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Tiong Ang, Mencari diri yang tidak pernah ada / Searching For The Self That Never Was, 2022 – in collaboration with Sanya Fauziah and Hilmi Zein

Tiong Ang travels to Bandung to speak at a major conference about his artistry in relation to Asia. Although born in Indonesia and emigrated to the Netherlands at a young age, he has never thought of himself as a diaspora artist. Yet his connection to the country is growing and he does art projects there more often. Some reflections on a complex relationship.

‘For me, there is no such thing as pure culture. [-] Even when one speaks about one’s culture, one still has to resist the binary opposition conveniently set up between outsider and insider.’- Trinh T. Minh-ha, Cinema Interval (1999)


At the invitation of the KITLV (the Dutch Royal Institute of Language, Land and Ethnology), I travel to Indonesia in November 2022. There, in the city of Bandung on West-Java,[1] the Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB) is organizing a major international conference, AESCIART,[2] which brings together a large number of scholars, researchers, curators and artists to ‘rethink artistic and curatorial practices’ in the context of Southeast Asian discourse and the presence of colonial heritage, starting with Indonesia. Research from the Netherlands, as the former colonizer, naturally plays a role here but also other perspectives on Indonesian art and culture deserve my attention, such as the Lumbung aspect of documenta fifteen and the blackest page of Indonesia’s modern history: 1965, still a taboo to be broken. My visit becomes a complex adventure that brings me into contact with many people. They all share with me their own first-hand experiences, their own stories.

I am invited to this conference to contribute my own personal artistic perspective on Asia. Although similar perspectives on China and Indonesia in particular have proliferated quite a bit over the past years, I still struggle to label myself as a diaspora artist. On the contrary, I have wanted to shed this demarcation of my identity from the very beginning. I wanted to keep the politics of identity out of my practice, especially when it first emerged in American discourse as chunky terminology. Rather, I wanted to look at it ironically, parodically, or rather ‘critically’. Ancestry, the idea of an original culture, representation ─ when I started my practice I deliberately kept these concept at bay. I made a name for myself with work that didn’t seem to be about ‘identity’, and at some point I took a different path ─ but I won’t talk about that here. Suffice to say that I liked ‘dangerous images’, that I refused to be literal, to represent anything or anyone, or to situate or locate my work. I was exposed to historical research, cultural and media theory early on, and I learned that what we call history cannot be rediscovered, retold and revised often enough. I now know the challenge lies in how to use this distorted and hidden knowledge from an artistic position.

On the train journey from Jakarta to Bandung, I see countless farmers standing in rice fields doing their work by hand. I think of the farmers in the Netherlands. In Indonesia there are no tractors and farmers don’t hang the national flag upside down. Bandung is a big city, about three hours’ travel from Jakarta. The Dutch colonial influence can still be seen here and there, especially in the architecture. The University Campus of ITB, for example, was built by the Dutch in the 1920s.

Upon arrival in Bandung, I look through the large windows of the hotel room, onto a large lawn with a running track around it. In one corner of the square, somewhat hidden from view by trees, I see a large group of people. It seems to be a demonstration judging by their flags and banners, but I can neither see nor understand what for. The people are orating, singing, shouting slogans. The traffic around the square keeps moving. In the afternoon, another group of people enter the square and, to my surprise, rehearse a kind of military parade. They line up and are instructed by a leader. Then they march in cohorts around the square.

I try to focus on my presentation ─ but how do I introduce my work, my ambivalent position and the precariousness of my creative existence, in a short and witty talk to a diverse audience of Indonesian, but also Australian, Singaporean, Malaysian and Filipino academics, artists and cultural workers? Towards evening, the actors I have invited arrive at the hotel for our first meeting. Hilmi and

Sanya graduated from the theatre school in Bandung a few years ago and are both about twenty-five years old. Our conversation leaves a deep impression on me. They tell me about their motivations to become actors and I immediately understand that their principles, despite their ‘other’ identity, their resistance and disobedience, are meaningful to me. We talk about their origins (both are Sundanese, a minority in Java), their family relationships, the collectivity in their (experimental theatre) worlds and their back stories, their common projects. My method (to arrive at unpredictable, intentionally incoherent images) is to let improvised actions emerge on the university campus in a few hours, based on a single conversation.

