[Editor’s note: Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah are founding members of The Photobook Club-Jakarta in 2013. Its aim is to discuss issues relating to photobooks published in Indonesia and beyond.]
2016 was atrocious.
We saw too many deaths. Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Indonesians (especially Jakartans) continue to deliberate over Ahok and the forthcoming gubernatorial election.
On the other hand, we witnessed the Indonesian photobook scene thrive as never before. There were publications, book tours, bookseller tours, photobook exhibitions, workshops and public interventions. We saw new voices and established practitioners publishing their latest work. We now have independent photobook publishers in Indonesia–Kamboja Press and Binatang Press. Kamboja published the books of Vira Talisa and Tampan Destawan respectively while Binatang brought out Anton Ismael’s.
Now that the bar has been raised, 2017 will hopefully bring more interesting publications onto the table.
Here are the best Indonesian photobooks of 2016 that caught our eyes. The criteria for selection are:
Published in Indonesia in 2016
Featured photographs made by Indonesians
The photobook should be able to captivate viewers to revisit the work.
The photographs should be able to make the viewers feel as though they are in the scene portrayed.
The publication should have physical qualities that support the above criteria.
Some people will loathe the design, others will love it. The book is born under the collaboration of Rian Afriadi and artist-designer Natasha Gabriella Tontey. It feels like a story book with a dark twist at the end, which makes sense, since we’re looking at Rian’s imagining of another world under a different sun. The design and text fit the book well, though I wish they would choose another paper for the photographs.
This volume results from experimentation and collaboration, two things that we believe in as well. As a result, these books are quite tightly edited and highly produced. The Flock guys have also been pushing boundaries, creating bridges with other communities, producing zines, while maintaining their sense of humour–something that’s increasingly rare amongst photographers today.
What’s with Surakarta (Solo)? Every year, we find a few photobooks from that city, which always feature contrasty, black-and-white images, creating an impression that Solo only offers dark, bleak thoughts. After N is no different. However, it’s also refreshing to see how Greg envisions the world (the book is his edit) since his marriage. Again, we believe that good photographs deserve to be printed on the best paper.
Honorable mention: #WISTAU by Flock Project
Pokes fun at people who take things seriously: check.
Self deprecating humour: check.
Social commentary: check.
Designed in the spirit that only a zine can convey: check.
[Editor’s note: Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah are founding members of The Photobook Club-Jakarta in 2013. Its aim is to discuss issues relating to photobooks published in Indonesia and beyond.]
These are our picks for the best Indonesian photobooks of 2015.
If you need a reminder, these are the criteria for selection:
– Published in Indonesia
– Published in 2015
– Feature photographs made by Indonesians
– The book should be able to captivate viewers to revisit the work.
– The photographs should be able to make the viewers feel as though they are in the scene portrayed.
– The publication should have physical qualities that support the above criteria.
In no particular order:
Ruang Bermain By Sri Sadono
Reviewed by Ridzki Noviansyah
Unlike 2014, when there were several long-term documentary projects being published as photobooks, we have had only a few in 2015. These include Yoppy Pieter’s Saujana Sumpu and S Rama Surya’s A Certain Grace. However, there are more personal projects (as distinct from street photography) that have become published as photobooks. One of them is Sri Sadono’s Ruang Bermain.
I would describe this book in the same way as I would describe the children who appear in the book—unpretentious and lovely. The photographs portray Indonesian kids at their “playground”—whether it is an open field or an apartment high above. While the photographs are lovely enough to view, the book can use a bit more sequencing work and better production.
JKT By Fanny Octavianus
Reviewed by Ridzki Noviansyah
With the increased interest in street photography, there has been an increase in the number of people who call themselves street photographers, showing up on the streets of Jakarta on every car-free day to take some shots. On the other hand, there are people like Erik Prasetya and Fanny Octavianus who have worked quietly for years, covering the streets of Jakarta.
Fanny Octavianus’ approach in photographing Jakarta reveals a constant tug-of-war. As a photojournalist, Fanny produces frames that are good enough to run on the front page of newspapers. However he also creates pictures that imbue a certain degree of romanticism. For Fanny, Jakarta is a place that he loathes and loves at the same time. This can be seen in JKT.
Saujana Sumpu By Yoppy Pieter
Reviewed by Tommy N Armansyah
First, let me say the one thing that I do not like about this book. It concerns the closing picture, the strongest image, of a boy, his body half immersed in water, holding the head of an almost fully immersed girl. As an individual picture, even though it creates an unease in me, I like it very much. However, as part of the book, it is too strong, making it a bad fit with the rest of the book.
Overall, the book is wonderful. Looking at the pictures, walking through the pages, you can almost hear a saluang [editor’s note: musical instrument of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra] being played. The pictures are poetic. Yoppy is the master in making such images. If his intention is to take us, the readers, to look at present-day Sumpu (or Sumpur), where most of its male inhabitants have left for the cities for better employment opportunities, leaving behind women and children, he has done it beautifully. Published by PannaFoto Institute, the book design is simple—complementing the pictures, making the viewing enjoyable. The work is also featured in the recent Jakarta Biennale 2015.
As I Was Moving Ahead By Homer Harianja
Reviewed by Tommy N Armansyah
In some ways, As I Was Moving Aheadis an odd inclusion. While the rest of the practitioners featured in this year’s selection are all professional photographers, Homer is an amateur photographer with a keen pair of eyes. All the photographs in the book are taken in analogue format. The photographs are witty and vibrant, concerning family holidays, church visits and other mundane daily activities. There are also repeated images of people (mostly kids) peeking through something.
This is the only colour photobook in our selection for 2015, published through the newly established Semarang-based print-on-demand company, “Retrospective Journal”.
In terms of the publication of photobooks in the Philippines, 2014 was a better year, with Wawi Navarroza’s Hunt Gather and Terraria and Jake Verzosa’s The Last Women of Kalinga being published. In 2015, only Dago Santos’ Lighght caught my attention. It is a simple book compiling the little moments when light and space converge, triggering a photographic response from Dago.
However, in the same year, we also witnessed the rise of photo zines, helping to raise awareness in terms of showcasing work in the book format. This is perhaps the result of Fotosemana Festival 2015, a micro-festival in Manila focusing on photobooks. The festival showcased Philippine photobooks and zines from the past few years. Selections from Self Publish, Be Happy, Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive, and Indie Photobook Library were also displayed during the event.
The DIY effort of Philippine photographers helped to push forward the evolution of photo zines in the country. Notable examples in 2015 include Czar Kristoff’s Fugue, Jhemuel Salvador’s White Pictures, Erin Nøir’s Mono series, and Brian Sergio’s Bomba.
