Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art

the Smart Museum, Chicago 2012
by Stephanie Smith

A leading figure within Indonesian art communities, Mella Jaarsma has helped build catalytic cultural institutions: in 1988, she and her husband Nindityo Adipurnomo founded the Cemeti Art House—a key site of creative production, display, and international dialogue within Indonesia—and she also helped launch a related project, the Indonesian Visual Art Archive. Food and meals have figured in many projects at Cemeti and also feature prominently in Jaarsma’s own work. Notably, she has used meals within projects like Hi Inlander (1998–1999) and The Feeder (2003), both part of a larger series of works in which Jaarsma used contemporary performance art, traditional practices, and current ethnic and political tensions within Indonesian society as points of departure for elaborate costumes made of materials such as goat leather, fish skins, frog legs, and chicken feet.

Feast features several of Jaarsma’s works that use meals to address cooperation and cross-cultural respect. She began to explore these topics in the aftermath of the repressive former president Suharto’s resignation in 1998—a time of instability that included violent riots against Indonesians of ethnically Chinese heritage. Feast includes video documentation of a work that grew directly from these riots: Pribumi Pribumi (1998). In this performance, Jaarsma and other Western friends set up simple cooking stations along a Yogyakarta street and served Chinese food to passersby as a means to spark face-to-face dialogue about ethnic conflict. Pribumi Pribumi offers a culturally and politically specific counterpoint to the more open-ended I Eat You Eat Me (2002/2012) also featured in the exhibition. In this performance, Jaarsma invites participants to partner up—each selecting food for the other, donning a lightweight span of metal held between leather yokes, and then feeding one another. When worn, the sculpture temporarily binds the participants, creating an intimate, mutually supported table surface for this shared meal. For Feast, Jaarsma created a new iteration of this piece for six participants. She used one for a performance in Yogyakarta timed to coincide with the opening of Feast, while a copy of the original sculpture was used by a group of University of Chicago students at an eventorganized by the Smart’s Student Advisory Committee, and was then shown as a static object within the gallery. One participant, James Levinsohn, reflected on his shared meal: “In enacting Mella Jaarsma’s piece, I experienced feeding another person and being fed by another person for the first time in my adult life... [throughout the meal] one constant remained—the way the ritual of feeding and being fed articulates power relations… In Jaarsma’s piece, our proximity to those we have power towards makes us generous; one wishes this was the case more often outside of art.”[i][i] To further bring the work to life in Chicago, a copy of the original two-person version of I Eat You Eat Me was available in the Smart Museum’s café for visitors to use to feed each other in their own meal-performances.


[i][i] James Levinsohn https://blogs.uchicago.edu/feast/2012/02/i_eat_you_eat_me.html

Jaarsma Interview - Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art

At the Smart Museum, Chicago 2012
Artist Interviews


SMART: Describe your path as an artist and sources of inspiration for your work, either in or beyond the context of art. 

MJ: I have been living and working as an artist in Java, Indonesia since 1984. By choosing to live within a totally different culture, after having grown up in the Netherlands, I became more aware of the values and norms of my own cultural background. This process made me conscious of differences between cultures and also taught me how to identify these differences. What we consider to be reality comes to us by means of contrasts in experiences. Multiple and different dimensions have entered my art and art making processes since I became part of this hybrid society in Indonesia. What interests me most about Indonesian contemporary art is the great variety of developments and movements that interact with social and cultural circumstances. I am intrigued by the awareness of the function of an artist to use their position to provoke a dialogue within this society. Indonesian culture has a strong traditional background, a rather new capitalistic consumerism, and complex political tensions.

My work focuses on an awareness of these experiences—ideas about our own existence in a certain place in a particular world. My existence in the hybrid feudal society in Java, where I have to deal with stereotyped roles of a foreigner as post-colonialist and explorer, and where I communicate through art, is what still fascinates me. My work is also about positioning “the native” and “the ethnic” and the acknowledgement that these categories could be reversed, depending on their surroundings.


