22.7.18

[Publication] "When Did You Last Sip Tea from the Saucer?"



Time is transient. We are eternal:
Plucking seconds, one by one, arranging them like flowers
Until one day we forget what for (i)

I’d like to think of my time in Italy as a walkable space. As I travelled half-a-world away from home, my date of arrival became a starting point, the timeframe a “place” to explore, and my departure date the finish line. The journey transformed into and even resembled a city itself, with easy riding, borders, and pit stops on a three-month-long one-way street. My map of this country is translated into a Google calendar itinerary that not only gives the day and month, but also dictates what to do, where to go next, and who to meet, where, and when: efficient and straightforward. Passages here were marked by weeks, and days translated into up to 5 different meeting points all pin-pointed on a digital map, with cities consisting of: studio visits (30 minutes x 6 artists)/day + meetings (1 hour x 3 art institutions)/day + lunch (1 hour; 2 on better days) + miscellaneous introductions during meals and other “free” time (sightseeing included as part of the calculated time buffer during a brief walk between meetings or in the view from a taxi window). No time can go to waste. Every now and then, souvenirs are collected—from the street, a meeting, the ranch below an active stratovolcano, the boat, the castle, the white cube, garage, or aqueduct. During these moments, for me, time and space merge physically: condensed into a long (time-constrained) one-way street blurring in and out of view along the way and ears that were blocked suddenly pop from the air pressure that changes faster than the pause in between two sentences. At these times, instead of turning into a walkable space, my time in Italy becomes what Mrazek referred to as a “landscape of forgetting”(ii): a geometric homogeneity where, probably out of fear for deviation or limited scope of movement, one keeps moving forward fast enough so as not to look back. At the end of the day, the Google calendar meets its utmost function: as a tool to remember. A map of three particular months registered in a shareable online calendar. 

Sometimes while looking out the window, I envy the walkable street with a longer scenic route, a more daily rhythm, a slower pace. It’s a question of the intercity connection or the alleyway, the right (standing) or left (climbing) side of a busy escalator. These two temporalities share one cityscape: the visitor’s time (or lack of it) and the seemingly abundant time of the local. Often, during meetings, time shows its elastic quality. To the host, it is expandable. For the visitor, it can be stiff and limited as we frantically rush from one meeting or train to another. Among the best visits are those that slowly unfold, allowing us to fall deeper into conversation instead of trying to catch a clear glimpse of everything all at once. Time seems aplenty—and free—on the other side of the road, where it is not bound by tight scheduling that requires real endurance, unlike the marathon track where energy must be used conspicuously and time spent efficiently. But is this a true reading? Does the other side of the road offer a longer scenic route, or is my preconception of Italy clouding my view, leaving a thin rose-tinted layer on the window of the vehicle drearily rushing me on? 

“What Time Is It Now?”: On Touristic vs. Local Temporalities 
For a long time, Italy was an idea to me: a concept tirelessly explored in my head through paintings, books, cuisine, and film. To me, the idea of time in Italy seemed expandable. Dining takes place over several hours, and slowly unfolding. Seasonal, colorful, and appetizing foods are to be enjoyed almost religiously. After which the houses are abandoned for a stroll, la passeggiata, walking hand in hand and talking about nothing and everything all at once. Life, at its best, is surrounded by breathtaking landscapes and a tremendously rich history and culture, where the warmth of the people matches that of the ample sunshine. For me, Italy seemed to be more than a brand guaranteeing quality, it represented a way of life; and offered the possibility of a voyage, both deep inside yourself and around the region. If something were to ever fail you, “In Italy at least you’ll always have Italy.”(iii)