Fugue was released during Fotosemana and co-published by Thousandfold. As this is not made using offset printing, perhaps a discussion on the differences between a zine and a book is needed soon. The zine’s images, shot mainly in black-and-white, concern the small details and objects that are often disregarded. Only the orange wrap, the red centerfold and the blue cover bring color to the book. This allows the readers to concentrate on the ways in which the photographs interact with one another.
Jhemuel Salvador’s White Pictures compels the readers to question whether the objects in his pictures are actually white, made to be white, or appear as white through technical manipulation.
Mono by Erin Nøir takes the approach of the diaristic Japanese photo zines of the 1990s, much in the same vein as Hiromix and others, complete with datestamp and all. The zine even flips from right to left.
Brian Sergio’s Bomba is full of photos of naked women in suggestive poses. Crucially, its design is inspired by the Philippine tabloids in terms of size, paper and the absence of binding. These tabloids usually headline scantily clad women. Sergio’s zine ramps it up by a notch. Your mileage may vary with the images but the design is very interesting.
In 2016, I believe there will be more photo zines published in the Philippines. More importantly, there will be more people working on traditional photo books, targeting release in the next few years. As for content, they may focus on the political situation in the Philippines with the upcoming presidential elections. But it is hard to say.
Generally, photo zines work best when the approach is personal. If the momentum persists, practices in book making, designing, and the overall production of photobooks will gain further traction, expanding the options for photographers in terms of showcasing their work.
My parents named me after camp Khao I-Dang, the refugee camp where I was born. They did so to remember their survival, and those international aid workers who cared for them after an improbable escape from the labor camps in Cambodia, across the landmine-riddled jungle, to the border of Thailand. As difficult and confusion-inducing as my name is, I wonder now how my life would have turned out, had they had named me “Goderich” after the small Canadian town where a kind group of sponsors first pooled their resources to bring us to Canada. Or if they had named me “Trudeau,” after the man who held me as an infant when my family first arrived in Canada, the man who is the centerpiece of my family’s postcard-perfect photograph commemorating our arrival.
I think of this picture often. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau welcoming my family to Canada at a ceremonial tea party on Parliament Hill. Why were we chosen, why were we given prestige for this photo? My family was not just any refugee family Canada had taken in. Arriving on December 3, 1980, we were designated the last, the “final” Southeast Asian refugees admitted under the special government program. But of course there was ongoing need, ongoing suffering. The war in Cambodia continued for another 18 years, yet we were the last. And as the last, we were to symbolize something more than just gratitude. We were proof that Canada had fulfilled its quota, had checked “saved refugee” off the good karma list. We were to be the symbol that Canada had done what it was charged to do, and needn’t be asked to do more.
The scholar Sara Ahmed speaks of the “Happiness Duty” of the migrant, which means “telling a certain story about your arrival as good, or the good of your arrival.” With my family living in poverty, and haunted by the knowledge of those left behind, I had difficulty performing this duty. I remember re-living my family’s experience as a child. I remember the words thrown my way. “Genocide” was not an accurate definition of what happened, I was told. “Death” was too heavy for a child to say. But I could say “tragedy.” I could talk about how terrible war was. War in the abstract, as if what happened to us was an abstract thing.
The recent photo of a deceased Syrian refugee child has gone viral, it has motivated movements and pushed demands for the migrant crisis in Europe to be met not with suspicion and refusal, but with compassion and care. The global moral eruption that has been stirred by the circulation of one photograph is a feature that those who suffered from the Pol Pot regime did not have. There were so few foreign witnesses to the atrocities, and little to no photographs emerged from that time. Instead, to remember the genocide we have numbers. Figures of the deceased, and mere figures refuse to inspire the same collective mourning. Last year was the greatest refugee crisis in European history. This year, we have far surpassed last year’s numbers. Like in 1979, for so long all we gazed upon were these figures, some that grip the imagination by their sheer volume, yet each number is a story, a mourning, a loss. All the while, to remember losses that Cambodians endured all I had were the numbers people tossed. The counting of every breath of life, when it stopped, when it ended.
If we allow it, there is another number that can grip our imaginations. 10,000, the number of Syrian migrants that Canada promised to secure in January 2015, 8998 of which it has so far failed to meet. I would not be here had Canada not met its goal of 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees in 1980. I would not be here without compassion. That of Canadian citizens who petitioned the government to do more about the refugee crisis, who marched in the streets of Toronto in 1979 in support of Operation Lifeline, who set up a community fund to help my family buy food during our first few months in Canada. My history is proof that there is compassion and love. Now we are meant to de-prioritize compassion. We are meant to put love on hold, because we showed it to others in the past, because it burdens us in the present. But the good of the past does not permit the indifference to the now. The Canada that I believe in is a Canada where there is never a last refugee.
Y-Dang Troeung lived in Canada from 1980-2012. She is now an Assistant Professor of English at City University of Hong Kong.
I was 22 the first time I went to Indonesia. I went simply on a college semester abroad. At the time, I was really interested in music, and went to study gamelan. The whole experience was eye opening, and the amount of personal and cultural discovery has lasted me a lifetime, or at least was enough to initiate a much longer study and interest in Indonesia. I was just there for about 6 months, but the impact on my creative and intellectual identity was enormous.
Just a few months before I left for Bali this first time, I discovered photography. I know it sounds like a cliché (though maybe less so in our current digital age), but the first time I saw a print come up in the developer, I was hooked. I immediately threw myself into photography with incredible enthusiasm and abandon. In just a few months, I did everything I could do to learn about photography, even landing my first professional experience as a photographer working at an important photographic archive in Colorado. Like my time in Indonesia, these first experiences with photography provided enough fuel to sustain a life long creative and intellectual curiosity.
When I discovered these things, it was an important time in my life, really a time with a strong emergence of identity. I think of it as no coincidence that I discovered photography for the first time just before departing for Bali. I still remember the feeling of engagement, creativity, and self-empowerment when I made my first photographs, really because I still feel the same when photographing today. I can say the same about my engagement with Indonesia; my time in Bali and Java always feels important, like an empowering time of creative and intellectual engagement.
For most of my adult life, I’ve pursued two distinct but parallel studies in the arts – as a photographer and artist of my own culture, and as a student and performer of Indonesian art and classical music. When I left college, I set off to begin my life as an artist. I moved to Denver, CO, to work with a group of musicians and artists devoted to studying and advocating for Balinese and Indonesian arts. I worked with a nonprofit organization called Tunas Mekar, both a gamelan orchestra and an educational foundation dedicated to the advancement of Indonesian arts. I made this group my primary focus, and worked with the foundation for several years out of college.