SMART: Tell us about Pribumi Pribumi and how it fits into your broader practice.  

MJ:  Everyone who confronts my work is coming at it from different backgrounds and cultures, dealing with highly personal sets of taboos and therefore experiencing the work in different ways. I want my work to relate to these specific audiences, to deal with some of their taboos and interpretations. This takes great sensitivity, and therefore I try to find ways to open up dialogue, rather than work in a more confrontational way. I am not looking for symbols to make a meaningful artwork, but I am searching for a phenomenological reality, like idioms, with visuals that speak for themselves. 

During the political and racial riots in 1998 in Indonesia, in the heat of ending the power of the Suharto regime, it didn’t make sense to stay working in a studio while the students were so brave to demonstrate and risk their lives. I decided to do a performance on the street after the stories appeared with what happened to the ethnic Chinese during the riots. Chinese are the black sheep of Indonesian society and in times of chaos like the riots in 1998, anger was reflected on this ethnic minority. The position of the Chinese in Indonesian society has its roots in the colonial era; the Chinese were the middlemen between the Dutch and the native Indonesians. They were the traders and got access to better education. 

During the riots in 1998, Chinese-owned shops were set on fire, and killings and rapes took place in Jakarta and Surakarta. In Yogyakarta, the city where I live, Chinese started to protect their shops from burning and demolition by putting signs on their closed doors that said:“Native shop owner,” or “Native Muslim shop owner.” I was shocked to see this racial outburst, and one and a half month after Suharto resigned, I decided to do a performance on the street. 

I looked for a way to communicate and open up a dialogue about what happened with the Chinese, and I decided to work with food. I used frog legs, because Chinese eat frog legs, and Muslim consider this delicacy to be unclean (haram), thus revealing different cultural perceptions. I created the performance Pribumi –Pribumi in which I invited friends—all foreigners who live in Yogyakarta—to fry frog legs along the street and serve the food to the public. I used the position of my “western” friends as we are also a minority, but admired—a position I used to trigger questions from the public.


SM: What does pribumi mean? 

MJ:  Pribumi means “native.” It’s also translated to mean “the first created from the earth” which is why I connected it to the frogs’ legs, because the frog is also the animal that goes from the sea to the land. That’s also why Muslims are not allowed to eat it; they see it as unclean since the animals go between the sea and the land. 


SMART:  What about the related series The Warrior, The Healer, The Feeder

MJ:  In this work three models wear cloaks made out of different materials, representing the inevitable connections across killing, healing and feeding. These three are sent as one package to the battlefront, supporting each other in the aim for surrendering the enemy, but pampering the people at the attached area at the same time by providing medicines and food. I made this work in 2003, when the U.S. went to Iraq and at the same time the Indonesian militaries went to Aceh, the northern province of Indonesia, “to settle” the independence movement there. 

The Warrior is made out of used military outfits that were worn by 16 Indonesian soldiers, mixed with seaweed to created a new warrior cloak. The lowest part with the seaweed hangs into a pan and is boiled into a soup that feeds the audience. The two other costumes are made out of natural medicines (The Healer) and squid (The Feeder), which are also boiled into soups to heal and feed the audience.


SMART: What about I Eat You Eat Me

MJ: I Eat You Eat Me is an interesting way to find out about human character. I usually explain the concept of the work to two people who walk into a restaurant or food court: the eating performance is about having an intimate dinner which I describe as “going into the skin of the other” in which a hanging table connects the two people. By creating this situation with the performance and the hanging tables, I ask them to think about the other, the taste of the other. You also have to order the food for the other (without talking about it first), and then when the food arrives, you feed the other. It’s very intimate. You have to open your mouth for the other and the other has to feed you with the rhythm of your eating.


SMART: When did this project begin? 

MJ: It started in 2002. I first I made it for an exhibition in Thailand. The curator got the  idea to do it at a certain restaurant in Bangkok called Eat Me. It was a fancy restaurant so we had four of these hanging tables in between their tables, and when people arrived at the restaurant I just asked them if they would be willing to join the performance. Some wanted to do it and some didn’t so it was interesting to have that mixture. I also made a deal with the cook so when people joined the performance they would get a free dinner. We had special menus so we created six different types of food and they could choose from that.


