perpetual lost state and the attempt to stay up to speed. It is about letting go and trusting the intuition while at the same time doing the exact opposite and try to get a grip. The tension between the two oppositions is infiltrated smoothly. 

During the Artists’ Camp, the 6 artists spent most of their time on the road with a lot of travel; by car, plane, and boat. They made work en plein air, in makeshift studios, on the road. They spend time in a number of Top End and Central Desert location, visited iconic sites such as Uluru and were welcomed by Tiwi People on Melville Island. The works they produce correspond to their observation of people, institution, constant movement, and spiritual value that they encounter. The diversity presented in the artist choice record the movement in the most complex combination.

Some of their works are seemingly painted in deeper state of familiarity. There was one time when one of the artist made a sketch of their host while she was dancing in the morning. We must not forget that dance, too, is a part of certain step among the many that make up Balinese worship. Once a part of the daily life is evoked in a land far away from home, that sketch seems to be created out of the impulse to capture movements recognized by heart. It was only natural to follow the impulse. At other time, a landscape painting that one of the artists made of Melville Island’s seaside, brings my memory to that of Balinese seaside. Maybe it was the tone of the weather in that painting, the way of the artist sees the whole scene, or my personal reference that translate the particular painting into something delicately remind me of a place I am familiar with. At the end of it, the works presented here offers an unlimited range of possible readings depending on the viewers’ own identification with the image.   

For me who never went to the bush, the Northern Territory landscape experienced by the artists in the Artists’ Camp were more like an abstract idea. It is an unknown territory that I am excited to explore through these works. Through the imagery presented on the paintings, drawing, sketches, and notes; the artists share their experience amidst the highly saturated landscape and culture. Through imagery, texture, and color; we can sense the perpetual flux and constant movement. Take a number of photograph and painting about Uluru as an example; those works might be perceived as their experience to be facing a great force that is so silent, so still, and at the same time so powerful. To the Balinese, God and Goddesses are present in all things. Every element of nature possesses its own power. Therefore in Uluru, an invisible forces and connection between spirituality and humanity might be strongly felt. At that point, the artists allow themselves to be the translator of this connection. Through the eyes of these artists, we can situate ourselves in front of the same greatness, see the landscape and their translation of the cosmic energy shared in the same sense of spirituality. Some of these paintings are abstract while the other is more representational. All and all, it is capable of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it. In this sense, all paintings are contemporary.[ii]

Balinese art has a unique position within the wider panorama of Indonesia’s artistic development. Bali was the first or only island where traditional art had opportunities to fully meet the western aesthetic influence—creating a combination of east and west that melded into genuine expressions of Indonesian modern art.[iii]  The contemporary Balinese artists carried out exploration and possibilities in creating language and expressive form that do not directly project the image of Bali while the traditional art continuously preserved for religious and ritual purpose.[iv] Let’s look back to the quote of Italo Calvano at the beginning of this essay. I might suggest an idea and raise a question, is it possible that the artist finds again an imagery of the past in this foreign unpossessed place? The two sides between contemporary art and cultural symbol collide. The landscape and the trip can be read as a dualistic experience that allows them to stay true to their artistic language while making the works instinctively. The experience is so familiar and yet so strange, the land is so far and yet so close, and everything is so new and yet so recognizable. The pace of time and movement is high; and they are gliding in that flow. 

In the broader contemporary practice, these artists allow a form of intervention in their art beyond geographic and geo-cultural boundaries. The Artists’ Camp itself can be seen as an elaborative art project and laboratory of creation. The art residency is dynamic and unlike the previous Artists’ Camp; the artists have strong intention to collaborate and make connection with local artists. Made Budiana, for example, start painting on black background after artist Rupert Betheras convince him to try experimenting on new technic and media. In the other hand, Ni Nyoman Sani got some woods from the people in the community to paint. Those woods are previously painted by indigenous artist and later left unused. On top of those painted wood, Ni Nyoman Sani created her response to those painting and made a series of figurative works in relation to her encounter with people in the community. The artwork itself is presented as a dialogue between them. As for other artists, the Tiwi people also gave most influence to the overall work of the artists. 

There is an open-endedness aspect in the global perspective of this project. It established a much-needed intersubjective encounter between people to people at that time. This camp took place against the bumpy relationship between Indonesia and Australia caused by the death penalty affirmation earlier this year. Yet, the harmonious connection between people to people, leave the government’s decision off its people.

To recite Nicolas Bourriaud, “Instead of a utopian agenda, today’s artists seek only to find provisional solution in the here and now; instead of trying to change their environment, artists today are simply “learning to inhabit the world in a better way”; instead of looking forward to a future utopia, this art sets up functioning “microtopias” in the present[v]. In a time and place where conflict present in the higher level of transnational relationship,  art has its own potential to develop a communicative situation. Instead of collapsing into a self-congratulatory entertainment, it offers the simplest act that produce social harmony in between people-to-people relationship. It might sound like a utopian idea but when we look back to even the simplest act of excitement presented by the work; it is not impossible to picture a microtopias space inhabited by all of the artists from every community that was connected in this Artists’ Camp. From this corner of the world, life seems better: harmonious, comfortable, with endless spark of curiosity. 

[i] Italo Calvano, Invisible Cities  (Harvest: pbk., 1974)
[ii] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 2008, p.31)
[iii] Soedarso S.P., in the preface of Modern Indonesian Art: From Raden Saleh to the Present Day (Indonesia: Koes Artbook, p.9)
[iv] Suwarno Wisetrotomo, in “Introduction: Modern Art in Indonesia”,  Modern Indonesian Art: From Raden Saleh to the Present Day (Indonesia: Koes Artbook, p.19)
[v] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetic (Dijon: Les Presses du Reel, 2002, p.13)