While I was working with Tunas Mekar, I initiated my own study of photography. I set up a small studio, and worked during all my free time pursuing my creative initiatives with photography. I did this for years, and eventually reached a point when I recognized it was time to my make my primary commitment to photography, and an engagement with arts of my own culture. Thus, I enrolled in an MFA program in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.
After completing my graduate degree, I began a teaching career, working in a well-known school for art education. Here, I taught photography and new media arts to graduate and undergraduate students from all over the world. This proved a wonderful opportunity to develop my own philosophies of art and creativity, and specifically their relationship to a greater cultural experience.
As my own identity as an artist and photographer became more concrete, I became increasingly interested in reconnecting with gamelan and Indonesia. I traveled back to Bali and Java a number of times, and began studying and performing with the Cornell University Gamelan Ensemble.
Over several years, my connection with Cornell grew into a research position, and I eventually had the idea to try and merge my interests in photography and Indonesian art. I used the incredible resources at Cornell to initiate a study of the history of photography in Indonesia. This began as a textual study, but over several years, I found funding to return to Indonesia, really with the intention of trying to learn about contemporary art photography on the islands.
These first discussions proved to be remarkably successful. While just spending a couple of months in Bali and Java, I visited a number of different universities and art academies, and met with a variety of curators, educators, critics, collectors and artists interested in photography. I spent the bulk of my time in Denpasar, Ubud, Yogyakarta and Jakarta, but made some important connections at that time, specifically in Java.
In Yogya, I spent an afternoon at Mes56, an artists’ collaborative situated then just outside the kraton. Long known as a center for dance and painting, Yogyakarta is also home to the Cemeti Art House, an influential gallery for the development of contemporary art in Java. Mes56 was developed by a group of artists interested in photography and new media. At the time when the collective came together, it was difficult for artists interested in these types of media to find exhibition opportunities, so they created their own. Amongst the original members of the collective are Wimo Ambala Bayang, Jim Allen Abel, and Angki Purbandono, all graduates of the state art academy in Yogya, and all part of the first generation of Indonesian artists interested in exploring photography and related media. Today, Mes56 remains an important part of the Yogyakarta art scene, hosting exhibitions and residencies for artists from Indonesia, Australia, and The Netherlands working in photography and related disciplines.
It was also in 2011 that I made my first successful contact with the ISI Yogya (Institut Seni Indonesia – the Indonesian Institute of Art), developing an ongoing relationship with Dr. Suawastiwi Triatmodjo, Dean of the Fine Arts Program. In connecting with the art academy and Ibu Suawastiwi, I got my first introduction to art education in Java. She provided me with the wonderful opportunity to meet with students and faculty from the program, to learn how photography is included in their education.
In subsequent visits, I was able to build on these first relationships, meeting more artists and curators across Java. With help from the American Institute for Indonesian Studies, I was able to connect with a variety of academic programs around Central and Western Java, and lectured and taught workshops in schools of architecture, communication, Muslim broadcasting, and art. I was also able to meet different curators and educators, and see photographic exhibitions both professional and amateur. Each of these experiences helped give me a broader understanding of photography in Java today.
As conceived as fine art, photography is still a very new thing in Indonesia, as it is in most of Southeast Asia. There are a couple of threads within larger, global history of photography that are essential in understanding the development of photographic art in the region.
In the beginning, photography represented tremendous privilege. It took education, leisure time, and most importantly, money to pursue. And thus in the early years of its invention, photography was really only practiced by the Western powers in Europe and North America (with some important exception in Japan and China – both relevant in looking at the medium in Indonesia). Immediately, these cultures recognized the power this new invention had for their economic and political adventures abroad, and thus photography became a primary tool for their colonial endeavors, really from the get-go.
Often with more romantic or altruistic intentions – to educate their populations at home about these foreign cultures and the wonderful work and civilization brought from the outside – the colonial powers sent photographers abroad to start recording the government work in these developing nations. Immediately, the social power of photography was in place, as photography quickly became an essential tool in defining the “other,” helping to facilitate economic and political supremacy. Among other things, photography provided an opportunity to further objectify the native population, and gave visual evidence to compare the differences of culture and civilization. As an economic privilege, it provided authority that wasn’t easily shared or translated, and that economic privilege quickly became an intellectual and cultural privilege.
The second thread within this greater global history of photography is photography’s relentless march towards democratization. Perhaps first manifested with the inventions of George Eastman and Eastman Kodak, the goal for the last hundred years has been to make everyone a photographer. The current digital age is perhaps the completion of this goal. There aren’t many adults today without a camera; or better put, anyone with a phone today also holds a camera. And they say there are more Facebook users per capita in Indonesia than any other country in the world. In her wonderful book, Indonesia Etc., Elizabeth Pisani observes the presence of digital and social media on the outer island of Flores:
The boy, bright, smiley and fond of geography, would climb a tree, pick a mango, throw it half-eaten to the ground because he needed his hands for catapulting. When he got peckish again, he would just climb another tree. The girl, with whom I had been sharing a bed, was in her monosyllabic post-pubescent phase; her purpose was to get high enough up the mountain to get a signal on her cell phone so that she could check Facebook.
While originally discarded as a tool of the colonizer, Indonesians largely ignored photography for much of the second half of the 20th century. It was certainly part of family and village rituals, as well as an essential part of the press, but its dissemination across the culture was limited. That said, photography continued to spread rampantly in the build up to the digital era – one hour photo processors emerging globally – and photography proved an essential tool in reformasi, the revolt that led to the fall of Suharto. When control of photography was lost, Suharto lost control of the cultural. With the emergence of digital imaging, all that has changed. In Indonesia, as throughout much of Southeast Asia, photography is now fully emerging as a fine art medium, and this is largely the result of digital photography, the complete democratization of the medium.
Before fully addressing this new history, there is a bit more to say about the presence of photography in the colonized nation. There are two passages in particular. The first is from the great African American folklorist and novelist, Zora Neale Hurston, from Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old. Wouldn’t have found out then, but a man come long takin’ pictures and without askin’ anybody, Shelby, dat was the oldest boy, he told him to take us. Round a week later de man brought de picture for Mis’ Washburn to see and pay him which she did, then give us all a good lickin’.
So when we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’
Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’
Dey used to call me Alphabet ‘cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at the picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so
Ah said: ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’
Den dey all laughed real hard. But before Ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest.
There is a lot to unpack here, but before taking a closer look, I’d like to look at another quote from famed Javanese novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his great work This Earth of Mankind:
“You are fortunate indeed, my students,” he said, “to be able to witness the beginning of the modern era here in the Indies.
Modern! How quickly that word had surged forward and multiplied itself like a bacteria throughout the world. (At least, that is what people were saying.) So allow me to use the word, though I still don’t fully understand its meaning.
In short, in this modern era tens of thousands of copies of a photo could be reproduced each day.