SMART: How did people respond to the performance? 

MJ: People were quite excited actually; they thought it was a great idea. Some people found it difficult to really think about what the other would like although they had known each other for a long time. It’s very hard not to start from your own taste. Some people just order ice cream because they want ice cream themselves. But they’re not allowed to discuss the order. You have to try and imagine what the other wants to eat. 

You also have to balance. The bib is hanging from your neck and then goes to the table to the neck of the other. So it’s all about balance as well, so you cannot be very aggressive. You have to sit quite still so some people found it difficult to be relaxed. I hoped people would try to look more closely into the other and also to think less about themselves. 


SMART: Tell us about the new version of the piece that you are making for Feast

MJ: For Feast, it’s an experiment to make the table for six people. As a university museum there are many young people, and I hope by being in groups of six the students will feel connected and want to exchange not only food but also ideas and discussion. Simultaneously with the exhibition in Chicago I want to do a performance in Yogyakarta, to see how it works. I’m going to do the six-person performance in the same restaurant I did the other performance three years ago. It’s a place where many people gather.  There are students but also travelers, musicians, artists; everybody comes there. I won’t prepare who will participate ahead of time. I think it’s interesting to see who comes to the restaurant and ask if they are willing to participate.


SMART:  How would you describe the role of the meal in your practice? 

MJ: I use food mainly as an idiom to communicate: through a confrontation with local food traditions, cultural differences can truly be experienced. In particular, meat consumption often creates reactions, from unfamiliar snacks as frog legs or caterpillars to more extreme examples such as cannibalism. Exchanging ideas about food and eating behaviors can open up a space for understanding personal, racial, religious and ethnic differences. 

Food is always very important not only in starting a dialogue but also in creating a feeling of comfort. Indonesia is one of the biggest Muslim countries in the world and most people don’t drink alcohol. So food is very important. If you go somewhere there’s always food on the table and people who want to invite you to eat. You have to eat a lot because it’s an honor to the ones who invited you. It’s not very polite to refuse food. It’s connected with the hospitality of people here. 


SMART:  Do questions about hospitality figure into your process or thinking? 

MJ: When I create a work, I often start thinking from the perspective of the audience. How can I create a situation of maximum connection? I often think about how to create a situation in which the public is participating in the work, or at least is open to new ideas. That’s more important to me than being provocative, which may create a distance. It also has to do with the situation in Indonesia. Living here is very much about harmony. It’s not as much about finding the truth; it’s much more about how to balance. People are not very confrontational. 

Hospitality with food can be a starting point for the public or for a certain community to be involved or connected to my work, depending on the aim of my project.The setting in a gallery space or at any other venue like a restaurant is also important, again depending on the idea / concept. 

For example, for the Asia Pacific Triennale 3 in 1999 at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia, I exhibited four leather cloaks from frog legs, chicken feet, kangaroo skins and fish skins. The different animal skin cloaks were worn during the opening by people from different ethnic origins and with different skin colors—a Sri Lankan, indigenous Australian, Japanese and white Australian. I also designed three kitchen tables and offered the meat of these four animals with a variety of spices to be cooked by the international public. I set up this happening with the idea that preparing food and eating together opens up understanding of each other’s cultures and stimulates communication. 


SMART: What does it mean to you to be included in a show called Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art

MJ: I love the theme, and it’s good to be explored in a specific exhibition, because food is such an important medium with great impact and has the strength of everybody’s interest (look at the popularity of Master Chef and Hell’s Kitchen). I hope it will show different perspectives and contexts of food, and I hope that my contribution is a specific one, relating food to other discourses.