My early view—a Grand Tour-ish perspective on Italy, along with all the stereotypes—was very soon diminished as I moved around the country at an obliviating pace. The beautiful scenery became a blurry smudge along the road, food eaten in a hurry, and most of all, my parachuted position made me question my own occidentalist view of “Italian time.” By its very suggestion, this notion implies provincialism and flattens Italy’s complexities into those of just another picturesque place where time stops and modernity has yet to arrive. This romantic (if not exotic) view of time puts me into the comically embarrassing position of the motoring visitor (driving a scooter) asking the time from a peasant napping in a field, who gives his precise answer only after feeling his donkey’s balls (Le Barzellette, 2004). (iv) 

Coming from a city that has become one of the major tourist destinations in Indonesia, I began drawing parallels between touristic stereotypes. My hometown, Yogyakarta, is a notoriously slow city with hospitable and good-humored inhabitants. It is well known for its laidback quality, tolerance, culture, and the lush nature of the surrounding region. The presence of many archeological sites, a well-functioning Kingdom and respected Sultan add to Yogyakarta’s reputation as a cultural city, where sweetness is added not only in food, but also in life. 

Take tea, for example. The local way to serve tea in Yogyakarta is known as Nasgitel—a strong brewed and aromatic sweet tea that is served piping hot, so to deliver all the favorable qualities of life: balance, sweetness, bitterness, and the value of time. The aroma represents the pleasure of the senses, the bitterness of the first sip demonstrates the hard work that must be done before the gradually melting rock sugar makes it sweet. It is served very hot because it requires time to enjoy: slowly, thoughtfully, as it cools. (You would burn yourself otherwise.) This is where conversation starts to flow, like a dance, while you wait for the tea to mellow although you do not want it to grow cold. And to avoid a tea mixture that is far too sweet at the bottom of the glass, you must remember to stir even while chattering or in deep contemplation. As you mix and melt the rock sugar, you need to occasionally test the tea with a spoon. When the level of sweetness suits your taste, you can remove the remaining rock sugar and reserve it on the saucer for later consumption (as a “candy” treat!) When I was younger and impatient, there was another method to enjoy this type of tea: 1. Separate the glass from the saucer, 2. Pour just enough tea onto the saucer, 3. Carefully blow on the saucer to cool the tea down and sip it directly from the lip, 4. Add a little bit more tea at a time, and enjoy as if it were a ritual. This alternative method might seem a more laborious, but it allows you to start drinking the tea immediately. I can’t remember when I last drank tea in this solemn ceremonious way. 

Living in Yogyakarta is not only affordable, but it also offers a high quality of life. The city promises more time, tranquility, and tightly knit community. Artists from other cities relocate to Yogyakarta for both comfort and the dynamic contemporary art scene, which attracts streams of visiting international curators, researchers, and artists who are easily captivated by the self-organized collectives and art spaces. The grassroots, D.I.Y models for major art institutions as well as the city’s ambitious biennial excites art practitioners from across the world studying the possibilities for autonomous organization when there is no more state support. In general, it is easy to romanticize Yogyakarta through the narrative of slowness and quality of life. And the city has seen significant gentrification in mushrooming third-wave coffee shops, boutique hotels, obscenely trendy street food vendors, and cultural tourism packages, among others. The independent art fair, ARTJOG, is not only known for presenting artists directly to the market without gallery representation, but also because it is visited by 1,500 to 2,500 art enthusiasts each day. The combination of cultural highlights, contemporary art spectators, and urban development has slowly changed the face of Yogyakarta. Instead of local people commuting by bicycle, the traffic is congested by too many cars, tour buses, and motorbikes, creating pollution, an unfriendly environment, and worse: cutting down the quality time once promised. 