The main character in both these novels – Janie and Minke – is struggling to assert his or her identity, working against the confines of a dominating white or European culture. The passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God is both dense and beautiful, and has long attracted the attention of literary and cultural critics alike. Essentially, Hurston suggests that the photograph creates difference, and that the power of racial hegemony is solidified with the camera.
This Earth of Mankind tells the story of a young Javanese man caught between tradition, colonialism, and the expanding modern world. Minke tries to reconcile these disparate motivations to discover a true Indonesian identity, one that is both self-reliant and modern. Photography, in this quoted passage, functions as a metaphor for the magnitude, pace, and power of the developing modern world, at odds with Indonesian culture and traditions, but essential for Indonesia to understand as it moved towards independence.
In western intellectual and creative history, photography holds a history and presence independent of – indeed preceding – film, video, installation, and performing arts. In contemporary Indonesia, however, photography developed as an art form because of an interest in film, video, installation, and performing arts. In many ways, photography moved into the scene as a tool to document other happenings, and simply as a way to provide visual information for artists interested in working across media. There are a number of people who led the way to some of these changes – multimedia artists like Nindityo Adipurnomo, Mella Jaarsma, FX Harsono, Heri Dono, and pioneering video artist Krisna Murti. Many of the first photographic artists coming out of Java – particularly Yogyakarta – used visual and conceptual strategies to lay the groundwork for their photographic projects. Many of these artists – Wimo Bayang, Jim Allen Abel, and Angki Purbandono – explored photography with incredible freedom, borrowing from visual languages already in place within the creative discourse of their time and place.
In West Java, the Institute of Technology in Bandung (ITB) provided a starting point for emerging discussions on photography. One of the oldest higher education institutions in Indonesia, ITB has long held a remarkable reputation in the arts. The institute was originally founded by the Dutch, and from the beginning allowed for more western models of education. Here I met photographers exploring the technical and visual vocabularies inherent to the medium, both in traditional and visual formats, including photographers and artists like Henrycus Napit Sungaro and Deden Durahman.
Jakarta has long been home to many of the intellectual and cultural resources of the archipelago, including the Galeri Jurnalistik Antara, a small collective dedicated to teaching, exhibiting, and publishing photojournalism. Many of these photographers – such as Rama Surya and Oscar Motuloh – blur the lines between journalism and art, and pursue their work with a great understanding of time and culture. A younger generation of artists like Tino Djumini, Amran Malik Hakim and Arum Tresnaningtyas Dayuputri are emerging. Some of them are educated in the art programs of the city. They work with an eye for documentary photography, using the simple and poetic possibilities of the medium to record important social layers and counter cultures.
My approach to formulating a perspective on the history of art in Indonesia is indebted to the work of Claire Holt and Astri Wright. Both women developed a great insight into their subjects by starting with a foundation of clear cultural patterns, symbols and metaphors.
Claire Holt is entirely unique, not only for the depth of her achievements, but also for the recognition that her work has found in both the States and Indonesia. She has always been characterized as a remarkably sensitive, thoughtful, and intelligent woman, and clearly warranted great respect from her colleagues in both countries. Reading through her manuscripts and research archives, her patience and love of Indonesia have been contagious, serving as tremendous inspiration.
Holt’s text concerns a broad chronology of Indonesian art. Her work begins with the medieval Hindu/Buddhist architecture of Java and Sumatra, but also includes thorough investigations of Javanese court dance and wayang (shadow puppet) traditions, modernist painting and sculpture from Bali, and concludes with the emerging nationalism and how it affected the arts and art education.
In introducing her work, Holt writes:
Art in Indonesia correspondingly reflects an enormous diversity. Both geographical and historical factors have always precluded the development of a homogeneous art with a single line of evolution. Today a multitude of cultural phenomena coexist in the archipelago at quite different stages of their life cycles. Some are ancient but still very vital; others are old but are apparently dying or undergoing radical transformations; still others were born recently and are growing vigorously.
In the continuum of cultural growth, old and new elements overlap, fuse, or exist side by side. Dates are only approximate dividers marking the introduction of new ideas or techniques without necessarily implying the disappearance of preceding beliefs and practices.
Published in 1967, Holt’s words ring true today. While it is easy to find someone in Java who has never seen a wayang play, many artists still say that the essential foundation for Javanese and Indonesian art lies in understanding wayang.
Fundamental to Holt’s work are the ideas of continuity and change. This is a wonderful and complicated idea, acknowledging what is essential and unchanging about a culture and its creative expressions (however elusive), but also attentive to the relentless march towards evolution and change, perhaps best epitomized by technology.
Astri Wright’s primary text on Indonesian art – Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters – stems from a similar foundation as Holt’s text, specifically the ideas of continuity and change. Influenced by Holt, Wright begins her study by asserting the foundational framework of soul, spirit, and mountain – recurring metaphors and symbols in Indonesian mythology and social constructions.
Also striking in Wright’s work is her perspective on an emerging Modernism, and the continued development of Indonesian culture and identity after the revolution and independence:
To ‘Indonesians’ of the early years of this century, modern experience was shaped by an accelerating influx of new ideas about education, language, history, and identity. With the introduction of new technologies, in part triggered by foreign occupation and war, an unprecedented self-consciousness about one’s place in relation to the past and a dramatically changing present began to develop.
This new awareness of other places, cultures, and histories, both past and in the making, created the need to question those structures and assumptions of one’s own world… Self-conscious reconstructions of the past have accompanied the search for a definition of the present. Fueled by an unprecedented urge to evaluate and compare weaknesses and strengths, Indonesians have attempted to create a better platform from which to meet the challenges of an increasingly complicated and anxiety-provoking future.
From my experience in Indonesia, thinking of the development of photography and new media, as well as the historic election of President Jokowi, Wright’s observations still ring true; ‘Indonesian’ identity is a work in progress, negotiating not only the past, present and future, but also confronting global economic, political, and religious forces. Wright did the fieldwork for her book Soul, Spirit, Mountain before reformasi and the fall of Suharto. However, in many ways, the questions and struggles that she raised are even more apparent today, as the nation struggles to become a democracy, delicately balanced between a progressive, global economy and a strong conservative movement, and marred by the scars of colonialism and an oppressive dictatorship.
In drawing upon the works of these women, my hope is to continue the thoughtful relationships they developed with their colleagues in Indonesia, but also to offer a similar perspective on photography. Whether practiced by the earlier colonial presence or the contemporary artists today, photography provides a visual vocabulary and record for understanding the historical and cultural trajectory of Indonesia. And while the intentions of the colonial photographers and those working today may be quite different, in the end a critical comparison demonstrates an evolving record of Indonesian culture and identity.