Truth, Lies and Senses

Lawangwangi ARTSociates
Bandung, December 2012
By Enin Supriyanto


Body, Covers — If there was something essential that we could associate with Mella Jaarsma’s last two decades of work, that would certainly be the human body. This is inclusive of her work Pralina-Fire Altar, which she made for the people of Munduk village in Ubud, Bali in 1993, up until her most recent work, Animals Have No Religion/Indra I, which was exhibited at ArtJog in July, 2012. 

The bodies in Mella’s works during this time are human bodies which she places in tense situations. They act as gathering places for various tensions ranging from issues of self-identity to crowdedness, or even to the turbulences of everyday social relations. Mella’s works start out from the care and sensitivity she applies to her observations of the various social situations around her, or to the observations she has made on dedicated trips. This kind of attention is the anchor that connects the themes of her works with real-world social issues. While concurrently using materials and forms that are unconventional in the visual arts, she constructs new imagery for the bodies present in her works. 

Mella has previously presented the human body in a number of covers and outfits, made of different objects and materials ranging from preserved animal skins to metal sheet. She has also placed the human body under the cover of structures that resemble small houses, or temporary shelters. Though her works always carry a theme or narrative aspect rooted in a specific social reality, formally and visually the works actually reject any single, definite position. This transformative characteristic evolves from works that are at one time silent as a pile of objects in a space, momentarily becoming part of an event, as a device that behaves performatively and interactively. Then, at another time, the work becomes a combination of form and matter that builds and fills the space on its own. An installation. Elements of this kind are present in the latest series of works by Mella Jaarsma which will be seen in this solo exhibition of hers. 

Mella’s latest works still revolve around the human body. These days, however, most of her attention is directed to matters regarding the senses; the basic and common potential of the human body to know itself and the world around it. These works deliberately bring us to the perennial matters that have been the subject of thought and discussion among thinkers, philosophers, scientists, religious scholars and others: intelligence, reason, human self-awareness. What if the capability of our senses, our human sensory experience – the body’s mainstay in knowing itself and the world – turns out to be easily deceived and deceiving and can no longer be relied upon to lead us to the altar of “truth”. 


Quotes on Senses — On Monday, 17 September 2012, before her trip to the Netherlands, Mella Jaarsma sent me an e-mail. She wrote to tell me about the length of her trip. There, she also invited me to continue our communication and discussion—via email—of the theme and plans for her exhibition here at Lawangwangi. At the end of her email, Mella began our discussion by quoting a Hindu priest, the Indian thinker Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902):

 The senses cheat you day and night. (Swami Vivikandanda) 

That quote immediately reminded me of René Descartes (1596-1650), the premier empiricist in modern (Western) philosophy. I replied to Mella’s email with the following:

(…) The senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once. (Descartes, Meditation on First Philosophy)

How curious that two thinkers separated by centuries, so unlike in their socio-cultural backgrounds, could arrive at a similar line of thinking: that the human senses cannot be depended upon to deliver us to the “Truth”. Certainly, we now know exactly that the statements by these two thinkers flow to different conclusions. Swami Vivekananda, followed the line of his thought to arrive at a typically Eastern wisdom: to prescribe self-control over the body and the senses, so that one may be able to reach an “Eternal Truth”. Meanwhile, Descartes prescribed us to examine anything our senses might communicate, by using our reason and logic to arrive at the “Truth”. 

This email exchange of quotes then sparked a discussion between Mella and me, until we arrived at the main, underlying theme of this exhibition: the senses. 

This text is not to provide further explanation about this exhibition, or the works contained therein. [1] What I can offer is a set of quotes, fragments and excerpts from various sources, which I hope may extend discussions about the senses as wide as possible. [2] Here and there, as I see fit, I will include my own brief annotations, alongside the quotes mentioned here. These various quotes and annotations should actually act as an invitation for you to enter into and become involved in our discussion, as you witness and ‘experience’ Mella’s works in this exhibition. I feel the need to reiterate once more: experience; because, phenomenologically, the human sensory experiences are usually not fragmented into individual parts, neither are they isolated from one another. Instead, they are together, even simultaneously, multisensory. Also, in some of the newest research and studies regarding the neuroplastic nature and the working of the human brain, it is believed that regions once thought to be specifically assigned to receive data from one sensory faculty can actually receive and process the information and data from other senses. Our brain is polysensory. 

