The Artist as Catalyst for Social Change

INDONESIA 2015- Heri Dono, No. 5,  Photo © Fendi Siregar

Restu ManingrumRestu Imansari Kusumaningrum Maningrum was relieved. She and others had made all the plans for the Indonesia National Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale 2015. The artist had been selected: Heri Dono, one of Indonesia’s most well-known artists, who has participated in 270 exhibitions and 27 international biennials and triennials. The theme also had been decided: Voyage—Tokomod. One important element, however, was missing: A go-ahead from the Indonesian government’s new administration. President Jokowi and his ministers were just getting to work, and the deadline was all but passed. “It was really touch-and-go,” says the 49-year-old. “But finally we got the go-ahead.”

Restu, a self-appointed cultural diplomat, is a veteran of such negotiations. After visiting the 2011 Venice Biennale, she felt inspired—and sad. “I felt inspired by other national pavilions and sad that Indonesia wasn’t represented,” says Restu. Her response was to spearhead the successful push to open the Indonesian Pavilion for the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. The stunning entry, focusing on five Indonesian artists, was among the top most attended pavilions. The current edition promises to be another hit. “We need to be on the world stage.”

The Venice Biennale is one of the world’s most venerable art fairs, held every two years in Venice, Italy. Celebrating its 120th anniversary this year, it is by far the oldest of the world’s premier international art fairs and one of its best attended. The first show, in 1895, attracted more than 200,000 visitors. Since then, it has displayed the work of artists every other year, except when it was interrupted during World Wars I and II. In fact, the exhibition was so popular in the early 20th century that European nations started building their own permanent pavilions at the Giardini—the public gardens at the eastern tip of the island. (The U.S. pavilion, a stolid Palladian-style structure, was built in 1930.) Venice Biennale Over the years, 30 permanent pavilions have exhibited works of the world’s most important artists, including Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Robert Rauschenberg and Pablo Picasso (whose first entry was notoriously removed after three days in 1905, when the director thought it liable to alienate the public). In 2013, the Germans presented Bang, an installation by Ai Weiwei that rocked the art world. Other countries, including Indonesia, exhibit in the Arsenale, a complex of former shipyards and armories. The Arsenale is also the site of the Biennale’s invitational show, whose theme this year is “All the World’s Futures.” Okwui Enwezor, curator and director of the Biennale, says Venice has “a special role. The arrival of pavilions of new nations gives energy to the event.”

This is exactly what Restu wants. “I hope to have the West recognize our art and our culture as it exists today, in the 21st century, not as you would imagine us to be. We are not tribal, but global. We have our own equilibrium that does not necessarily follow ‘Western standards.’ Many of our artists have international reputations. They are not ‘Asian’ or even simply ‘Indonesian,’ but artists in their own right, grounded in their own styles, working on a global stage.”

Photography by © Fendi Siregar courtesy of Bumi Purnati Indonesia

Click here to continue reading about Restu and the Biennale.

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