Trying to work as a photographer in Indonesia has proven a much greater challenge than I have anticipated. In pivotal and yet elusive ways, I know I’ve discovered important parts of my own identity through my engagements in Indonesia, but this hasn’t always readily translated into a clear visualization. I initially instigated this study as a way to find a photographic voice for myself. This has proven to be remarkably successful. Meeting photographers and artists working across Bali and Java has brought a great deal of clarity to me. To see other people using photography to wrestle with their own questions has opened my eyes. And the chance to see the evolution of the medium in Indonesia over time has broadened my understanding of the culture, in ways that have made it easier to think both objectively and subjectively with the camera.
My intention for this book is to help develop a conversation on a subject that is still being discovered and explored. Hence, this is in no way a definitive history. That said, I do hope that the documentation and observations recorded here will be of value for others interested in exploring Indonesia, photography, and the complex evolution of cultural exchange and self-visualization.
 Elizabeth Pisani, Indonesia, Etc.
 Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston.
 This Earth of Mankind, part 1 of the Buru Quartet, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated from Indonesian by Max Lane.
 Claire Holt’s wonderful book, Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change, provides some great insight into the establishment and pedagogy of the different art academies in Indonesia, and how the debates of independence and nationalism influenced discussions of art and art education.
 Astri Wright, Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters.
Brian Arnold is a photographer, educator, and musician based in Ithaca, NY.
Recollecting Memories of Tukang Foto Keliling: A Tourism Photography Project— From the Heyday of the Itinerant Photographer to the Era of Instagram
By Dito Yuwono
In July 2014, Dito Yuwono initiated a group exhibition for Kelompok Fotografi Kaliurang (Kaliurang Photography Group) as part of his ongoing project: “RecollectingMemories: Tukang Foto Keliling”. The project started at the end of 2013 through a series of interviews and discussion with tukang foto keliling (itinerant photographers). The show is first held in a hotel room at Kaliurang. The second exhibition is presented at Lir Space on August 2014. In the latter show, there are six photographers whose works are on display: Pak Dasri, Pak Triyanto, Pak Tukimun, Pak Slamet, Pak Wijiyana and Dito Yuwono. This project is still ongoing. The following text is an essay written for the exhibition in 2014.
1 / The Itinerant Photographers at Kaliurang
My interest in the itinerant photographers at the tourist destination of Kaliurang started when I first met Mr. Dasri, a tukang foto keliling who still works there. Kaliurang is a tourist area located on the slopes of Mount Merapi, about 25km away from the center of Yogyakarta. Located 900m above sea level, Kaliurang is known for its cool mountain air and beautiful scenery. The area was first developed for tourism in the early 19th century when the Dutch built several villas for their geologists’ family retreat. After independence, the ownership of these villas came into the hands of the natives. Since then, members of the royal family, companies and individuals started building their vacation homes there.
Kaliurang’s natural beauty attracts many tourists. Families, friends and couples typically take pictures in its natural environment, at its iconic playground, by the streets and at other beautiful locations. In the early 90s, owning a camera was still considered a luxury and the itinerant photographers often peddled their services at different tourist sites across Indonesia.
In 1981, a number of itinerant photographers started to congregate at Kaliurang. It began with the presence of Polaroid’s distributor (PT. Eresindo Jaya) in the area. A local resident was designated as an official representative of PT. Eresindo Jaya. He was assigned to distribute Polaroid’s instant film products. He then formed a partnership with some people who wished to work as itinerant photographers. The relation between the two parties resembled the kind of professional relationship between suppliers and consumers. Apart from being a provider of products while serving as the coordinator of the region, he also created a strategy to avoid territorial conflict amongst the itinerant photographers operating at Kaliurang. Even though a cordial relationship has always existed amongst the members, this itinerant photographer collective has never become a formal organization or a community. The amiable relationship manifests itself on a personal level amongst the photographers. It has not translated into organizational activities such as identity building, training and regeneration.
2 / Tourism Photography
In the past, tourism was one of the most important revenue sources for the Indonesian government. Postcards, travel advertisements and photo contests were used to boost the tourism industry. The main idea was to promote Indonesia as a destination of beautiful and un-spoilt nature. It was reinforced visually through several thematic elements: traditions, happiness (relationship between society and nature) and tropical exotics (flora and fauna, local habitats). One of the government’s initiatives in developing tourism was to organize photography competitions, which allowed amateur / non-commercial photographers to get their photos recognized. This systematic development of tourism undertaken by the government helped to establish the image identity of Indonesia. There are three perspectives that one may approach such examples of tourism photography.
First, the tourist perspective: This is already highlighted above. Some photographers will use images that already exist as reference to produce similar images. Reference images come from tourism promotion media (brochures, postcards etc) or from friends and relatives who have previously photographed at the tourist sites.
Second, the media perspective: The pervasive influence of the media can prompt people to produce similar images. In other words, the tourists no longer see the location as a tourist spot but as a site for image creation.
Third, the romantic perspective: While traveling, some people may recall memories and experiences in life, which may shape the tourist photos they make.
The role of an itinerant photographer is to capture a portrait of the tourist according to her or his references and fantasies. Their practice is not merely financial or promotional. It encompasses the romantic function of providing satisfaction for their customers by crafting the images of their dreams.
3 / Three Decades of Tourism Photography at Kaliurang
Around the 1990s, the number of itinerant photographers at Kaliurang started declining. After the eruption of Mount Merapi in 1994, the number of tourist arrivals at Kaliurang started to drop, which led to the declining consumption of tourist portraits. Partly in response, the photographers began peddling photos of the Mount Merapi eruption, garnering a pretty good response from the customers. Some of them began to expand their services by selling photographs of Mount Merapi as souvenir.
Since 2000, sales of the Polaroid instant camera products started to drop. PT. Eresindo Jaya decided not to provide Polaroid products as part of its business portfolio from around 2005. In the same year, the number of itinerant photographers at Kaliurang plummeted and the photography group that was once unified by the distribution network of PT. Eresindo Jaya ended. In 2008, Polaroid announced the termination of its instant film production. The termination was a response to the decrease in sales by 25 percent annually since 2000. Its decision was influenced by the proliferation of pocket camera technology at a more affordable price. Camera phones were becoming commonplace rapidly. As visitors started bringing personal image-recording devices to tourist sites, the need for itinerant photographers has become supplanted.
At the height of the itinerant photography business, there were around 13 photographers who worked at Kaliurang. At present, there are only two people who are still working as itinerant photographers around Merapi. One of them works in the Tlogo Nirmolo (the Japanese Cave) while the other is based in the area of Kali Adem (the eastern slope of Mount Merapi). Both of them no longer use Polaroid. Instead, they use digital cameras and portable photo printers, allowing them to print their work on the spot. Other than the two of them, everyone who used to work as itinerant tourist photographer has switched professions. They no longer see the financial potential of being a tukang foto keliling. Some of them still practise photography, but more in the production of images for promotional media, t-shirts and souvenirs.