Even so, you will quickly realize that most of these annotations and quotes are only about one particular sense: the sense of sight, the eyes. This is a deliberate act on my part, certainly to emphasize that the framework or the region we are currently discussing and pursuing has a clear boundary: sight, eyes, the visual. We call them seni rupa, art or visual art. This is a type of human endeavor that—until now—is still targeted for and can only be enjoyed by sighted people, not the blind. At the same time, Mella’s works will actually invite you to question this ever-visual boundary. Certainly, I am here to invite you to expand your horizon to enjoy—or experience—these works within a certain discussion about sensory experiences, that is not limited to the visual. 

Then, at the close of this discussion, I will invite you to enter into an evermore abstract contemplation, about sensory experiences and reasons, about intuition (rasa) and thought, about the body and soul. 


William Paley (1743 – 1805) was an English theologian and thinker. Through his most celebrated book, Natural Theology (1803), he communicated his exposition about the universe and organisms. From Paley’s arguments and exposition, we are now acquainted with the analogy of the ‘watchmaker’. As though witnessing the complexity of a watch’s movement, Paley concluded that there must be a ‘Great Designer’, the artificer, who has created the complex universe and organisms found inside it. Borrowing and reversing this analogy, biologist Richard Dawkins published his book The Blind Watchmaker in 1986, to counter Paley’s “almighty watchmaker”. He put forward an exposition based on the Darwinian principles of natural selection and adaptation of organisms. Darwinian tenets view that the complexity of life is merely the result of such processes. Dawkins opened his book by explaining the complexity of anatomy and the way the human eyeball works.

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker).

Among humans, attraction begins from a distance, through the eyes. The remaining senses, such as smell, come into play with closer contact. (Isabel Allende, Aphrodite, A Memoir of Senses


In the New Testament, there are stories of Divine miracles, embodied in the acts of Jesus: the blind can see, the lame stands and walks again. 

Now, through various research and experiments in neurology, some scientists believe that the nerves in our brains are not merely complex neural networks working in a fixed/static group or unit. Instead, they change, and adapt, to different situational and conditional demands. The human brain’s neural pathways are plastic, neuroplastic. With this comprehension, a number of scientists have tried to utilize the plasticity of our brain to overcome various acute impairments in sight, balance, and other motor skills.

Norman Doidge, M.D., has traced the development of these research and experiments, and has complied new discoveries about how our brain works in his book The Brain that Changes Itself (2007). Prefacing his book, he wrote of his experience when meeting some scientists who were, or are still involved in the fields of (cerebral) neuroplasticity: 

In the course of my travels I met scientist who enabled people who had been blind since birth to begin to see, another who enabled the deaf to hear; I spoke with people who had had strokes decades before and had been declared incurable, who were helped to recover with neuroplastic treatment; I met people whose learning disorders were cured and whose IQs were raised; I saw evidence that it is possible for eighty-year-olds to sharpen their memories to function the way they did when they were fifty-five. I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and traumas. I spoke with Nobel laureate who were hotly debating how we must rethink our model of the brain now that we know it is ever changing.

One of the scientists he met, Paul Bach-y-Rita, a neuroscientist at the forefront of neuroplastic research and experimental treatments, was able to develop a device that can convey visual data to the blind via the tongue and skin (not eyes/sight), thus enabling the person to “see” again. He stated: 

“We see with our brain, not with our eyes.”

In the midst of a bustling Indonesian art market a few years ago, someone once said: “Indonesian collectors evaluate artworks not with their eyes, but with their ears”. 

In relation to [cerebral] neuroplasticity, this statement may not be entirely wrong. It is commonly known that the blind will sharpen, or heighten, his sense of hearing—far above the average seeing human’s ability—to recognize the situations around him.