Promises made and promises broken, once again, in the case of the contemporary art scene. As the density of international art stakeholders passing in and out of Yogyakarta escalates, the demand to share the experience of creating a structure for autonomous art organization and collectivity, or a profound approach to sociopolitical issues, results in hyper-mobile jet-setting art-workers. Although the invitation for a residency or talk abroad is not a new within the Indonesian art scene, growing global interest requires its continuous performance from art practitioners. And so the artists and curators currently “in demand” often bump into each other in Tokyo, Berlin, Sydney, Korea, London, or Amsterdam, even more often than in their hometown. Their presence in the Yogyakarta art scene is scattered around time in-between trips, absences, and the hours they dedicate to nongkrong (hanging out with friends)—as part of the system. Seven years ago, an artist could easily be found hanging out in another’s studio, spending the day talking art, politics, social issues, and gossip. But today, artists have to make the time for what was once a serendipitous activity. This hyper-mobility is also marked by fluency in International Art English, with its jargon and buzzwords, a slippery step into a universalizing and homogeneous artistic practice. At the same time, even though a small part of the city is being exposed to universal trends and global discourses (from the contemporary art scene to the marketplace), for the tourist and art-tourist alike, Yogyakarta is still perceived as the tranquil, easy-going, cultured, and very much romanticized city that it once was. On national television, Yogyakarta is often mischaracterized as a place where people still wear traditional costumes and the conical hat, ride old bicycles through the river valleys and rice paddies against a natural background of mountain scenery, and speak with a noticeably provincial accent. Through the eyes of the art-tourist, Yogyakarta’s fragile support structures are not easily noticeable, even though the self-organized platforms are sometimes too demanding for the individual forces behind them. 

These observations bring me back to the Italian context, of which Alessia Ricciardi notes: “From the painterly movement of Transavanguardia to the philosophical school of weak thought, from the novels of Italo Calvino to the semiotics of Umberto Eco, the apparent intention is to free Italy from the shadow of provincialism and to fulfill the promise of universal importance.”(v) In the case of Italy and Yogyakarta, then, one needs to be more than a tourist to see beyond the idealized representation. 

“Who Has Time For Poetry?” : Time (and the Lack of It) 
Stepping out of the shadow of provincialism and onto the global art scene: the speed, the overbooked itinerary, and the lack of down-time are the price that some of us are willing to pay. Moving from one time zone to another, in between jet-lag-ridden power naps and catching up on messages across three different time zones, we must always be ready to perform, speak the same language, and stay inspired. In a system that puts emphasis on individual achievement, busy-ness becomes more than a lifestyle: it is a point of pride, a promise of imminent gratification, a consequence. KUNCI Cultural Studies Center’s Brigitta Isabella once stated that hyper-mobility can precede social mobility—from the local to the international, broadening one’s network can increase one’s social and capital value. Yet in the worst case of such hyper-mobility, a “cosmopolitan nomad”-artist might easily lose their reference to any material condition, to what is spent and what gained. For the cosmopolitan nomads who quit one country for another, the “public” is an abstract concept that is both international and empty—composed only of those who read a project proposal and motivation letter. (vi) This perpetual movement and the feeling of disconnectedness can be disorienting and lonely; although the speed can sometimes create a sense of amnesia that gets you high and helps you forget. 

But what about the constant positive stimuli; the endless exposure to artworks, ideas, and yet another artist’s brilliant mind? So stimulating that there is no time to grow bored. In The Burnout Society, Byung-Chul Han describes the dark side of the society of achievement and how the psychic condition dominated by excess positivity in fact leads to solitary tiredness. (vii) Just like all the delicacies of Italian cuisine, it is best to take everything in moderation—even beauty and pleasure.

Shortly after the up-and-coming photographer Ren Hang committed suicide, Australian VICE published a thinkpiece on the tortured genius: “The image of the tortured artist is resilient, and all too often, romantic. The pain harbored by those who lead creative lives is presented differently to others. When an accountant is depressed, it's psychology; when an artist is depressed it's poetry.”(viii) The normalization and romanticization of the artist or art-worker’s mental struggle can be attributed to wider ignorance of the systemic structures nourished by poor labor conditions, and self-exploitation without the promise of financial stability. When will we finally act collectively to fight this global solitary tiredness, through solidarity and common beliefs, to change the system from the bottom, up? The contemporary art scene circles through a never-ending loop: hard work increases demand, demand leads to pressure for productivity and hyper-mobility, which later causes the exhaustion and pain that are once again recycled into commodity—a capitalization of the topic itself. Endless self-questioning should always be practiced to maintain criticality, yet one must be agile enough to move between the lightness and weight of today’s world. Excessively high personal standards must be maintained to stay in the loop and participate in the global art scene. 

