The facade of faith, text by Alia Swastika (Curator of Biennale Jogja XI)

Text by Alia Swastika (Curator of Biennale Jogja XI) post from Biennale Jogja XI

Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned. ~Author Unknown

In the school books I read during the many years of my schooling period, I was constantly reminded of how rich Indonesia is in terms of its cultures, faiths, and ethnic groups. My generation, as well as the generations that preceded and followed it, accepted the “ideal vision” of a diverse Indonesia. With such constant affirmation, the diversity of cultural backgrounds that was eventually defined as the nation’s backbone is seen more as a fact, a certainty and a given, rather than as something that must be further developed in a collective manner to create a mutual experience (in relation to the national identity). Along with the meta-fiction about the success of the thirty-year development process, the idea that the people of Indonesia “live peacefully side by side” forms a part of the series of slogans launched to maintain political stability, while the principles of democracy fell victim to the effort. The situation escalated and eventually reached a peak with a chain of events and incidents that dragged with them the name of God and the shield of religion, forming a vortex of conflicts among the different groupings in the society as well as between the State and the people as a whole.

The May 1998 incident, a crucial point in Indonesia’s political life, changed a lot of things in relation to the construction of meta-fictions, including the lulling meta-fiction about the diversity of cultures and faiths. The era in which the fundamental change took place within the structure of power in the country was marked by a shift in the relationship between the people and the State (including its entire formal infrastructure). In this new situation, the State no longer serves as the absolute center that exerts control over the dynamics in the citizens’ lives. There is greater freedom of expression, especially in the press and the art. The shift brought to the surface issues that had remained concealed in the previous era, rife as it was with tales of the ideal life as a nation. The long-accumulated problems came into view and were difficult to untangle. Inter-religious conflict rears its ugly head most often, although here religion actually serves as a shield, concealing the larger issues of politics and power.

In a country like Indonesia, where differences abound, it is hard to refer to one comprehensive idea about a “nation-state”. There is no single quality or character that one can use as an absolute reference about what it means to be an Indonesian. It does not mean, however, that there has been no such essentialist effort made before. There were measures advocating the concept of an “imagined community” to create a common vision about what it meant to be an Indonesian. In the early days of the past regimes, the idea about nationhood invariably became the focus of the efforts to establish a common world-view about the state and government. The regime in power asserted control over issues of identity. Rather than opening dialogues to bridge differences and create mutual understanding between the contending parties, conflicts between the different faiths or ethnic groups were stifled by the imposition of state policies.

In the last five years, fundamentalism has been criticized as threatening the ideal vision of unity and harmonious communal living. Meanwhile, people gradually become used to the idea of a secular life. The relationship between the secularist and the fundamentalists eventually evolves to become a love-and-hate relationship, changing depending especially on the larger social and political contexts.

It is quite common now for a beautiful morning to be interrupted by television news channels continuously broadcasting conflicts related to religious issues: the number of people attacked at a church, a group of Ahmadiyah being brutally harassed, the discovery of a church bomb, or people demanding and forcing the destruction of public sculptures since they do not correspond with their religious image of the city. At the same time, we also watch how this social control of faith enters into the private domain: a singer is criticized by religious leader for her sensual performances or a celebrity is jailed for creating a pornographic video intended for private consumption. All these cases use religion as their buffer excuse, even though we understand that they are all being politicized and are related to the negotiation of Power (with a capital “p”). It is not easy to see past the hectic façade—all the bloody fighting, the never ending arguments in the mass media and the unfair courts—to get at the essential problems that are veiled by these dominant narratives. All the while, the government, as a secular state, seems to run from its responsibility to be the mediator and the creator of justice in between these conflicts and tensions.

Ideas about religion invariably pose paradoxes and contradictions, especially because interpretations and power play a role in them. A certain level of maturity would be necessary for us to be able to move beyond such contradictions or antagonism. Examples of such antagonism are: “right” and “wrong”, “the individual” and “the communal”, “microcosm” and “macrocosm”, and—the opposing pair that we often hear about—“us” and “them”. In a wider context, some of these forms of antagonism intersect and, on the subsequent level, converge to oppose one another again, becoming, for example, “the righteous we” and “the errant they”. It seems as if there are always oppositions, each side speaking on behalf of something that they believe as the real truth.