Visual Cortex: Part of the human brain that receives and processes information from the eyes. Also known by its technical name: Brodmann Area 17—based on a ‘map’ of the human brain, first conceived in the early 20th century by the German neurologist / anatomy researcher, Korbinian Brodmann. 


The following invective—used by the Javanese people—often conveys a person’s exasperation with people who are thought to see or evaluate carelessly, who draw hasty conclusions, and act rashly without thinking things through: Matamu!! (lit. Your Eyes!)


S. Sudjojono—as though continuing the Kantian concept of “the conscious subject”—supposed that what an artist sees must still be processed by the “soul”, so that the artist may arrive at an ability to express his sightly-experiences into a work of art:


To be clearer: suppose a painter decides that he wants to paint a bird. The painter must look at the bird with the intervention of his eyes. Through his eyes, his soul is left with an impression of the bird, then it undergoes an internal psychological process. Only after this process is completed, can he paint with the intervention of his hands. This is the way: bird—eye—soul. Soul—hand—image of a bird. 

Although the eyes have a similar function to the lens of a camera, this does not mean that our soul is just a dark room, surely? — (S. Sudjojono, Menuju Corak Seni Lukis Persatuan Indonesia Baru [lit. Towards a new style of a United Indonesian Painting])


The connection between reason, soul, and sensory experience often places human senses as subordinate to the others: it must be constantly tested and checked by reason, controlled by a disciplined way of life, even compelled to embark upon an ascetic lifestyle, as exercised by certain circles. All of these are intended to ‘cleanse’ the body in order to become united with the Divine spirit lying inside the human self. 


Optical art is a method of painting concerning the interaction between illusion and picture plane, between understanding and seeing. (John Lancaster, Introducing Op Art


Optical art deliberately utilizes a variety of illusive forms to trick our eyes. Along the way, in the realm of Psychology research, a diverse array of visual illusions is used to show common tendencies found in the easily-tricked human visual perceptions.












Bindi, or tilak: Indian women tend to beautify themselves with the addition of a red dot or circle on their forehead, exactly between both eyebrows. This sign is believed to have the powers to protect against evil. The placement of the bindi and the shape of the bindi are often connected to the meditative teaching that aims to focus one’s life energy (kundalini) on a person’s third eye. This eye can see within, to the place where people can find their identities. 


Hindu cosmology about the third eye, seems to be connected to the one’s rasa (in this case, essence). In their study about art and the human brain, V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein stated thus:

Hindu artists often speak of conveying the rasa, or ‘essence’, of something in order to evoke a specific mood in the observer. But what exactly does this mean? What does it mean to ‘capture the very essence’ of something in order to ‘evoke a direct emotional response’? The answer to these questions, it turns out, provides the key to understand- ing what art really is. Indeed, as we shall see, what the artist tries to do (either con- sciously or unconsciously) is to not only capture the essence of something but also to amplify it in order to more powerfully activate the same neural mechanisms that would be activated by the original object. (V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, The Science of Art A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience, Journal of Consciousness Studies, No. 6-7, 1999.)


Did S. Sudjojono not express the same issue, only in a different way?


Jim Supangkat once elaborated upon rasa in Javanese culture, in connection to the ‘moral’ contents found within works by Indonesian artists: 

In Javanese ethics, there is no tendency to look for an absolute, eternal truth (in the philosophical sense). Instead its fundamental premise is the discussion of ‘rightness’ within the problematic of good and bad. 

This search of rightness, which tends to explore the tensions between good and bad, is based on rasa (sensibility) and akal budi (wisdom, prudence). The result is a sophisticated way of feeling and understanding rightness, in depth, and not just the sense of knowing what is good or bad, right or wrong. — (Jim Supangkat, Upside-down Mind: The Art of Heri Dono, Prince Claus Fund Journal #10a) 


This almost essentialistic view of the Javanese rasa can also be seen as a problematic of occupying and behaving in a social environment. Compare Jim Supangkat’s views above with the observations and analysis of Niels Mulder—who wrote about the practice of mysticism in a particular Javanese community (kejawen)—on the same issue: 

Often Javanese juxtapose rasa and ordinary common sense (nalar; akal), or the instrument for understanding the phenomenal world and its mundane affairs. Such rationality, though, cannot reveal the essence of the phenomenal world; this can only grasped by the personal intuitive inner feeling. 