At the conference, I follow as many lectures as I can. The researchers talk about the mobility of heritage, insights from archaeology and anthropology, 19th century Hindu sculpture, formal criticism and ‘curatorial calibrations’. About the vocabulary of ‘center and periphery’. About the role of Islam in Indonesian art, collection-based curatorship, the separation of ‘art’ and ‘craft’, religiosity, jazz music, photographic traditions, neo-colonial entanglements and about the search for a decolonial aesthetic. About the prospect of an ecology of conservation, activism for community in urban and rural areas, artist collectives of today and of the past, and about the plea for ‘queerness’ as an attitude of resistance. About rethinking political trauma, shared histories, a parodic attitude towards national rhetoric, a distancing from colonial archives…

Tiong Ang, Mencari diri yang tidak pernah ada / Searching For The Self That Never Was, 2022 - in collaboration with Sanya Fauziah and Hilmi Zein

Tiong Ang, Mencari diri yang tidak pernah ada / Searching For The Self That Never Was, 2022 - in collaboration with Sanya Fauziah and Hilmi Zein


I am in Indonesia for the umpteenth time, but I still don’t speak the language. Why is that? For myself and for many Dutch people, this is the country of origin. People travel, settle, transit, exchange, back and forth. There are many Dutch artists who, despite or because of their personal history, get acquainted with the country, its culture, traditions, practices and with the language of Indonesia. The postcolonial connection is always present. To what extent is the influence of a so-called national culture visible, and can it have an impact on the world stage, considering its relative presence in the economic, political and military spheres? It seems that even for well-informed Dutch people, Indonesia is an inimitable complexity. When I was almost five years old, I left this country for the Netherlands. Within a few months I had lost my mother tongue and became a so-called ‘new’ Dutchman. For years I had no desire to return, as a teenager I distanced myself from it. It was a silent neutrality, a wanting to be detached, that was presented to me as both virtuous and necessary. Developments in Indonesia were not felt strongly in the Netherlands. In the arts, the only references were to the mysterious backgrounds of classical folk arts like wayang, gamelan or classical dance, or to the elusive, silent forces of 19th century Indies literature. I just didn’t think it was ‘cool’.

It was only after almost half a lifetime of being an artist that I returned for the first time ─ as an artist, not as a tourist. It had to happen sometime. I remember the strange mixture of excitement and false shame when I first set foot on Javanese soil again. This is a long time ago. Since then, my way of working has gained momentum and there have been many experiments abroad. I have been to Bandung before, the first time in 2003, to give a small presentation of my work to students from the art faculty, having spent a three-month residency in Yogyakarta six months earlier. In the following years, I increasingly participated in Indonesian exhibition projects, which allowed me to observe the growth of the Indonesian art world from a distance, yet as an active participant. At the Yogyakarta Biennial (Jogja Biennale) in 2013, my name was listed under the Indonesian artists, not under the heading of the Netherlands. I was quite taken aback by that. Other catalogues of major international exhibitions often indicate ‘born in Indonesia’ or even just ‘Indonesia’ after my name ─ sometimes even when I ask them not to. Although I am getting better at articulating and responding to the discomfort that creeps up on me, I have also lost something somewhere, a kind of innocent incompetence, an invisibility that offered freedom.

After documenta fifteen, which was organized by the Jakarta-based artist collective ruangrupa, the West’s interest in the Indonesian art world and its societal context increased enormously. This edition of Documenta triggered what has been called a ‘paradigm shift’ in the realm of institutional art. As the first non-western artist collective to organize the event, ruangrupa almost exclusively invited other collectives, mostly from the Global South, not so much to make an exhibition but to create a radical, open platform for artistic encounters centered around education, solidarity and collaboration. Concepts such as Lumbung, commoning and nongkrong (informally gathering and engaging in dialogue) have now been adopted by certain institutions and museums in the West as models for the future ─ but are such ideas for radical collaboration and collective participation really applicable in the Western art world?

In Jakarta, I visit Gudskul,[3] the ‘eco-system’ of collaborations and various platforms set up by ruangrupa and other collectives, which takes the form of an alternative artists’ village built out of containers in the middle of a residential area. I meet some members of Gudskul who have brought pedagogical and art-educational elements into their art practice from the beginning. Amy Zahrawaan (Grafis Huru Hara) shows his own graphic workshop and also the exhibition spaces, shop, radio station, library and the large auditorium from which the local community has streamed hundreds of hours to listeners in Kassel. We visit MG Pringgotono (Serrum) in his workshop, one of the founders of the Lumbung strategy. He describes his frustration with the many media scandals that have overshadowed so much coverage of Documenta. So much fuss has been made, so much attention claimed by the wrong things, the real message of Lumbung as a guideline for a different art world has not come across. But, he asks sternly, for whom is this really a missed opportunity?