Faith and religion are two different things, although we cannot deny the overlaps between the two. Faith, which we often consider synonymous with belief, amounts to a personal search for something that we often call “the meaning of life”. Faith, therefore, embraces other dimensions beyond right and wrong, and does not require formality and structure. Meanwhile, it is this last aspect that has been the subject of common criticism against religion.

As they are confronted with modernity and other social infrastructures, faith and religion are simultaneously challenged to welcome and accept other standards of truth and adapt them to suit their needs. Clifford Geertz noted that in a more open society, traces of acculturation are found even in remote hinterlands, coloring the religious and traditional rituals that had previously been considered “original”. Religious rituals can therefore be seen as something that keeps on changing and developing, contrary to the common notion about such rituals as unadulterated practices. Geertz noted that his visits to many places in Indonesia showed how in real life all different cultural categories stand face to face with one another and, as I have described above, create a circus-resembling complexity, with all the ironic and humorous acrobats, contradictory to one another yet existing in harmony, both tragic and heroic at the same time.



Although using as its point of departure a rather spontaneous reaction concerning the various conflicts that carry with them the shield of religion, at the end of the day this curatorial vision has expanded to view practices of religion, faith, and spirituality as a part of the reality of Indonesian contemporary society. Religious practices still create tensions in the public space of Indonesia, a country with the largest number of Moslem citizens in the world, whereas in more secular countries, such issues are usually relegated into the personal realm of the individual. I believe it is such tensions between the public and the personal spaces that present the artists here with the greatest challenge as they reflect on the proposed theme with actual and relevant perspectives.

In this exhibition, the artists show a variety of approaches, exploring the issues of religiosity, spirituality, and religion itself. Most of them were brought up in environments with strong religious traditions. Their contact with religion, especially for those born after the seventies, took place as intensely as their experience with modernity, Western culture, and products of information technology.

Aside from the images presented by the mass media that have been showing threats to pluralism, in real life diversity and acceptance of differences still form a part of the richness of Indonesian society, revealing forms of local wisdom. Openness to differences comes from a mature society that is used to having critical discussions about the long-established religious phenomena and philosophy.

I base my curatorial work on research about the different tendencies of the Indonesian artists to respond to issues that are now seen as sensitive, such as issues of religion and faith. Most of the artists involved in this event have been exploring issues of spirituality, belief, and religion. Arahmaiani, for example, began expressing her anxiety in the eighties, while the young artist J. Ariadhitya Pramuhendra has consistently been exploring what it means to be a Christian. Other artists, albeit not having dealt with these issues specifically, have presented critical ideas and adopted analytical approaches as they explore the phenomena of day-to-day life. A case in point is Paul Kadarisman who deals with names in an intriguing manner, or Andy Dewantoro who tackles issues of architecture and landscape. I thus expect to encourage dialogues among the works, each of them having stepped out of the established practices or definitions regarding religion. I discovered how the artists are able to present extraordinary points of view and thus provide us with intriguing glimpses of reality in regard to this discourse.

Novel ways of interpretations are inevitable as we step into the new era. Luthfi Assyaukani, an activist of the Liberal Islam Network—a group that has been consistently spreading critical analyses about Islam and campaigning about the pluralistic and peaceful form of the religion—mentioned that one would not be able to avoid revitalization of religion. Divine revelations stopped coming fourteen centuries ago while human logic and thoughts keep on developing. Changes are taking place around us while no new page is being added into the holy books. We humans encounter many new problems, not all of them can be answered by the holy books and religious doctrines.

As I observe the works presented in Biennale Jogja 2011: Shadow Lines, I see how the artists are providing us with intriguing offers that we can discuss further outside the exhibition, triggering post-revelation ideas. Instead of providing us with a strict framework for religious interpretations, the works, in creative ways, encourage questions regarding issues that have so far been taken for granted as the truth. A work might present intersections of issues, starting from the link between faith and identity to the relationship between religion and other social and political contexts. A work might thus present a range of perspectives.