Up to this point, both Jim Supangkat and Niels Mulder are still on the same vein regarding rasa. However, in a different part of his examination, Niels Mulder stressed upon the following: 

In the kejawen frame of mind, rationality always combines with intuition, it is rasa-thinking grounded in the recognition that there is always something nonexplicit and irrational within almost every phenomenon and experience.

Javanese reasoning, in contrast, is more inductive, analyzing experience and necessity while grasping the essence, the rasa phenomena intuitively, that is to say directly, without tortuous theoretical construction and tedious research. Perhaps, this is one reason, too, why science fails to flourish in Indonesia and why there is little indigenous cultural input as far as the social science branches are concerned.

Systematic, disciplined abstraction is hard to comprehend, and so truth remains derivable from experience and pleasant speculation. — (Niels Mulder, Mysticism in Java, Ideology in Indonesia, 2005). 

Views and thoughts on how a person can, or as best he can, work/develop his sensory experiences and abilities to achieve a “Divine” knowledge and experience is wildly yet beautifully revealed in one of the classics of Javanese literature: Serat Centhini. Due to its wild nature, this manuscript seems to have been set aside or distanced from other Javanese literary manuscripts considered nobler and grander.

In her plaintive preface, Elizabeth D. Inandiak tried to explain the reluctance of many people in Java to once again read and review this extraordinary literary work, written at towards the end of the 19th century, in the Palace of Surakarta: 

(…) for some Javanologists, Serat Centhini is too pure a work to be translated. Meanwhile, other experts see Centhini as entirely soiled. Therefore, it is apparently either lofty spirituality or depraved lust that has deterred the translation of this tome, so worthy of respect.

 Such is despite the reasoning held by the writer of Serat Centhini, Anom Amengkunegara III, where this paradox is imperatively needed to achieve Ilmu Kasumparnaan (lit. the Knowledge of Perfection): 

“We must recognize evil at the threshold of our spiritual road” — (Elizabeth D. Inandiak, Centhini, Kekasih yang Tersembunyi [Lit. Hidden Beloved], 2008)

Serat Centhini is certainly filled with exposures of the wildness of humanity that listens to the desires of their bodies, following the siren song of their senses to an empty border, in their attempt to arrive at something ‘divine’ within themselves. 

If not subordinated, sensory experiences and abilities can then be placed in a balanced situation alongside the abilities of reason: such is an ideal supposition about a human’s ability.

In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran penned his verses on Reason and Passion:


Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield;

upon which your reason and your judgment wage war,

against your passion and your appetite.

Your reason and your passion are,

the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.

If either your sails or your rudder be broken,

you can but toss and drift

or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.

For reason, ruling alone,

is a force confining,

and passion, unattended,

is a flame that burns to its own destruction.—(Kahlil Gibran, Sang Nabi, Pustaka Jaya, 1981) 

The senses are and are not of this world. By means of them, poetry traces a bridge between seeing and believing. By that bridge, imagination is embodied and bodies turn into images. — (Octavio Paz, The Double Flame, Essays on Love and Eroticism.)

Like poetry, Mella’s works are like bridges that connect the senses and our consciousness, providing physical figures for the imagination, changing bodies into a series of images; providing our sensory experiences with the challenges of shapes and forms.


Enin Supriyanto | © 2012

[1] To follow various reviews on Mella’s works thus far, please refer to the book by Agung Hujatnikajennong & Mella Jaarsma (ed.): Mella Jaarsma “The Fitting Room”, Selasar Sunaryo Artspace, Cemeti Art House, 2009.

