Grace Samboh

[Conversation] On exhibition-making: Some thoughts and lingerings

This text is part of [Conversation] — a series of posts on exhibition making from the Jakarta Biennale 2021 ESOK curatorial team.  

Hallway of the Museum of National Awakening (STOVIA) building. The planned venue for Jakarta Biennale 2021 ESOK.

I have once used the analogy of junction to illustrate what exhibitions are, for me. A place where debate, friction, and even failure or undesired disturbances also occur.[1] The exhibition is indeed a place as it doesn’t exist without people, their stories, their baggage, and the interactions between everything —the space, the exhibited items, the makers, the attendees. I realized that this may well be a very different standpoint to Kusnadi, whose interview from the seventies was recently translated for our blog by Sally Texania, even though he was using a similar analogy, of a journey or movement. He wrote, “If artworks keep moving without a Display Hall that would be similar to us running but don’t know how to stop,” and, “A Display Hall is not the final destination.”[2] In Kusnadi’s time, when the state-owned and built infrastructure for temporary exhibitions was only the Jakarta Arts Center Taman Ismail Marzuki, the struggle seems to be about showing, exhibiting artists’ works in designated spaces so that the works can be staged in a respectful manner. The chosen wordings, Balai Pajang (Display Hall), also made it obvious. It is not that exhibitions never or rarely happened prior to that time, just that it used to happen in either artists homes, studios, or shared studios (where some people would be living there too).[3] To have a space that is solely meant to exhibit works liberates the works from domestic spaces along with its limitations. I guess it is fair to say that then, the exhibition happens when the works are presented in a decent space with certain respect.

By the early 2000s, the state had built quite many galleries and art centers, be it on a national or provincial level. Quite a number of commercial galleries have also been established. The designated spaces that Kusnadi was struggling for had somewhat become normal or a standard facility that a town would have. Almost automatically, these spaces cling to their routine, to what they understood as artworks and how it would be presented. These spaces limited themselves from the potential expansion of what exhibitions could become. The so-called domestic spaces came back into the league. They resurged along with the necessity to liberate works from demands of normalcy, standardization, or homogenization. Even with their limited resources, these domestic spaces, mostly run by artists or art-workers, allow diverse understanding and conception of art to be performed, exhibited and accessed by the public. As Ade Darmawan puts it, “[it’s part of] our practice to transform domestic spaces. We rent houses and transfer from house to house after turning them into a space that is more public. Consequently, we understand the term “public” differently than public institutions. We just open up spaces without calling them an ‘exhibition space’ or ‘residency space’, or boxing it in with such terms. Activities happen there.”[4]

Instead of seeing the two times as oppositional binaries, the seventies and the 2000s, with mindful-enough light, we could see it as an evolution —of the scene, of the practice, of the discipline, or, dare I say, of the industry. First one argues for space. Once it’s there, one fights for the quality of what is exhibited. Once that hits a stagnation, one makes their own spaces and challenges the existing ones. The junction analogy I proposed came to light in a setting where I had the luxury of options, at least of spaces in which the exhibitions that I am working on could be done. The state-owned facilities existed, commercial galleries were not impossible to work with, and so many artists-run spaces were already there. The options were really there. We simply needed to be mindful as to why, how, and for whom do we make exhibitions for.[5] I have always had the luxury of asking, what can exhibitions do? Why am I involved in making one? The answers are always different as they depend on when, where, to and with whom are these questions asked. What would always be there is other people’s presence, in all aspects of the processes. Therefore, I’d like to think that for exhibitions to really, actually happen, we are required to trust one another.[6] By ‘happen’, I mean prior to, during, and after the exhibition. And, by we, I mean the makers (artists, curators, researchers, writers, managers, organizers, etc) as well as the attendees —whatever role they are taking, from art audience, journalist, critic, student, etc.

In our current situation, do we need exhibitions? What kind of exhibitions should we be making?

To be continued.

[1]Bill Nguyễn & Grace Samboh, 2019. “On making an exhibition, together: A curatorial approach”, in the cataloguePollination #1 — We’re in this together. Ho Chi Minh City: The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, p. 14-15.

[2] “Mengapa sebuah Balai Pajang” (Why a display hall?), in the weekly magazine Tempo, 11 September 1976.

[3] See: “Taman Lekra: Dari Galeri ke Galeri” (Lekra garden: From gallery to gallery), in Rhoma Dwi Aria Yuliantri & Muhidin M Dahlan, 2008. Lekra Tak Membakar Buku (Lekra Do Not Burn Books), Yogyakarta: Merekesumba, p. 298-311; and Sanggar – Museum – Galeri SENI RUPA di Yogyakarta (Studio – Museum – Galleries in Yogyakarta), Ed. 1, 1992. Yogyakarta: Taman Budaya Propinsi Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta.

[4] Ade Darmawan is one of the persons who thinks, dwells, and mulls on this idea. Other than in several unpublished texts of his, we can also see excerpts of this train of thoughts in Ade Darmawan & Mirwan Andan (ruangrupa), “Extended Living Room: Space and conversation” in Curatography Issue 2, 2021, accessible here or in many of the recent document 15 press statements such as this

[5] The “we” here refers myself and the people I am working with for the different exhibitions.

[6] Ibid, Nguyễn & Samboh, 2019, p. 14-15.