The issue of violence that has lately often been discussed with regard to religion and faith did not catch the artists’ fancy right away. They did not immediately use it as a point of departure as they responded to the theme of the exhibition that I put forward. Instead of immediately agreeing how religion has segregated us, the artists took the issue further. Violence was seen as the ultimate effect of chaotic interpretations about God and truth. Some of the artists took the offer and explored the theme, but we can see that there are other layers of events they are examining. Many artists went on to explore fundamental issues about our existential relations, while others observed how people responded to diversity and faith on a day-to-day basis. As I observed how the artists worked and chose their conceptual basis, I came to the conclusion that there are four important issues reflected in the artwork presented here in this biennale.

Identity, Nation-State, and Patterns of Power-Relations

These three terms—identity, nation-state, and patterns of power-relation—represent the anthropological and ethnographic approaches to religiosity and spirituality. The idea about identity is seen as something that deviates from the essential theme and the recording of shifts and changes in relation to identity and faith provide the artists with intriguing visual challenges, thus making the effort a worthwhile adventure. In Indonesia, where the state has a rather strong grip on matters of religion, the issue of a faith-related change of identity cannot be separated from the series of social consequences that such a change might create. An individual’s religious identity is always affected by a range of factors apart from the questions of truth and faith themselves.

Akiq AW investigates the issue of identity change and how social and political controls exert certain burdens on the individual. He met with people who have dealt with the issue of a change of belief, and thus drastically changed their identity within the social structure of the society. The issue of religion as a mark of identity is also reflected in the work of the artist-couple Arya Pandjalu and Sara Nuytemans, who show us that what is personal is often hidden by attributes that are mere symbols. Icons in religion, such as the house of worship and a certain way of dressing, serve as markers that separate and at the same time bring people together.

Interestingly, religious icons, despite their tendency to become universal, never move far from the context of the “here and now”—there are always local nuances and markers of a specific era. Jompet Kuswidananto sees how the practices of a certain group as they go about affirming their faith always give rise to syncretic cultural products. It is by borrowing and adopting things, that formal religions are able to find a footing in the local context, welcomed and accepted by the locals.

Meanwhile, in a formal religion—just as any other social organizations with distinct structures—we can clearly see that there is a pattern of power relations. J. Ariadhitya Pramuhendra considers that it is such pattern that makes religion achieve a complex form shaped by the interrelations among humans, going beyond the common notion of understanding to see the relationship between mankind and God as the most important point in religion. Religious systems also have to do with politics, as well as the illusion about who has the right to determine what is right and what is wrong, and which interpretation is right, which one is wrong.

Narrative, Mythology, Mythicism

Mythology and mythicism are the two main things that are passed on along with religion. The constructed narratives often represent religion as full of miracles and beyond logic. Religion is often linked with phenomena of the superpower, exposing the helplessness of humans.

The effort to re-write mythological narratives serves as a way out of the helplessness, showing humans’ ability to keep on moving and to fight against such feelings of vulnerability. Theresia Agustina Sitompul re-interprets stories of the Old and New Testaments, which have given her strong visual impressions. Instead of making simple interpretations, Theresia presents the stories in a contemporary context. Present in her work is the desire to say that although religious principles remain the same, they are open to new interpretations as they move into different eras.

Christine Ay Tjoe uses the narrative of “Lama Sabakhtani” to talk about our intimate relation to God which includes the feeling of pain and sacrifice, when we force ourselves to think only about his existence.

Another myth that people believe as truth is the idea of heaven. Iswanto Hartono tries to manifest our vision of paradise, which is invariably depicted as a beautiful garden. “It is the kind of beauty that none of us would be able to describe,” said one of the clerics that I saw performing on television. Through a representation of a beautiful garden in the exhibition space, Iswanto destroys the myth of heaven as something that we can only achieve after a painful struggle on earth.

The Self, the Body, and the Other

Apart from exploring the issues of how religion establishes world-views related to the macro-cosm, the works also present the tendency to see spirituality as a process of “self-searching”: starting from explorations about the meaning of the self, moving on to reflections about relations of the Other, and the tension that exist in traversing the distance between the two.

