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Arus Balik - From below the wind to above the wind and back again
Group Exhibition NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore
Date: 03.22, 2019 - 06.23, 2019

Artists: Melati SURYODARMO 麦拉蒂·苏若道默 | 

NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore is pleased to present Arus Balik – From below the wind to above the wind and back again, an exhibition project that initiated from a conversation between Belgian curator Philippe Pirotte and Jakarta-based artist Ade Darmawan. Reconsidering Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s epic book Arus Balik (1995), which could be translated into English as a “turning of the tide,” the eponymous exhibition takes the novel as a starting point to reflect on perspectival shifts in geopolitical, cultural, social, religious, and natural spheres.

In his fictional account, Pramoedya elaborates on the weakening of the maritime culture of Javanese kingdoms in the early 16th century, the progressive Islamisation, and the beginning of Portuguese occupation on parts of the now Malay and Indonesian peninsula and archipelago. Important is that Pramoeda’s reversal of perspective as a meta-geographical impulse is comparable to the notion of the “inverted telescope” Benedict Anderson advances in his seminal book Spectre of Comparisons (1998): as a non-Eurocentric method of comparison in which for example Portugal is viewed from the standpoint of Southeast Asia, as through an inverted telescope, which causes a kind of vertigo. Pramoedya suggests that the final decline of the Majapahit empire, and the “change from traditional independence to colonial possession,” was largely caused by the different Javanese kingdoms having gradually turned their backs to the sea.

The participating artists expand on this prompt through installations, sculptures, films, performances, and texts, both existing works as well as new commissions. Ade Darmawan re-read Arus Balikwith a special focus on how protagonists use natural resources, and will create a distilling dispositive with alkaline water from the straits, recalling that all the scrambling for the control of the archipelago was about the extraction of ore and goods. ila questions what it means to be Boyanese, Buginese, Minangkabau, or Javanese through encounters with Singapore residents now conflated as Malay. Their testimonies will be written on her body and wither, while exposed to salty water and weather on reclaimed areas of Singapore island. Paradise Blueprint (2017), a wallpaper designed by Zac Langdon-Pole, based on a cyanotype photogram of the removed legs of a so-called “Bird of Paradise,” addresses the history of cultural exchange and mythology surrounding the birds native to Papua New Guinea. Lucy Raven creates silk paintings or monoprints, made by imprint of sedimentation in erosion tables, as scrim backdrops she uses for a forthcoming film-production, called Kongkreto, inspired by the 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines that finally chased off the Americans from Clark Airbase. Book-aficionado, artist, and writer Shubigi Rao delves into the stories related to the difficult conditions, but also extraordinary examples of solidarity Pramoedya faced on prison island Buru while writing Arus Balik. A new video-installation by Melati Suryodarmo, Dancing under the Black Sky (2019), traces the history behind Reog performances, an art form of resistance and criticism of Ponorogo people of East Java towards Bhre Kertabhumi, a Majapahit king who slowly lost his authority in the 15th century, before Islam became a major force in Demak and controlled the coastal region of Java.

The exhibition Arus Balik aims to imagine the implication of histories and politics in processes of transition, such as colonisation and decolonisation, or shifts in maritime power for people and ports below (the straits of Malacca, South China Sea, Java Sea, and further east) and above (the Indian Ocean and further West) the wind. Have the multiple colonisations in Southeast Asia alienated the people from the sea coast? Is it possible to attempt a return? The reversal of the colonial fact, the promise of reversal of a geo-political, -cultural, and social systems, initially embodied by the Bandung conference in 1955, caused Afro-American author Richard Wright to write that “it smacked of tidal waves, of natural forces.”

The accompanying public programmes further investigate the topics raised, including a conversation on Saturday, March 23, around the book Arus Balik and the reception of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s oeuvre. On Saturday, May 25, another conversation will focus on living with the sea and the history of the straits.

Arus Balik – From below the wind to above the wind and back again is NTU CCA Singapore’s response and contribution to this year’s nation-wide bicentennial commemorations that reflect on Singapore’s history since the arrival of the British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, considered the founder of modern Singapore.

Guest curated by Philippe Pirotte, Rector, Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste – Städelschule, and Director, Portikus, Frankfurt, and Visiting Professor (2018/19), MA Museum Studies and Curatorial Practices, School of Art, Design and Media, NTU.


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