Contemporary batik collaborations: Mountain meets ocean (2001)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 23 January 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post on 27 May 2001.

Contemporary batik collaborations

On June 1, a unique exhibition opens at the National Gallery. Not only are the art works which will be hanging there unusually long; their textures and consistencies are dramatically different from what is usually encountered in contemporary art galleries.

These art works bear the traces of hands, minds and spirits moving hot lines of molten material across soft surfaces of spun and woven larvae-products. The subtle hues are memories of immersions in pools of color and exposures in spaces of air and light.

The art is the results of movements and acts undertaken in humility and concentration, for the sake of invocation as much as for pure expression— acts resulting in marks that whisper stories about bringing bloodlines and ancestral lines from far and near together in common seal and zeal.

Segaragunung is one of four exhibitions that make up the JakArt Festival, held during the month of June. While modern and contemporary Indonesian art today enriches a global art world increasingly aware of the artistic treasures that exist beyond Europe and America, also in conventional media like painting, sculpture, and installation art, one could claim that this exhibition offers the world a contemporary art form that is at once contemporary, in the international sense, and uniquely Indonesian, unseen in any earlier Euro-American modern version, here offering glimpses of a vision unknown to the Western art world.

Javanese batik is widely recognized as the pinnacle of achievement in this resist-dye technique practiced in many areas of the world from ancient times. Based on the detailed cloth patterns visible on reliefs on Candi Borobudur, it is estimated that the Javanese courtly batik arts date back to at least the mid-9th century AD. Many batik artists still work with sacred patterns that have been copied meditatively for centuries. But Isnia’s approach has been somewhat different.

Ismoyo and Nia have studied the philosophical and aesthetic roots of this batik art with the aim of continuing to give form and life to its essence. To these artists, this does not mean a purist or orthodox repeating of the old motifs, with old methods in cloth making, patterning and dying, but an embracing of what is seen as timeless spirit in contemporary forms, reflecting current sensibilities— even while challenging some of the bases of modern and contemporary art internationally.

Batik, Java and abroad
Segaragunung (Oceanmountain) features nearly twenty large works created collaboratively around the Brahma Tirta Sari (BTS) Batik Studio headed by Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam in Kota Gede, Yogyakarta. Collaborative artist-partners for the last sixteen years, two remarkable artistic journeys and geo-social histories have joined together in these two people: Ismoyo’s ancestors in Solo were batik-makers; his father is a spiritual teacher renowned throughout Java and Bali; Nia’s art studies in New York had turned to Asian and particularly African resist-dye techniques before she made her voyage to Java in 1983 to study the ancient techniques there.

With their studio’s thirty-plus batik workers in Yogyakarta, the two artists, signing their work Isnia, have since embraced artistic traditions and philosophical ideas that span from India to Aboriginal Australia, and most recently also include the work of youth who live on Mount Lawu near Solo in Central Java.

One of the main collaborations featured in this exhibition is the longstanding one between BTS and Aboriginal women artists from Australia.

The Utopia and Brahma Tirta Sari Studio Collaborative Batik Project, entitled Songs of Peace-Songs of the Ancestors-Batik From the Land, was featured in the 1999 Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Gallery of Art in Brisbane.

This extraordinary artistic collaboration, which began in 1994, resulted in a deep sharing of spiritual and artistic knowledge rooted in the apparently so different cultures of Java and aboriginal Australia.

The record of this exchange is the art created by the hands of Isnia and artists from the Utopia artist group. The practice of disparate traditions of rituals honoring the land, the lifeforms that inhabit both the material and the immaterial worlds, and the ancestors, enabled the Javanese-American artists and the Aboriginal artists to connect with increasing respect and openness towards each other.

Violet Petyarr, one of the Utopia artists, writes: “We’ve still got our Law, and we’ve got together to make batik. Those two (Nia and Ismoyo) brought their things from the north so that we could get together. Our things have Law and theirs are the same— they have Law as well. Theirs comes from the land, and ours comes from the land as well. Everybody comes and gathers together for ceremony— people come from all over the place. In the same way we are getting together to make batik.”

Despite the similarity in ritually and verbally expressed intent and in the materials used, the different styles, color schemes, and motifs created by each individual artists, also evident in the differences between the two cultural groups, offer stunning evidence to the creative breadth of the medium of batik. Also, for further comparison, two works done purely by the Utopia women artists, non-collaboratively, will be exhibited.

In addition to the Utopia Women Artists, several completely new collaborations are featured in this exhibition, bringing new glimpses of artistic explorations in batik both by Javanese and by foreign artists.

