New Emissary

In Jogjakarta: Life, Then Art

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New Emissary

In Jogjakarta: Life, Then Art

Volcanic eruptions have created a living nightmare for many Indonesians. It’s time to stop and remember: life, then art.

Each Thursday on the New Emissary, art consultant and Tokyo art gallery owner Bob Tobin reports on the contemporary art scene in the Asia-Pacific, sharing his unique insights into some of the emerging trends and artists from around the region.

Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m an art-aholic (although I must credit Edward Goldman of KCRW with the idea for this term). I’d rather be doing something related to art—talking to artists, writing or teaching about art, visiting galleries, looking at paintings, holding a ceramic bowl created by an artisan—than almost anything else.

When I hear people say ‘no art; no life,’ or ‘no music; no life,’ I absolutely understand. For me and many others it’s a necessity. In fact, one of the main reasons I started working in the art business was because I wanted more creativity in my life.

But right now in Jogjakarta, where Mount Merapi started to erupt in late October, I realize that the basics must come before art—life first, then art. The volcano spewed hot rocks, debris and ash all over the town, resulting in nearly 200 deaths and the displacement of more than 200,000 people. A blazing hot sludge is still covering this art town that I fell in love with. Life in ‘Jogja’ has become a living nightmare.

The artists I met just over a month ago, and all of their fellow residents, are now struggling to cope with the wrath of the volcano. Many people are fleeing or sleeping wherever they can in an attempt to avoid what the volcano is still emitting. The streets that I remember packed with smiling faces, school kids and motorbikes are now covered with volcanic sludge. Indonesian soldiers pull bodies from the very same roads that I’ve traveled. My friends there continue to tell me how impossible it is to get a good night’s sleep because of the noise—even 20 kilometers away. Their kids have nightmares when they do sleep.

I can only imagine the fear and suffering this kind of catastrophe brings. This isn't a time for making art or even writing about art. This is a time when people must use all of their creative energies to stay alive and keep their loved ones safe and protected.

Art is always at the top of my mind. But it’s at times like this that art, my passion, seems inconsequential when so many struggle for shelter, food, water and survival. I’d planned on writing this week about some of the stars of the Indonesian art world I've met, but now it no longer seems to be the time to recount my adventures in a place where there's currently so much suffering.

Such unexpected tragedies do serve one purpose however, in that they bring us back to the basics in life: Food, shelter, love, relationships. And it's these necessities that are also the foundation of so much that is expressed in art. The fact is that both catastrophes and art have the capacity to put us in touch with our basic humanity. As the ash continues to rain down in Jogja, my thoughts go to what impressed me the most when I was there, and what makes me optimistic about life there after the volcano.

In Jogjakarta, it was the bond amongst the people and the sense of community there that was most impressive: Artists helping each other. There were groups of artists hanging out in an art space helping their friends prepare a show, artists coming together to admire each others work and artists traveling with me as I went from studio to studio so they could see the works of their friends and help me with translation and understanding.

I remember delicious meals that we shared together—even though some didn’t eat because they were fasting for Ramadan. I remember artists who were happy for their friends even if I chose their friends’ work instead of theirs.

The art community in Jogjakarta is a close one, closer than many families and much closer than many business groups I've seen in my previous work as a consultant. What I found in Jogjakarta was an artist community where people pull together and help each other. The volcano doesn’t change this. In fact, it's likely that this tragedy will bring people closer together. The connections among artists and the community will be what will help people heal. And artists will use this tragic event to create more art. But not yet.

Life First, Then Art

On a very different note, our gallery will have its first solo show and I’d like to invite anyone based in Japan (or just planning on visiting), to join us for the opening of Jun Ogata’s new Zen Garden Show on November 19 from 6-9 PM. We’ll show more than 40 of his works on canvas and paper, plus some small works from Agus Purnomo.

Bottom image by F H Mira / Flickr.