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Hindsight is always 20/20: Jakarta Biennale 2011

November 27, 2012

The Jakarta Biennale is the Southeast Asian Region’s oldest biennale and is organized through the Dewan Kesenian Jakarta / DKJ (Jakarta Arts Council) which has its roots in self-organizing efforts by Indonesian academy-affiliated artists. The case being presented here is the account of Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, guest curator for Jakarta Biennale 14: Maximum City, hired by DKJ at the invitation of the Indonesian curators Ilham Khoiri, Bambang Sarini Widjanarko, and Seno Joko Suyono.


I’d been forewarned. But a fatal mix of naivete and hubris propelled me into the abyss that was the Jakarta Biennale 2011. A year before I was asked to come on board as guest curator in a curatorial team made up of three Jakarta-based curators plus myself, I was already getting wind of snide live and cyber remarks about the Jakarta Arts Council (JAC)-selected curators being ‘mere journalists’. But since I had come to know two of these ‘mere journalists’ well enough through an international art journalism workshop we all attended in 2009, I felt a great deal of sympathy about how they were being dismissed so summarily. That along with the prospect of showing Filipino art abroad, and my own growing skepticism over trash-talking in the curatorial scene, plus the fact that this was after all, touted as the oldest Biennale in the region (surely they had a headstart in the learning department?) factored into my signing on. But that was then and this is now.

Three quarters of a year has passed since Jakarta Biennale 2011 opened at the Galeri Nasional, among other main sites. The Biennale closed in mid-January 2012. And yet to date (Christmas carols brought on by the -ber months are already airing in Manila), there remain Biennale loose ends spanning all the do-nots of a basic curatorial checklist (unreturned works, shoddily edited catalogue, unreleased artists’ fees—and these are just the ones I have confirmation of). A month coming into Jakarta for the installation period, I was told via mobile that major funding had been pulled out and that the organization behind the event was in crisis. But there was no decision from the Jakarta end to call it quits. Instead, I was asked to brief the artists I’d had a direct hand in inviting—to tell them for instance that artists’ fees were no longer forthcoming, that I should instruct the Norway-based Filipino artist to not send on his hefty fork collection as it was too expensive a shipping item, and so on. I asked every single one of these artists if they were still willing to participate given all this, and it heartened me no end that they were still ready to charge on. Yet the plot thickens.

We were a ruddy group that set off to get at least our parts of the Biennale going—we knew it would be difficult. We girded ourselves up and went for it. But nightmare of all nightmares—shipped works not coming out of customs even as the opening was 24 hours away, this on top of logistics and installation teams ill-prepared to handle the large number of technical requirements (this latter one was at least something we anticipated). The Filipino artists who came with me bravely improvised and did splendidly. But what truly pushed me to the brink was that, on the evening of the Biennale opening at the Galeri Nasional, I was informed by one of the Filipino artists that other artists were, in fact, given their artists’ fees. Unwittingly or not, organizers then were playing off artists against each other. That sent me on a downward spiral that the friendships with my fellow journalist-curators did not recover from. By the time we left Jakarta, I had to practically beg for the artists’ fees, at least those certainly due those who came all the way to see what an organizational mess this all was. I look back and think at how I could have helped ease or avoid the cumulative mishaps but the only thing I can be sure of at this point is perhaps speaking and reading Bahasa could’ve at least alerted me to get into damage control way way sooner.

Onward to the present. Emails from Jakarta Biennale organizers come far and few between now. I’ve turned to picking up news indirectly about resignations, threatened uprisings within the Jakarta Arts Council, people falling ill, and such. At least two Filipino works are still in shipment limbo (one thankfully hosted temporarily by the Philippine embassy in Jakarta); Norway-based Filipino artist Jet Pascua’s fork collection remains unshipped as the Jakarta Arts Council budget allegedly won’t allow sending them on; and there is no word about where the crate containing Bangkok-based, Varsha Nair’s work currently sits. Just last week, the revised Biennale catalogue (now only, but at least, in pdf) was sent out by a resigned Biennale coordinator, bless her soul. The document itself remains problematic given that proposed edits (at least from my end) went ignored. No one is really happy nor appeased at this point. I know I’ll continue to pillory myself for this till the Alzheimer’s takes over. I shudder at the prospect of Jakarta Biennale 2013 looming in the horizon. Surely, business cannot just go on as usual without redressing these countless aches.

Given that this is only my side of the story and 200 plus artists and Biennale workers were involved, the true body count needs to be attempted at least.

Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez


Photos of works in the Jakarta Biennale 2011 curtesy of Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez

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