Tiong Ang, Mencari diri yang tidak pernah ada / Searching For The Self That Never Was, 2022 - in collaboration with Sanya Fauziah and Hilmi Zein

Tiong Ang, Mencari diri yang tidak pernah ada / Searching For The Self That Never Was, 2022 - in collaboration with Sanya Fauziah and Hilmi Zein


One morning I meet Suryono in the restaurant of the hotel where I am staying. Suryono is a retired doctor whom I met through a personal contact in the Netherlands. He tells me that all his life he has lived in the same neighbourhood, Menteng, home to Jakarta’s elite, heads of government, high-ranking military, tycoons. He doesn’t count himself among them, it is a coincidence that he can still afford to live there. He takes me to two nearby houses, both of which are now museums in honor of the 1965 Kudeta ‘national heroes’.[4]  In the first, the Yani House, I get a private tour from a former soldier who tells me about the assassination of the first general which took place in that very house. The bullet holes are still visible. It is a strange experience, I feel like I am at the center of propaganda. The second museum is general Nasution’s house. There is no guide here, visitors are encouraged to wander through the house by themselves. Life-size wax dolls inhabit the house, re-enacting the historical confrontation, general Nasution’s escape, but also the death of his young daughter.

Suryono has spent his whole life in the neighborhood where the Kudeta killings took place, yet he has always kept a fearful distance. The next day he takes me to lunch with Amelia Yani, the daughter of the first murdered general, who later worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina as an Indonesian ambassador. She gives me two books, one about her own political life and a second in which she, together with other children of 1965 victims, strives for reconciliation both from the military and nationalist side, like herself, and from the left, especially members of the Communist Party.

On the way back, Suryono and I are silent. As we say goodbye, he whispers that many doubts and fears remain. The more stories I learn, the more I talk to different people in Jakarta and Bandung, the more I realize how complex the past is, as national history, as truth, as personal story. After all these years, I still don’t know how to approach the subject of ‘1965’ artistically. The fact that this history has remained so hidden from me and my generation, many of which left Indonesia soon after, still has such a silencing effect that I am, in a way, speechless for life. Every time I try to overcome this, I come up against an invisible border in my mind. It is part linguistic, part ethnic, part personal, part educational, part historical, part a strange sense of disloyalty, a strange knot that I am still trying to untangle. Perhaps a good approach would be to admit the gaps and accept the certainty that they can never be filled with anything really substantial.

Thanks to Kerstin Winking, Lany Pradjarahardja, Agung Hujatnikajennong, and Tintin Wulia. The Mondriaan Fund made travel, accommodation and participation in the conference possible.

[1] AESCIART 2022: The international conference ‘The Makings of Art from Southeast Asia and the Problems of Colonial Legacies’ (8.11 – 10.11.2022, at the Centre of Art & Design Building FSRD ITB) brings together artists, curators and scholars from different disciplines to exchange artistic and curatorial practices and revisit the history of ‘framing’ and handling objects, methods and perspectives from Southeast Asia. The conference is designed as a three-day gathering with presentations, discussions, seminars and workshops in collaboration with ITB and KITLV. The conference takes place in Bandung, the symbolic site of political decolonization where the spirit of liberation permeated the organization of the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference.

[2] JAVA: When we speak of Indonesia, we usually refer to the island of Java, which is also home to the country’s largest cities (Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Semarang, and the artist-town par excellence Yogyakarta). For your information or reminder, Indonesia has a total population of about 275 million, consists of about 17,000 islands, 700 languages are spoken and there are more than 300 ethnic groups. Java is not the largest island, but it has the most inhabitants: 152 million. By comparison, the whole of Russia, almost 130 times its size, has 147 million inhabitants. The capital Jakarta (formerly Batavia) is one of the largest metropolises in the world in its current agglomeration with about 30 million inhabitants. While decentralization is being carefully pursued, the Javanese are still in charge of cultural, political, economic and military affairs.

[3] GUDSKUL: The Gudskul Ekosistem consists of many elements: artists, curators, art writers, managers, researchers, musicians, art directors, architects, chefs, digital designers, fashion designers, street artists and people with various other skills. This diversity makes Gudskul a rich and dynamic ecosystem. Gudskul hosts a variety of collectives with different practices and artistic media: installation, archive, video, sound, performance, media art, public participation, printmaking, graphic design, education, etc. This motley collection enriches the issues, actors and stakeholders involved in many collaborative and community projects – social, political, cultural, economic, ecological, and above all: educational.

[4] KUDETA (coup d’état) is a term used in Indonesia for the (double) coup d’état of 1965 that ended the rule of President Sukarno and brought General Suharto to power. On the night of 30 September to 1 October 1965, a simmering conflict broke out, the circumstances of which have never been fully clarified. The official version is that some air force officers who sympathized with the Communist party staged a coup and killed several conservative generals. The counter-resistance to this failed coup was led by General Suharto, who soon became Indonesia’s strongman. Islamist and nationalist groups, backed by the army, used the suppression of the coup as a pretext to deal with anyone they suspected of communist sympathies. Between half a million and a million people were killed (and possibly more), large numbers were prosecuted without trial and imprisoned for years. Those who could afford it in time fled the country. 

Tiong Ang

is a visual artist

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