The varied artists’ approaches represent how the issue of spirituality is not merely viewed as something that is “non-scientific” or unexplainable, but also linked with the modes of formal knowledge recognized in such branches of science as psychology or philosophy, ensuring that there are certain patterns of thought that serve as a basis in this self-searching journey.

The work by RE Hartanto examines the relation between the self and the psychological feelings enfolding the internal conditions of humans. Nurdian Ichsan uses moist soil as his medium of choice to search for the essence of human existence; the belief that the natural is a part of the universe of creation in our lives. Ichsan’s work poses the question about what is eternal in life. This is also reflected in the work by Krisna Murti who talks of mankind’s relation with nature in its simplest form. Here the artist creates a sort of room for therapy where sounds of nature, such as the sea and water, enable humans to form relations with things external to them.

Two artists, Erika Ernawan and Octora, present the idea about the body and taboos. In classic interpretations on religious texts there is the tendency to view the female body as a source of sin, and the body is thus made to remain hidden and obscure. Women interact with their bodies based on perceived moral standards and the standards of what is right and wrong. Nakedness and exposure of parts of the body that are considered taboo are a way for these two artists to encounter ideas about the self.

In communal society such as that existing in Indonesia, ideas about the self do not become a part of the basic philosophy of life. “The self” is invariably related to the wider context of “the society”. Works in this category show how the greater the tension in the relationship between an individual and the society, the greater also the individual’s effort to claim their existence. Such a search does not immediately lead them to essentialist ideas about the concept of the self, but they are indeed searching for something that has so far been hidden under the façade of daily realities.

Icon(ization), Popular Culture, and the Practices of Daily Life

Popular culture and the practices of daily life have become a part of the mainstream discourse in contemporary art within the last decade. The barrage and inundation of products of visual culture in the life of \contemporary society has given rise to a culture of defining practices of life in terms of visual icons and symbols. The artists taking part in this exhibition show us how issues of diversity and spirituality are about how beliefs and faiths are represented and how the interpretation of symbols or icons operates in a plural society.

Wimo Ambala Bayang presents a series of photography works about icons and the nearly-fatalistic beliefs about their meanings. Apart from his critical stance toward such fanaticism, Bayang also expands on his take about the meanings of originality and copycats, the singular and the replicated, and how such tensions are handled in our day-to-day lives. Setu Legi goes even further and talks of such visual icons in terms of the concept of “idols”. Coming from the background of socialist movements, Setu Legi links the issue of idolatry with not only God or religion, but also with the concept of production.

Arahmaiani also uses a similar approach as the one taken by Bayang, but one can here detect a stronger impetus to deconstruct. In non-Arabic countries with a strong Islamic tradition, the Arabic alphabet is invariably linked with religion or demoted as mere calligraphy. Arahmaiani wants to see the Arabic alphabet moved out of such a religious framework and treats them as a normal part of life, just like any other alphabet.

Apart from serving as a subject viewed with a critical eye as in the case of the three artists discussed above, popular culture might also be seen as a linguistic code used to talk about issues that are considered politically sensitive. Using comics and elements of fantasy, Wedhar Riyadi presents issues of violence in a form of criticism that brings such issues into a clash with a secular and glamorous life. The use of comics succeeds in shaping extreme metaphors regarding the rejection of violence committed on behalf of a certain interpretation of truth.

Practices of day-to-day life also catch Paul Kadarisman’s attention. He observes his social surrounding and discovers how Islamic identity is represented through such names as “Mohammad”. Kadarisman presents images of three of his friends, all of whom go by the name of Mohammad, providing us with glimpses of the individual lives of Moslems in Indonesia.



In the context of Indonesia, Yogyakarta has a unique position especially in terms of the constellation of intellectual ideas, political activism, and cultural movements. Although often considered the cultural center for the Javanese (the largest ethnic group with a significant influence on Indonesian culture) Yogyakarta has a long history of cultural encounters between locals and others, beginning with its creation after the prehistoric era, continuing as it entered the era of Buddhism, affirmed by its existence as a Hindu court, and then as it dealt with the almost simultaneous arrivals of Islam and Western colonialism. The people of Yogyakarta have thus become used to the idea of pluralism. Elizabeth Inandiak, a French writer who has stayed in Yogyakarta for more than twenty-five years, notes, “For centuries, they absorbed the most dramatic of cultural tensions—Indianization, Dutch colonialism…”and thereby describes this multicultural situation.