4 / Exhibition: In Search of Narrative
My first attempt to seek a narrative for these itinerant photographers is to create an exhibition for them. In search of physical artifacts and relics from the heyday of the Kaliurang Photography Group, I have come to realize that they have become similar to the photographers’ memories: a bit faded and vague. Photo materials are brittle. The humidity causes decay and loss. There was no catalogue system then and there was no awareness to properly store the photos to maintain their condition. The few remaining photographs that I gathered become the narrative of the stories for each photographer. The exhibition then evolves into a group show featuring the works of the Kaliurang Photography Group.
I use the term “Kaliurang Photography Group” to refer to those who worked as itinerant photographers at Kaliurang between 1981 and 2005. The connection that united them was unofficial, voluntary and organic. In the process of collecting oral stories based on their memories, I realize the confidence that people have in their memories.
The first series of work in the exhibition is presented in the form of old Polaroid photographs that belong to Dasri. These Polaroid prints were taken at several iconic spots in the famous Kaliurang park playground. The park is one of the favorite tourist spots, often seen in the background of photographs. At that time, Dasri was one of the itinerant photographers who worked there.
The second series comes from Mr. Tukimun’s old sample Polaroid prints that he used to promote his services to the tourists. Unlike Dasri’s images, Tukimun’s photographs are more “mundane”. He was more interested in capturing the fleeting moments and in making typical portraits, instead of focusing on including the iconic sights in his clients’ photographs. Given that analog cameras have no digital preview, these sample photographs were important in selling his work.
Mr. Slamet, another former itinerant photographer, devised a strategy to rescue his expiring Polaroid sheets. He used them to make photographs of his family. Not contented to allow his Polaroid stock to become expired, the remaining sheets were used for private purposes and as memento of his time working there as an itinerant photographer.
The next presented work is a blank photo with slopes of the Merapi as its frame. This is created by Mr. Wijiyana, one of two itinerant photographers still working today. He makes instant photographs of tourists with the customized frame and sells them as souvenir. This is how he dealt with the changes in order to survive. Personally, the story of how Wijiyana suffered the business downtown and re-emerged in his work is rather inspiring. In this exhibition, the blank customized photo paper is presented with an audio recording of Wijiyana’s story, recounting how the 2010 Merapi eruption destroyed his photographic equipment and photo collection that he accumulated since the 1980s. In the recording, he recalls the manner in which he started adapting to the technological changes, creating business strategies that focus on customer satisfaction.
Compared to his comrades, Mr. Triyanto adopted a different creative practice. When it became less rewarding to sell Polaroid portraits, he started creating photo collages in which religious symbols were juxtaposed against tourism icons. These collaged photographs were made in the 1990s when digital practice was not yet familiar to him. He would manually cut out photos of Mother Mary or Jesus and paste them on photos of iconic sights at Kaliurang before re-photographing the collages as new images. This niche product was his creative response to the frequent religious retreats taking place at Kaliurang.
The projects chosen here are created at the point of transition, when the business of itinerant photography started to wane. In this exhibition, I position myself as a curator who selected the works, creating the narrative and preparing the group exhibition for members from the Kaliurang Photography Group. This exhibition is not the end of my research about the group, or the practice of photography and its relationship with tourism. The show is an important stepping-stone to unravel the bigger picture of rapid technological change in relation to photographic practices.
5 / Tourism Selfie and Hashtag: @wisataselfie and @wisatatagar
Based on my observation, until a few years ago, the practice of tourist photography almost always involved three elements: the tourists (people who are photographed), photographers (the people who take the photos) and the landscape. The role of the tourist itinerant photographers suffered with the advance of technology, creating newer cameras that are cheaper and easier to carry/operate.
The development of digital photographic technology, which has been incorporated into camera phones, further displaces the role of the itinerant photographers. This technological advancement has created the selfie as the new portraying habit of today, especially in relation to the travel portrait. In the selfie, the photographer and the subject of the picture converge. It alters the position and presence of the photographer (in this case, defined as anyone else who photographed the subject), which can be replaced by a tripod, monopod, or even one’s own hands.
Selfie is a new term used in relation to self-portraiture, especially those made by the photographed using a hand-held camera (or camera phone). The term is often associated with social media. The term emerged in the early 2000s and has become increasingly popular after 2010. Although the act of creating self-portraits has been in existence since 1839, the term has become more popular with the increased popularity of social media.
In my current work, I appropriate travel self-portraits. I prefer to recycle self-portraits that are uploaded publicly onto Instagram. I replace the process of photographing with the process of “screen grabs”, re-publishing the images using @wisataselfie as a Regramming account. Wisataselfie (Travel Selfie) is the account I made to document selfie pictures taken at various tourist spots across Indonesia. This account is used to regram tourist self-portraits found by searching for popular hashtags like #wisata, #wisataindonesia, #wisatanusantara and others.
In the process, I realize how selfie and hashtag are now incorporated into a new form of popular tourist photographic practice. With the culture of real-time sharing in social media (Instagram, Path, TwitPic, Facebook etc.), tourist perspective and media perspective (promotion of travel destinations) converge. The role of individuals who publish vacation photos on social media acts as provider of reference images, creating the fantasy that compels people to visit the same places and produce the same photographs.
This phenomenon is supported by user-friendly applications. Instagram filter, for example, is capable of making postcard-perfect photographs. Instagram, one of the most popular photo-sharing social networking services, reveals the strong desire amongst people to share their experiences for wider public consumption. The powerful tourist gaze, in tandem with the media gaze, makes people think of the tourist spot as an object to create images, seen in the photographs shared by their friends and family members. Some of the tourists have shifted their interest from experiencing to documenting. This is followed/sustained by the urge to share their photographs to the wider public as proof of their visit/experience at these tourist sites.
Beautiful landscape photographs are now rapidly reproduced. Some of them display a similar visual aesthetics and function as promotional media for tourism—with emphasis on the exotic, natural beauty and happiness. To differentiate the locations, a few “photographers” started adding hashtags to their photographs.
Hashtag is the easiest way to categorize a certain topic. It was first popularized in 2007 via Twitter. Then, Hashtag functioned as a folder separator to facilitate engine search, leading to the ideaof trending topics (hot topics that are widely discussed on Twitter). This approach is evolved for other social networking platforms, including Instagram. The way people use hashtags has undergone a shift, in which a single upload is now usually accompanied by more than one hashtag. In the early days of its conception, hashtag is used, in general, only three times in a single upload. The function of most Instagram hashtags today is still informed by the need to categorize the images. However, the use of hashtags has become more descriptive, explaining what is not only in the photo but also things that are not visible.
