'Taking Cover' by Adeline Ooi, 2006

Taking Cover

Defining Mella Jaarsma is a complex business, as she cannot be fitted into any neat category. She stands on a unique threshold, belonging to Indonesia and Netherlands, neither authentically Indonesian nor Dutch. Moving against the grain, her art education brought her from the Netherlands to Indonesia on a personal exploration of shadow and light. She has now called Yogyakarta home these past twenty years, in the meantime establishing herself as a moving force in Indonesia’s contemporary art scene. This historical city is a locus of conflicting forces. It is feudal yet egalitarian, a product of colonial powers yet anti-colonial, urban yet closely rural. It straddles the traditional and the contemporary, at once the heartland of traditional Javanese culture and centre of contemporary Indonesian art. 

Against the epic backdrop of Central Java’s history and memory, Mella has had to face her fair share of marginalization and prejudices. She has had to negotiate the tensions within this society, vilified for her “white otherness” in an environment weighed down by strife, still coming to terms with issues of identity, racial hegemony and religious hatred. The process of un-learning and re-learning a new way of life as she shed her Dutch upbringing would have been displacing and overwhelming; but the attempt to belong to Indonesia would have been a greater challenge.

Mella’s time in Yogyakarta has taught her to look beyond the superficial layers of things. From the height of Suharto’s New Order regime to post-Reformasi, her art has been molded by historical turning points in her surrounding environment. She works from a unique perspective - that of an insider/outsider, in between worlds, at once detached from and involved in that environment. Her work reflects the tensions of her surrounding and simultaneously describes the context/s in which these tensions are encountered, experienced and produced. They communicate on various cultural levels, intending to provoke, extend into wider issues, challenging viewpoints and inviting multiple interpretations. Mella’s elaborate costume installations (usually made out of animal skins, horns, etc.) adopt the notion of garments as an outward or symbolic expression. They are loaded metaphors of race, sexuality, authenticity and origins. They deconstruct identities; unearth deeper underlying issues of cultural representation, questioning humanity, individualism, displacement and migration, the sacred and the profane. Austere and usually shroud-like, the costumes cover the body and face with openings to reveal the eyes or expose other body parts. 

The images adopted are direct and simplistic but stunning nonetheless. Read from the Muslim context, the image of the shroud, commonly associated with the jilbab, or the muslim veil, unleashes hypersensitive issues of belief, taboos and women’s rights. Her choice of materials has been carefully made to reinforce the dramatic impact of these key idioms in her work. Working with animal skins, horns, emblems and a wide range of other materials, these costumes are corporeal and charged, addressing identity issues such as ethnicity, class and gender politics. One of the most striking works in an exhibition called “Moral Pointers” (2002), “Shameless Gold”, made from naturally gold coloured cocoons from caterpillars that live in avocado and cashew nut trees (cricula trifenestrata helf), comments on material wealth and the extreme economic gaps within Indonesian society. It is associated with the moneyed rich and their big fancy gold cars, ostentatious watches and adornment. As the rich are often politically influential, gold also implies corruption, greed and nepotism, the underbelly of the country’s tangled political system. For the poor, or those from the lower classes, gold is seen as their only form of security. It is common practice among them to exchange their wages and earnings for gold, a liquid asset, in place of cash savings in the bank, which can be ‘unreliable’, as experienced during the 1997 economic crash when the value of the Rupiah plummeted.

“Who’s the Hunter? Who's the Killer? Who's the Feeder? And who's the Healer? “ These are the underlying questions which form the work “The Warrior” (2003). Consisting of three 'skins' titled “The Warrior” (made out of 16 Indonesian military uniforms), “The Feeder” (made from dried pungent ink fish and squids) and “The Healer”, (traditional Indonesian and Chinese medicinal herbs including seahorses and sea dragons), each costume is connected to a wok or pan and become ingredients of fortifying broth or soup, gently brewing, and later offered to the audience. In many ways, the interactive element in this body of work can be seen as a precursor to works such as “Shelter-Me” (2005). It seems fitting to address the concept of shelter in our current age of fear. “Refugee Only” and “The Shelter” series, developed in 2003 2004, relate to a time when mysterious plagues (SARS in particular) began to pose a widespread threat to Asia, and rancour in the Middle East was becoming further aggravated by conflicting responses towards the Iraqi war. Terrorism -- post 9/11, the continuing bombings in Bali and Jakarta, and around the world—had started to cast its ominous shadow worldwide. 

