I Love You (An Interview with Arahmaiani)
By : Iola Lenzi
Iola Lenzi: You started making visual art and scripting performances relating to the signs and symbols of Islam a few years after the events of 9/11. Can you explain firstly, what has motivated you to do this, and secondly, why you approach this complex subject in this specific way.
Arahmaiani: Firstly, since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and then especially in the aftermath of 9/11, the Western media has generally been negative in its construction of the imagery of Islam and Muslims. The assumptions that Muslims are terrorists and that Islam is a religion of violence have become pervasive. But these assumptions do not reflect reality. Indeed, a Gallup Poll based on tens of thousands of interviews with residents of more than 35 predominantly Muslim nations shows them to be quite false (cf. John L.Esposito and Dalia Mogahed,‘Who Speaks For Islam’ for a full analysis of this poll). In reality most Muslims do not tolerate any kind of violence, particularly in the name of religion or Allah, and most do not hate Westerners. By manipulating signs and symbols, Islam’s public image in non-Muslim societies has too long been dominated by the false suggestion of fright and terror so my work aims to correct this negative image. As for your second question, because in the Islamic world text has traditionally been separated from image, the result has been the dominance of a rigid scriptural interpretation that I feel it is important to challenge. This is what my art is tackling in its use of text.
IL: You and I have worked together on numerous occasions and I note that your expressive methodology and the themes you explore are very different according to the audience you are addressing. When you make art for an Indonesian audience, you talk about certain things, whereas when you make art for viewers outside Indonesia, you investigate other subjects. Can you explain why you do this.
A: I think my approach to art is quite clear: whatever the context, I want to bring problems to the table, to provoke discussion and thought, to interfere with debate, and to participate in social processes. I have noticed that local problems and concerns can differ substantially from those in the broader, outside world, though sometimes they can also intersect and overlap. So if one wants to be effective addressing problems, then these need to be handled according to their specific nature and exigencies and so as an artist one needs to be aware of, and understand, this local-global tension.
IL: Many people would describe you as an activist artist, a political artist, because your work centres around issues that concern society. I think it can be argued that a great deal of art, if indirectly, has something to say about the world beyond the self. Can you explain why you think art is an appropriate tool for reaching out to people on such topics.
A: I think art can function as a catalyst in society if the market and politics do not interfere with it too much. Art is a form of communication that is open to possibilities and interpretation so art can bring things together, can provide a new perspective. This being said, art still has to stand as an autonomous discourse and narrative. When this is the case, art can then be an appropriate tool for reaching out to people. The term ‘ activist-artist’ may not be totally accurate in representing this kind of artist and activity. There may be a more appropriate term for this – I don’t know.
IL: On a related subject, do you think artists have a role to play using their voice to bring attention to the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, environmental problems etc…?
A: I think the artist is also a normal human being who needs a healthy kind of social or communal life besides working as an individual. Artists also live on this (wretched) earth. And most artists in this world are also relatively poor (especially those who come from the so-called third-world like myself). Once the artist has understood how the cultural industry is controlled by conglomerates and has recognized that the art world is not free from their grip, then the artist must re-think the function of art as well as her/his role in society too. Obviously the artist who is aware of her/his situation living on this (melting) planet will have to play a role using her/his voice to bring attention to problems we all have to deal with.
IL: Though your art over the years has consistently looked outward to the world, aiming to prod its audience into thinking more deeply about many things, it seems to me to have evolved in its approach in the last decade. Performances of the mid 1990’s were often provocative and polarizing, probably eliciting a strong and immediate reaction from the viewer. More recently however your material work and performances have struck me as more inclined to humour, probing perhaps deeper but more gently. They strike me as more thoughtful and less visually confrontational. Firstly do you agree with my analysis of this evolution. Secondly, if you do agree, do you think this development reflects evolving realities in Indonesia or rather, a shift in your own life.
A: Yes I agree with your analysis. As an artist with the approach I have described and clarified above, and because I deal with problems and intentionally want to be involved in social processes, I have had to develop different kinds of work strategies for different times and different situations. Provocation and humor are methods that can apply when needed and necessary. But the deeper understanding of the nature of the problems is the aim. My ultimate goal in participating in social processes is to provoke change: change to a better situation, to a more human and more just system. I don’t know if this has to do with evolving realities in Indonesia – I’m not sure. Indonesia has been undergoing a democratic process over the last 10 years (we call it the Reform Era). There have been some improvements such as freedom of the press and the elimination of the military’s involvement in politics. However, there have also been changes for the worse, such as for example an increase in corruption and environmental destruction. Probably this evolution has more to do with the shift in my life and my creative methods themselves.
IL: Some curators have said that socio-political art in Indonesia is a fashion and that now this fashion is more or less dead. I disagree and think that it is not the socio-political content that has disappeared, but rather the way of expressing it. Looking around in Yogyakarta however, one does see a lot of art that appears to have little meaning, social or otherwise. What do you make of the current art-world situation in Indonesia.