The question is, what is gained: cultural capital, social gratification, a little bit of money or sustenance until the next invitation arrives, or the chance to fight for a cause you believe in, for the people with whom you are most empathetic? If you want the privilege to go deeper and stay longer, would you need to work a second or third project just to afford the time? Will continuing to discuss the exhaustion, grief, lack of time and quality in an art-worker’s life get us somewhere beyond an intellectual exercise? Individually, you can decide to take an extreme step of retreat to the end of the world, a well-deserved pause, or make self-care into an active political statement. 
Such a personal strike can be commenced through the simplest act of stealing back time and making it fully yours. During my time in Italy, there have been moments when the fast-paced movement through the “landscape of forgetting” tears down a secret door into a parallel pocket of time that opens up unexpectedly—where the day seems to grow longer, and there is time aplenty. Rather than a mere diversion from the one-way street, the feeling of this alternate tempo lingers on and no digital tools of remembrance are needed, even after the moment subsides. Just as there are many ways to spend your time, there are many ways to drink your tea. Sipping it from the saucer may be more laborious and a little messy, but you can start drinking immediately (and have a thrill in the process). The other method requires waiting, which buys time for a casual conversation. Surprisingly, both have the same duration from start to finish, as is the case for the alternate temporality. The days go by. But when we make time for poetry, we start to dream of revolution. 


“But time is transient, 
is it not?” you ask.
We are eternal.(ix)

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Notes:
(i) Sapardi Djoko Damono, “Time is Transient,” Before Dawn, trans. John H. McGlynn. (Jakarta: Lontar Foundation, 2012), 108.
(ii) Rudolf Mrazek, “Memory, Imagination, and Nation,” Equator Symposium, Yogyakarta Biennale, November 2014, Keynote.  During the symposium, Mrazek described his first day in Jakarta: "[i]n the wee hours of the morning, from inside, a taxi smoothly divides the city into a landscape that looks ideal, geometric, uninhabited, and seemingly heading into a vanishing point. The past falls behind you at such speed, creating a landscape of forgetting and at that present time, everything is fine."
(iii) Rob Hamelijnck and Nienke Terps, “Italian Conversations: Art in the Age of Berlusconi,” Fucking Good Art #29, (Rome: Nero Publishing, 2012), 5.
(iv) Carlo Vanzina, “How To Tell The Time in Italy,” from Le Barzellette (The Jokes), Italy, 2003. Video, 1:04. https://youtu.be/fvB3Uvdggxs 
(v) Alessia Ricciardi, After La Dolce Vita: A Cultural Prehistory of Berlusconi’s Italy  (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 19.
(vi) Brigitta Isabella, Mobilitas Seniman Gelandangan Kosmopolit dan Strategi Kebudayaan Kita (The Mobility of Cosmopolitan Nomads and Our Cultural Strategy), speech, “Artist Job Fair,” 2017, Cemeti Institute for Art and Society, Yogyakarta. (Founded in 1999, KUNCI cultural studies is a critical theory and practice research collective based in Yogyakarta.)
(vii) Byung-Chul Han, “The Society of Tiredness,” The Burnout Society, trans. Erik Butler. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 31.
(viii) Wendy Syfret, “We Need to Talk about Art’s Obsession with the ‘Tortured Genius’,” I-D/Vice, February 28, 2017, https://i-d.vice.com/en_au/article/8xgjek/we-need-to-talk-about-arts-obsession-with-the-tortured-genius.
(ix) Damono, “Time is Transient,” 108.