[2] I do not encourage readers and visitors to Mella’s current exhibition to treat these quotes, fragments, and annotations as a sequential, ordered flow of thought. Each of the annotated segments can be treated as a stand-alone/individual part, or as connected with other parts through random connections. Imagine that you are about to begin a “coffee shop talk” (or ngalor ngidul as the Javanese would say). To that end, you may take whichever annotation or quote to start your discussion that would touch upon those regarding the senses or sensory experiences.

Animals Have No Religion Series 1 and 2

By Eva McGovern

Mella Jaarsma reveals her ongoing exploration of social identities through four elaborately constructed costumes in Animals Have No Religion modeled live during the opening of Absence. Her silent but visually rich sentinels lure and hypnotize viewers to interrogate methods of reassurance encouraged by religion and ritual. Through a characteristically complex system of objects, material and meaning she activates and questions the need for protection in a fragile world as well humanity’s relationships to animals and ancient rituals. Inspired by the religious context of the Philippines observed during her month long residency with Manila Contemporary Jaarsma interrogates and reconfigures the cultural idioms and assumptions around her to create powerful performative presences in the gallery.

Audiences are a pivotal concern for Jaarsma, who as a Dutch national, has functioned as an insider/outsider in her adopted home of Yogyakarta for the past 30 years. These notions of distance and intimacy, of the individual and community from a general and autobiographical approach hint at how Jaarsma has negotiated her own position from foreigner to adopted local in Indonesia. Exploring ideologies around identity as a performed and shifting concept she meticulously creates elaborate sculptural costumes made from a variety of organic and man made materials that look at notions of entrapment, refuge and contemplation.

Animals Have No Religion Series 1 use black coral or akar bahar as it is called in Bahasa Indonesia to produce an intricate construct for spiritual questioning. Black coral, the skeleton of a type of coral found in shallow waters in the tropical waters of Indonesia and the Philippines has been traditionally used by fishermen to ward off evil spirits. Jaarsma’s costume attaches multiple long and undulating pieces onto utility belts to create an entangled shield for her barechested models. Her black tendrils were bought outside the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene or Quiapo Church in Quiapo and in this instance are re-visioned to act as a type of conduit not to repel but receive and transmit energies from the heavens, further emphasized by her inclusion of satellite dishes and radio antenna. This talismanic ritual is not a specific quote from a particular religion but rather evolving out of ancient human histories that revered natural and animal spirits.

Animals Have No Religion Series 2 develops this concept even further by presenting curious human-animal entities. Sensual red leather has been meticulously sewn together with very long voluminous sleeves. However instead of arms, surreal wooden feet emerge giving the appearance of four legs.  Bringing her characters back down to earth Jaarsma reveals the ancient practice of Animism or animal worship by numerous early human cultures. Presenting a type of devolution or merging with animals she provokes audiences to question primitive beliefs that are now in stark contrast to the superiority of humanity as espoused through organized religion.

During the opening night of Absence Jaarsma’s four costumes were activated with human models. The artist herself also performed and coordinated silent posturing and curious interactions with audiences. Light and shadow (a continuing fascination for the artist) also featured where Jaarsma slowly revealed through the removal and consuming shadows of animal shapes projected onto a panel behind her work.  Made out of pieces of dried mango that covered the entire plate of the overhead projector at the beginning of the performance it was only through their removal and consumption by the artist herself and those offered to audiences that their shapes were revealed. By eating these beasts Jaarsma questions the animal nature inside all of us whilst her silent figures slowly moved and waited in the gallery. The strength of Jaarsma’s work is in the various exchanges and transferences that takes place both during and after her performances. Her performers become both objects and protagonists, symbols and provocateurs. A combination of their human physicality and Jaarsma's constructed artifices connects us to intangible human emotions and anxieties about wild and uncivilized times as her figures move in and out of audiences who choose to engage or ignore them. During the exhibition, only the costumes remain as silent reminders of the performance itself. Without their human counterparts, they become traces from a specific time and timelessness or a residue of Jaarsma's exploration of the confluence of material and immaterial ideas and objects.