A new collaboration is evident in the wayang piece by Yono and Martono (two of BTS’s longstanding batik-workers) and Ismoyo. Here one is witnessing an unusual event: batikers formerly anonymous to the art world emerging as named artists in their own right, in peer-collaboration with their “boss”.

Yono, described by Nia Fliam as “one of the most creative people in the studio”, will also be showing some of his individual work for the first time.

Finally, Nia Fliam will show some reverse applique pieces made from cloths by Elsje Van Keppel, an Australian textile artist who died in March. This adds a commemorative note to the exhibition which could be said to memorialize essential dimensions of life on so many levels.

The Kejawen Artist
The title of the exhibition holds an important conceptual key to the artists’ intended meaning with the event. Segaragunung joins two words that resonate with deep meaning in Java.

Arjuno, an archaeologist and cultural observer, writes: “Segara, the ocean, and Gunung, the mountain, are not two elements that oppose one another. They are a pair of pyramids that exist simultaneously and are impossible to separate. The mountain is a pyramid whose summit soars high, piercing the modern world and penetrating future ages. The ocean is a pyramid with a summit that plunges in the reverse direction, though penetrating the past, to the very depths of tradition.”

In their collaborative artist statement about their collaboratively created art, Isnia writes: “The principle which is a motivating factor in our work, is Tribuwono. As an integral part of Javanese philosophy Tribuwono holds to the concept that there are three worlds... As in nature, with the elements, there is water, fire, earth and air and each has its own function, power, character and importance, while maintaining a relationship to each other and to the earth.”

The goal of the individual, seeker, artist, priest and layperson, is to achieve balance between the three dimensions or worlds. Only then can truly meaningful work result.

The creative concept behind the art by the Brahma Tirta Sari Studio and their various collaborative partners is rooted in a kejawen philosophy as expounded by the charismatic teacher, known as Romo or Resi Djayakusuma of Padepokan Segara Gunung (Ocean Mountain Cultural Centre) on Mount Lawu, near Solo in Central Java.

Within the kejawen world view, all things are connected and at once independent and interdependent. The relations and relationships between all things may be expounded from the largest, unseen or invisible perspective to the smallest visible and micro level of things, or vice-versa.

The largest perspective is the all-encompassing Void— the unseen world. The void is not empty yet nothing is differentiated; it is full to the brim of no-things. Somewhere within this never-ending void a vibration begins, imperceptibly as a pinprick, and then grows into the world of Light.

Living in the middle of a cosmos consisting of three worlds or dimensions (Tribuwono: the Light dimension, the Macro dimension and the Micro dimension), the artist is an empty vessel. At a certain time, the spiritually open and sensitized artist receives a vibration transmitted from the supernatural world, where the higher consciousness resides in the world of light. Via the “Golden Cord”, which connects humans to the pure, spiritual dimension, this vibration transmits from the world of Light to the artist’s soul and the urge to create a work of art that combines the wisdom of the divine self with the form-giving nature of the ego-self in dynamic harmony. Such work is experienced as having a certain super-natural vibration and is spoken of as Kapti Kerdating Sukma (work that has been created by a vibration from the soul).

Art to heart vibrations
Soft, Connecting, Profound: in cloth there is always movement as the material continually responds to its environment. Unlike the static surface of painted canvas or sculpture, cloth wraps, folds, and shimmers.

Light dances over its surfaces in minutely varied angles as the cloth billows on drafts and currents. Of old, these art works would have been worn, wrapping living, moving bodies as well as the bodies of the dead, ancestors-to-be, on their last journey.

Similarly, the catalog that accompanies this exhibition speaks with many voices— from the Utopian Aboriginal women artists from Australia to the Java-based and Javanese artists, and the voice of spiritual teacher Romo Djayakusuma; from the archaeologist’s voice to curators voices, locally and abroad.

This remarkable exhibition can teach younger generations of Javanese artists about a heritage which has been replaced in many people’s minds by less patient and rigorous systems of thinking, living and making.

It can also teach Jakarta’s and Indonesia’s expatriate art lovers an important historical (but not fossilized) dimension of the country they are working in. And, across the board, this exhibition can envelop every visitor with the gentle yet pervasive aesthetics of cloth marked, layer upon rich layer, with the signs of thoughtfulness and prayer: for remembrance and protection, for increasing social and spiritual harmony, and for peaceful unification— unification of stranger with stranger, of the material world with the spiritual, of the past with the present and future, of here with there— of mountain with ocean, and all that such a metaphor can contain.

The writer is Associate Professor of Southeast Asian Art, University of Victoria, Canada, and Researcher of Contemporary Indonesian Art.