A: I think that those who see so-called political art as a fashion are using market parameters to judge – you know when people describe ‘ style’ or’ genre’ in the context of the market, the terms reference fashion. But those who are dealing with real social- political problems (which unfortunately never cease to exist) will continue to make political art whether the market or curators say it’s fashionable or not! Probably art with political content in Yogya is not as prominent as before but it is not disappearing. Last year I curated a show including 34 young artists involved in dealing with particular issues relating to “10 Years of Reform Era”. Well, those young artists developed their own way of expressing these issues, which is exciting! Certainly it is true that there is more mindless and meaningless art in Yogya now and that this sells well in the market. But this doesn’t mean that all Yogya artists are turning to this mindless activity for the sake of money. And this is also true more generally with Indonesian artists.
IL: For the past while you have been using the Malay world’s variation of Arabic script, called Jawi, for your performances and installations. Because of Jawi’s interesting ability to phonetically reproduce the sounds of other languages, you have used the script to deliver a variety of messages in a number of different places around the world. China,
Australia, the Middle East, Germany, Japan….
Firstly, can you explain what motivated you to first see Jawi as a tool for art making. Also, why you feel Jawi manages to connect the world of Islam to the non-Muslim world. Please describe in a little detail what you have done with Jawi in these various countries or any others. Finally, give some idea of the reaction the work has had from the people there.
A: As well as Jawi embodying an important cultural heritage that is still alive in Southeast Asia’s Muslim world, it is also living proof of flexible and hybrid cultural practices in the Muslim world. In numerous cases Jawi is also used to compose a form or stand in as a constellation to produce an image (like a good Wayang figure for example). In recent years, the script has been abused in two different camps. On one hand I think the radical Muslim is trying to monopolize the interpretation of religious texts and banish images from texts; on the other, the Western media also distorts the meaning of this symbolic form of script and tries to impose the idea that it suggests terror and fright for example. So if one believes either camp, there are no other possible interpretation and we are all (Muslims and non-Muslims) stuck in this trap of reductive interpretation! But Jawi as a creation of Southeast Asian Muslims, by definition provides the opportunity to connect different worlds of culture because of its interesting ability to phonetically reproduce the sounds of other languages. What I have done with Jawi so far is to essentially find new possibilities for its functional form of esthetics, using it to bridge different cultures or to stimulate associations and thoughts. The reactions I have had so far, from both the Muslim and non-Muslim world, are positive. What people in the various places see in the work is probably quite different but so far the strategy is working well and producing fascinating results!
IL: Moving on to the new work you are putting up at Esplanade that you call I LOVE YOU (after Joseph Beuys Social Sculpture), can you please elaborate on your choice of words for the new work. The title is ‘I love you’, a phrase of universal connotation but that has a number of meanings according to context. What do you intend here in Singapore.
Also, can you explain whether, in making it, you considered in any detail the specific Singapore audience you were addressing-. Singapore as you will remember, experienced serious racial tensions in the years after independence and as a result, has enacted pro-active legislation protecting the rights of minorities. Singapore, probably uniquely, boasts four official languages that include English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Islam is of course a minority religion in Singapore. Tell me how your new work aims to enter the specific Singapore context.
A: Yes, a sentence such as ‘I Love You’ is universal but introduced into a more specific context, can also have a more specific meaning. While the sentence and installation title ‘I Love You (After Joseph Beuys Social Sculpture)’ emphasizes a very specific context, so the combinations of Jawi, the flags, the formal aspect of the scipt itself, and the performance I will present at the exhibition opening will, I hope, alter the work’s perceived meaning, provoke thought, and trigger the imagination. The Islamic teaching I have had from my parents and ancestors puts a great deal of emphasis on LOVE. It is an important principle and loving one’s neighbors as well as one’s family is considered obligatory. I know that the Muslims in Singapore are in the minority and mostly Malay. I think the pro-active legislation protecting the rights of minorities is what everybody needs. In this globalized world people are migrating from one place to another willingly or due to economic forces so there are minorities everywhere and they have to be protected! I hope this piece of work will says something to Muslims and Singaporeans in general – something about equality, about kindness, compassion, and respect and solidarity for others (especially the minority).
IL: Please talk a little about your reference to ‘Joseph Beuys Social Sculpture’. How does that artist’s work tie in with yours.
A: I used to study in Holland and the work of Beuys was my focus since I saw close connections between his approach to art and mine. Though the specific German context is essential to understanding Beuys, I found in his concepts many similarities with Asian views – especially in Beuys’ spiritual interpretation of nature. Further, Beuys’ activist component, his ‘extended definition of art’ fits with and confirms my goals in art making, as explained above.
IL: You are planning a performance alongside your new installation. Though performances tend to be spontaneous, can you divulge something of its content and the role you expect the Singapore audience to play in it.
A: My performance will be a kind of participating performance with the audience encouraged to take part. The audience and I will experience being together in spirit, in a state of sisterhood and brotherhood, carrying and protecting the values necessary to live on this earth justly and humanly by marching and waving flags together.
Yogyakarta, 25 April 2009