The descriptive turn in the use of hashtags affects photography itself (unphotographed photography). Each hashtag summons the memory of experiences accordingly. This is relevant to the romanticism in tourist photography. The hashtag is not only used to categorize the images in the virtual world. It is also used to trigger our memories of past travels.
Hastag is important for selfies. People sometimes fill the entire frame (of the photographs) with their visages, hence obscuring the landscape. In this sense, travel selfies need hashtags to mark the locations. The desire here is to seek a more tangible materialization of the situation and experience, presented in the form of photographs. People also started using hashtags as a way to illustrate the things that do not appear in the photos. Members of the public are encouraged to imagine these things through a romantic perspective that is directly tied to personal memories and experiences. My response to this phenomenon can be seen through my other Instagram account, @wisatatagar.
It is clear that the way people access tourist photographs has changed. While the images created by the itinerant photographers are used to recall fond memories of trips and are sometimes displayed in the living room or in the photo album, the photographs taken nowadays are to be shared with a wider public. Photographing has evolved from ‘recording’ to ‘owning’.
Larsen, Jonas. 2006. “Geographies of Tourist Photography: Choreographies and Performances.” Geographies of Communication: The Spatial Turn in Media Studies, ed. Jesper Falkheimer and, Andre Jansson. Goteborg: NORDICOM (p. 243 – 261).
Strassler, Karen. 2010. Refracted Vision: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java. Durham: Duke University Press.
Editor’s note: This is an extended conversation between Singapore-based Kenneth Tay and Geraldine Kang, partners and collaborators. Tay (b.1988) is a curator currently working at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum. His research background is in literary theory and visual culture. Kang (b. 1988) is a visual artist whose relationship with photography funnels into two main threads: first, using the medium as an introspective channel, and second, exploring the undercurrents and ambivalences of familiar places.
Kenneth Tay [KT]: I thought we might begin by talking about and around one of your most recent works, As Quietly As Rhythms Go (2014). What caught my attention back then, the first time I encountered it at your solo exhibition, was its form as a photobook displayed somewhere in the middle of the space. Photobooks are today nothing out of the ordinary of course, and we’ve had our share of events and discussions around the medium of photobooks; but I remember this work being sort of an interesting pivot in the space, connecting threads across two other series in your solo show. Though for now, I will like just to dwell on an earlier comment you’ve made in passing about the work itself. That is, if I read you correctly, the “documentarian eye” in As Quietly As Rhythms Go seems to run counter to your usual method of staging your photographs–not to the point of being theatrical necessarily, but of giving or injecting laboriously and physically into the actual site itself in order to experience a potentially different space-time. Can you tell us about the process of working on As Quietly As Rhythms Go, and what was it about the rhythms of land development that compelled you to document this dance between men, machines and land?
Geraldine Kang [GK]: I think it’s funny that the degree of physical proximity (between us and construction sites) largely dictates how much of man or machine we notice, and also how comfortably we notice them. From considerable distances, cranes, lorries and lifts look as though an invisible force is maneuvering them, buildings magically stacking unto themselves. Labourers become bright yellow helmets or fluorescent jackets, easily compressed into the greater landscape. I have to admit that I was first drawn to the steady extension-retraction movements of the excavators while jogging along Sungei Serangoon. What really prompted me to embark on a serious photo exercise was when I witnessed the rising of a red full moon over the tip of an excavator on the horizon. It felt extremely serendipitous, and I knew that the idea of motion and repetition was something I wanted to explore. There was also the lure of nascency: a construction project in its semi-early stages, and a piece of pre-architecture land–a point in time when there is still sufficient buffer from the reality of its transformation. That being said, I don’t think the conception of this project was ever one steeped in politics of land or labour, even if I have my own ideas and feelings about them. I am quite cognizant, and perhaps even slightly guilty, of the fact that what drew me was an image.
The men came in at a slightly later point, but I refrained from including too many images of them in the book, and in fact chose photographs that mainly held them at a far distance. At that point in time, I felt that I shouldn’t pretend to make a substantial part of the work about them if I wasn’t going to adequately address their livelihoods, the circumstances of their jobs and their intimate relationship with Singapore’s land. And so I decided on a portrayal and proximity–problematic nonetheless–that I was used to experiencing, something that I could honestly vouch for. That being said, the sighting of labourers milling through tall grass patches around the construction site at night still haunts me, but I wonder if I am more enthralled by the prospect of capturing a set of eyes trailing off into blurred bushes than anything else.
I believe you got the phrase “documentarian eye” from my conversation with Singaporean artist-curator Jason Wee. It does sound unnecessary and obvious in hindsight–which camera does not fundamentally “document” anyway? But I wanted to distinguish this project from my usual method of working. It was quite liberating to photograph in a much more spontaneous way, taking from the environment rather than executing something I spent a long time planning.
KT: I picked up on the term “documentarian eye” less so because of what a “document” might look like, but what the “eye” implies. It points to your embodiment in the project. This embodiment is critical, I would argue, to the reading of your images; and hopefully I’ll return to it later. Here though, I’d like to hold on to something you mentioned in your response: when you talked about physical proximity, and how it determines what we notice between man and machine on the construction site, and our relationship with what unfolds before us. Can we say then that this becomes a question of scale? In the sense that while the physical size of a labourer or a crane remains the same, its scale constantly changes in relation to us, depending on our distance from them. This relational aspect of the scale is something that is also constantly hinted in the work, when we think about the images moving in and out of the setting and situation, between man, machine and land.
Susan Sontag, in her book On Photography, described photographs as fiddling with the scale of the world, and this is evident, for example, in the way photographers crop or blow up their images. I’d like to propose that your work allows us to think about the scalar in photography through the myriad positions that we can adopt in relation to this documented scene. In that sense, when you were talking about how you did not want to romanticise a certain angle or image of the construction workers, I sense that it’s largely to do with your awareness that there are many points of entry and positions we can take. Many different scales we can measure the scene with. And that taking merely one perspective, much less that of a romanticised one, is clearly insufficient. Moving in and out of the scene, I sense the unearthing of several issues all at once. Zooming in, we dwell on the sight of shifting sands; and there are undercurrents, perhaps, of the instability inherent in a Singapore that is perpetually reshaping its land. Zoom out and we find ourselves looking at the question of labour, the relationship between the labourers and their labour, between the labourers and the (foreign) land on which they labour. There is, in other words, a real sense of energy between these pages. Looking through the images again, I’d say that there is never one image that remains static; no embalming here. They all have, in fact, the tenuous quality of a freeze-frame.