With the variety of visual approaches and experiments made possible by the latest mediums of contemporary art, the works in this exhibition do not only discuss issues of faith, diversity, and variation, but also use them as a basis for aesthetic concepts. Throughout the entirety of the project, we observe intersections of creative modes; starting from works that use as their point of departure the idea of craftsmanship, contemporary photography, multimedia installations, video installations, site-specific performances, and works based on community projects. All of these works reveal the artists’ beliefs about art as a way to remain critical about the different truths that are generally accepted or taken for granted, and even often considered to be absolute truths. The development of Indonesian contemporary art can be discerned through events such as this biennale, where the artists are given space to experiment with unusual projects, challenging their limits and thus providing them with a chance to find novel perspectives and discover something extraordinary in the midst of all the things that have been considered a given.

With such a strong history of syncretism, the people of Yogyakarta formed an open society, relatively free of conflicts when it comes to issues of beliefs. Cultural movements and political activism also began here. Nearing 1998, scores of thousands of people, with students as the motor, moved to help topple the Soeharto regime and became one of the most influential mass movements at the time. The combination between acute political awareness and the proximity to different cultural products that have stood the test of time has given Yogyakarta a special position in the Indonesian social and political context. Alongside Javanese art traditions, products of the global popular culture also serve as one of the main references in establishing a new and genuine kind of syncretism with a strong character. Encounters between the local and the global, tradition and the modern, high art and low art, craftsmanship and experimentalism have become an inseparable part—a given, almost—of the creative life of the city. It is here that hybrid cultural products—such as jazz gamelan and Javanese hip-hop—were born.

The tradition of the Jogja Biennale started in 1988 and had formed a long history in the Indonesian visual art scene. Over time, the Jogja Biennale went on to become one of the most important art events in the country, revealing artistic achievements as well as presenting the latest art discourse trends among artists and art practitioners alike. A variety of narrative formats and proposals have been tried and celebrated, through a variety of dynamic interactions with locals residents. The Jogja Biennale has grown in an organic way, bloomed without an established structure, without the full support from the government—which immediately differentiates it from most of the biennales taking place in developed countries—but still succeeding in encouraging the involvement of art practitioners to support its existence.

New (Style of) Internationalization

After a period of two decades, the Biennale Jogja is now facing new challenges that force it to reflect upon its role and its position to contribute not only to the development of art infrastructure, but also to affirm artists’ visions and stance with regard to the latest social phenomena and the shifts in general aesthetic ideas. Such repositioning gave rise to the idea to make a response to the rapid flow of art globalization, to assert its presence on the great stage of the international art world. The desire to become international, however, must be articulated based on its own needs instead of merely using an external reference about such internationalization.

Most of the art events we consider as being international in nature have the ambition to represent “the world”. There is invariably the demand to provide the audience with representations of various countries, to maintain politically-correct stances, and to introduce groups that have thus far been considered marginal. As interpretations for the concept of “internationalization” expanded, most art events started to resemble the UN’s general assembly. The massive, new internationalization model has, on the one hand, been supported by the interconnections between different places on earth through communication technology networks and the greater accessibility of transportation infrastructure. Then there are also changes in the artists’ strategy and artistic approaches that enable them to reproduce and carry works for traveling exhibitions at a lower cost, for example in the case of digitalization of photographs and videos.

Although it has become a lot easier to become “international”, it is still a luxury in many places and can only come about in countries with an established infrastructure and strong support from the state. In Yogyakarta, therefore, the issue presented us with a challenge to set a strategy, to avoid creative and ideological bankruptcy, in order to position ourselves on the international art map. Armed with the city’s unique creative tradition, long history, and social-political context that has intrigued many researchers and cultural thinkers due to its strong postcolonial character, the biennale now proposes to create a new meaning to the international(ism) concept. Politically, this is also a strategic approach.