GK: One of the questions that was most frequently asked was “How did you get permission to photograph this?”, followed by “Did you get permission to photograph this?”. I suppose this means that the work gives sufficient illusion that I was up close or even on site. To add to your thoughts on Sontag, I think the equipment used in photography is seldom discussed meaningfully. We get stuck at merely understanding gear in terms of what effects they achieve, but we rarely consider what it means to work with different types of camera bodies (digital, film, medium format, large format, phone camera, drone, non-cameras), lenses (wide, mid-range, telephoto-range, zoom) and other supporting tools such as lights, scanners and computers. These determine the speed, workflow and ultimately, your physical and emotional proximity to the subject, which in turn (in)form the underlying premise and attitude of the work. Photography also has the tendency of amplifying the presence of subjects because they can be iterated with such immediacy. Things are not only disembodied, dislodged and contained, but they are also compressed and ported around quickly, making things or ideas closer and culturally immediate. This kind of mirrors how I feel about construction sites, that this state of machines and workers is here to stay.
I think what you’ve articulated about the “zoom” hits the nail on the fence. Sometimes I feel that the lens’s ability to switch between these points of view–glass attachments to our eyes, encapsulating wider and further than what is humanly possible, and at such speed and whim–can be problematic. It underscores a kind of privilege that makes me uncomfortable, even if I love what I see on playback. Perhaps it will be good to not give in to this ease all the time, or for the photographer to consider her/his place in relation to this ease, but also the further implications of such an ease.
KT: Yes I do think that the ease, the reproducibility, and corresponding ubiquity of photographs do give them presence or the appearance and weight of truth. Images thicken our environment in that sense. But at the same time, I know many who will argue that all these associations to truth, presence and permanence that photography enjoyed is really endangered by the introduction of digital imaging. Today, photo manipulation seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I suppose I should add that I am not concerned here with the ontological status of the photograph. This has taken the bulk of many discussions on photography theory to date. And you’re absolutely right to say that we have not yet begin to think harder and further about the (theoretical) implications of certain equipment in photography. They are more than just mere tools of the trade; each of them asks a different question to the photographer.
But to return to the earlier point about embodiment, what I meant to suggest with that term is not merely to point to your bodily involvement or presence within those images. For the sake of clarity, I should point out that embodiment, for me, moves beyond the usual dichotomy of mind and body, beyond the gap we assume between thinking and sensing. The mind after all is not physically detached from the rest of the body but connected to its circuitry. So what I am interested in by bringing up this question of your embodiment is also a way for us to deal with the experience of reading these images through the physical copy of the photobook itself. We haven’t even begun to talk about the tactility of such an encounter, the seductive grain of the paper eating up the ink of the images, the sensation of flipping the pages, and so on. But on that last point, I wonder if this is in any way connected to your interest too with rhythms. I thought we might begin again with this image of the full moon we see in the book As Quietly As Rhythms Go, and by the end of which we’re left with a disappearing trail of moonlight across the horizon. Why this way of structuring your images in the book? Can you talk a little about the editing of the images in this work?
GK: It’s true that we should assume image manipulation as the default condition of image production. Strangely though, it doesn’t deny the photograph, or should we say the photographic, its power. It has become so much easier logistically to hyper-realize and churn out perfected abstraction/fantasies of commodities. It’s also so much harder to ignore them. In the case of Singapore’s property market, I find myself constantly bombarded by photographic illustrations of ideal home luxury that are as smooth and flawless as their architectural renderings. It is as if these images lift themselves up and over their conditions of production, veiling the people and flow of capital/material involved.
To be specific, my interest lies more in the circularity of happenings, and if/where change figures in that run. Things that we see looping unto themselves have a strange way of hypnotizing; it’s as if they never leave the present, and we as onlookers remain rooted in them. And then there is the position of onlooking itself; can you interject the loop, alter it in any way? In being able to anticipate what is to come, we are imbued with intuitions that chart direction, whether they be positive or negative. I think what many readers don’t actually notice is the moon going backwards (as though setting) at the beginning of the book. I include several backward sequences as well, particularly those of excavators removing foliage from the site. I suppose that is my quiet way of asking: 1) What was the meaning of the site before the start of construction? 2) Who and what are shaping land use? 3) Can/should these actions be undone? and 4) Is there an alternative to provide more visual breathing space that I feel we badly need?
KT: Might this be why the book contains these pages of lustrous black ink in between the images? Well I remember our earlier conversation about this. And back then I hadn’t noticed that the book was structured somewhat in reverse. Looking at it again, what strikes me now across the pages is the question of rhythm. Here, I’m thinking of Henri Lefebvre’s work on rhythmanalysis where he makes a distinction between cyclical and linear repetitions. The former refers more to cosmic rhythms such as the seasons, natural or bodily rhythms; the latter refers more to mechanical, routinised behaviours that are typically socially imposed on us to discipline human activity (we can think here of the notion of a “nine-to-five” routine, for instance). The motifs of the moon, the dance between men and machine, they may be thought of as examples of both cyclical and linear repetitions respectively. And in between these two, we need to acknowledge the very presence of you, the artist or the pseudo-rhythmanalyst, oscillating perhaps between the two rhythms.
To this end, I’d like to describe the work as a measured response. Not in the quotidian sense of the term which would imply that you were merely a passive observer with a critical distance, but rather one where your own (embodied) rhythm was part of the scene. Rhythms, after all, are always relative. And you were, as Lefebvre would have insisted, your own metronome. Snaps after snaps. There’s a pulse to the work that is punctuated by black blank pages in between. And these punctuations appear more frequently where I felt a quiet but palpable sense of acceleration towards the end of the book, before arriving to your text which, it must be said, is a whole bundle of rhythms too in its metre. It is also no surprise that you should be sensitive towards rhythms in a place like Singapore. Considering our population density, Singapore is reverberating with a cacophony of over five million bodies moving to the schedules of public transport, moving and sweating under a relatively monotonous climate.
GK: Speaking of density, I’d also like to conclude by sharing some thoughts on my recent visit to Penang. On returning to Singapore it finally hit me why I feel nauseated here, and why empty or natural spaces mean so much for my eyes. Despite the rising sprawl of residential shophouses and skyscrapers in Georgetown, I felt relieved just being able to gaze onto dark green hills in the distance, towering still above the tallest buildings. A sign of the horizon and a mark of restraint, something left untouched for our minds to look at. The fact that no natural form competes with our endless concrete mass sometimes makes me breathless knowing what we have let loose, and to a large degree that Singapore doesn’t exactly have a choice. Therein lies my own helplessness; to be home sometimes means to alter my rhythms, if only to stay quiet and focused under the vibrating heat.