The choice to work with countries around the equator reveals the skills of art practitioners in the Yogyakarta Biennale Foundation (Yayasan Biennale Yogyakarta) in reading the trends occurring on the international stage, at the time when there are strong streams that move the global aesthetic discourses in the same direction. When internationalism is seen as the representation of a variety of countries, artists and works of art from different continents gather within one space and time, and the idea about intensive exchanges between two different countries cannot be thoroughly explored. The problem of the limited infrastructure that the Indonesian art practitioners must face gives rise to the wish to position ourselves within the global art arena using a different approach, one that also enables encounters with “the Other”.

The idea to sharpen the practice of the biennale into one specific theme—different from the tendency of the international biennales these days with increasingly open ideas and expanding themes—is also a reaction toward the pattern of uniformity in global art trends. Having observed biennales in a variety of countries, I see how such art events, especially ones with significant financial support from the government and assisted by other economic infrastructure, create opportunities for the curator to conduct curatorial experiments with an almost full autonomy.

The process and conceptual framework for Biennale Jogja XI this year might be worlds away from such experiments. As I was considering the theme for this year’s Jogja Biennale, I mulled over the relevance of such biennales for the greater community, apart from serving as a new cultural strategy for the cities that are seen as art centers. Can the biennale remain relevant if it is not managed as a massive event or given the façade of a celebration? Such questions bombarded me and drove me to the conclusion that, apart from serving as a cultural strategy, such events must also become a part of a political strategy, in order to reveal a specific approach to the global trends. One can also say that this enables the creation of a relevant, local context for the art systems that tend to become global. This means we can certainly manage the biennale or triennial with a set of universal standards that have been adopted to suit the specific Indonesian context, while still keeping in mind the objective of presenting aesthetic achievements and artistic ideas that are meaningful for the “here and now”.

I also see that after 1998, especially in the few years immediately after this time, when artists no longer presented social issues as a way to assert their existence, more “personal” and “universal” issues emerged, serving as a way for the artists to find a respite from the chaos of day-to-day living. My choice to confront the artists with a specific issue is an effort to unearth again their political voices, forcing them to deal with the social and political realities that are still taking place in an intense manner, under the dream of a democratic life.

In a country where the art history shows a link between the praxis of art and the involvement of society, to become an artist with a selfish focus on one’s own aesthetic vision is not a politically-wise option. The impasse in the social and political systems, whether in terms of expressions in public spaces such as in the mass media or the inequality of the educational system, poses challenges for the artists to create works that contribute, directly or otherwise, to the effort to tackle such impasse, if not to provide interesting opinions regarding such situations. While before 1998 artists had to become a channel for stifled voices, today they need to face the challenge of providing a distinct framework around the issues that have been bombarding people through a range of information channels. Artists have a role in assisting contemporary society to seek an essence in the midst of such chaos and information amplification. Art works have the opportunity to underline certain statements, to unearth the hidden, and, if one wants to be rather romantic, to give certain “feelings” to the rationalistic ways of seeing.


In short, I must say that this is a personal statement as the curator regarding the new role of the Biennale Jogja. I believe that this idea of new internationalism has forced us to move forward in our efforts to write our own (art) history. While being engaged with the newest conceptual tendencies in international exhibitions, in this Biennale, artists are challenged to face real issue from their surroundings, and to be grounded to their home. I believe that the perspectives and worldviews they are offering now are something we need, not to seek the truth and final answer, but, as I stated in the beginning, to question faith that is taken for granted in our everyday lives.


Luthfi Assyaukanie, Agar Biola Kita Tidak Sumbang, Seputar Indonesia daily, September 22, 2010.

Geertz, Clifford, After the Fact: Dua Negeri, Empat Dasawarsa, Satu Antropolog, LKis, Yogyakarta, 1998.

Geertz, Clifford. Religion of Java, University Press of Chicago, Chicago, 1976

Habermas, Jurgen: Between Naturalism and Religion, Philisophical Essays, translated by Ciaran Cronin, Polity, Cambridge 2008

Hadi Sutomo, Suripan. Sinkretisme Jawa Islam, Yogyakarta, Bentang Budaya

Inandiak, Elizabeth. From Bohu to Tofu, catalogue exhibition for Transfiguration: Indonesien Mythologies, Louis Vuitton Culturel Espace 2011

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