Our primordial instinct to seek shelter, physical and/or emotional, during such troubled times and the desire to hide away, to seek solace, to escape, avoid or slip away unnoticed is expressed through costumes which double as “flexible housings”. Made out of utility materials such as rubber sheets, leather straps, metal buckles, and waterproof canvas, they adopt the basic function of a roof above one’s head to protect us from the sun and the rain. They are minimal constructions required for protection, not yet a shape of a house, directly related to the proportions of the human body. The notion of shelter presupposes a sense of removal or detachment, solitude, implying a disengagement from the outside world, or perhaps sacrificing something for the sake of protection and security. By making enough space for one person only, and some are movable constructions, the costumes give the feeling that the person is confined within a certain spot. It tells us that this safe space or ‘wall’ which we build around ourselves can be confining and limiting. It has the ability to trap, to become claustrophobic, and suffocate as we become cut off from the rest of society. The security of this space closes in on us; we are made vulnerable by the very object that is meant to protect us. “Peranakan Shelter (Small)” and “Peranakan Shelter (Medium)” is the result of Mella’s experience in Singapore and Malaysia during her residency in Studio 106 (Singapore, 2003) and Rimbun Dahan (Malaysia, 2004). Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore’s shared Peranakan heritage becomes the key focus in these costumes. An upturned metal basin --usually used for holding water or as a communal rice bowl—doubles as a headgear, roof or helmet to keep the wearer safe. Meanwhile, batik common to all three countries, Chinese soup spoons, Buddhist beads and the image of the Laughing Buddha’s exposed belly –common among Taoists Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indonesians-- add an unusual twist to the shroud-like costumes. They are whimsical and kitschy, recalling costumes of agit-theatre, so commonly associated with Indonesian street protests in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. 

Looking connects us to Mella’s work; it pivots on the gaze and the “Other”. Her costumes are brought to life by models standing motionless beneath these “skins”. The compulsion to stare at them is overwhelming. Our eyes are inextricably drawn to them even if the quiet voice in us tells that it is rude to stare. It is difficult to detect who stands silently behind this shroud. His or her eyes give no clue. They are no longer instruments of vision, merely its object. The models are weakened by the inward gaze of others, as they stand immobile, frozen in their private thoughts. People regard and ignore them in the same way tourists do exotic attractions. Some approach with trepidation, too embarrassed to look yet too curious not to. Others cast a cursory glance and walk away, while some examine with utmost attention, prodding and poking, as though the person standing behind this costume is inanimate. 

“Shelter-Me” and “Citysins” (2005) marks a departure from Mella’s costume installations. It was first seen at CP Biennale 2005 and later at the YOKOHAMA 2005 International Triennale of Contemporary Art, combining performance and video, and installation. The CP Biennale version ‘Citysins’ consists of an installation of several ‘shelters’ common to the Indonesian landscape such as makeshift roadside homes/shelters, huts and “warung” (street stalls). Tarpaulin, wood bark, zinc sheets and recycled Javanese wood are the primary materials for construction. These “shelters” are no longer shaped like shrouds. They are now structures, built to accommodate more than one person, to encourage greater audience participation. The models beneath or wearing these “shelters” are no longer inanimate. They beckon the audience over, “come in(side) for a quick chat” --about topics of the day, such as sex for instance, and offer them parting gifts in the form of protection (condoms) or nourishment (bananas). It is no longer just about the gaze; the relationship between audience and work has become a closer connection. By inviting the audience to enter the work, the artist is offering us the opportunity to step into the contexts of each situation, immerse ourselves in its conditions, and get a view from the “other side”. In Yokohama, the ‘shelters’ were brought to various parts of the city to co-exist and assimilate with existing environments, for example, along the pedestrian walkway, by a row of shop or at the pier. The video, an added feature to the existing installation, documents the models standing within these shelters for several minutes before moving to another site. While the work continues to explore the concept of shelter, it also touches on issues of migration, mobility and shifting cultural identities.

"Asal", - 'authentic', is used in Bahasa Indonesia to question authenticity, or origin. The word, originally from the Arabic language, has travelled across the globe to Indonesia and become a part of the artist’s daily vocabulary. “A few times a day, when I am out on the street, I hear the question, ‘Asal dari mana?’ or ‘Where are you from?’” As a Dutch person living in Indonesia, it is a common question encountered by the artist and often used as an icebreaker to open a conversation. “Asal” is also the title of a work, made especially for the artist’s solo exhibition in Tehran (2005). A particular cloud motif plays a central role in this work - it can be found in Persian paintings from the Timurid, (Safavid period, 14 to 18th century AD) and also often appears in Chinese paintings and ceramics of the same era, commonly known as “Guanying” or the Goddess of Mercy clouds, as well as in traditional Indonesian batik, where the “Mega Mendung” cloud motif is particular to the Sultanate of Cirebon (Northern Java). The source of this commonly shared cloud motif is unclear, and it is used as a metaphor to explore the issue of migration and to question cultural origin and identity. “Which and who is indigenous?” Ownership of this image cannot be claimed by any particular culture and therefore challenges the concept of authenticity. The work’s broad scope also makes reference to migration, power, and the way in which early trade and travel has shaped the geography and cultures of the world. 

Mella’s work is laden with no great “take-home” messages. She highlights the ruptures in our supposed perfect world and tells us that the ground we walk on is rarely solid. Who has the upper hand in Mella Jaarsma’s inversed world? You feed me. I point my keris at you. Who is the refugee? Who is the oppressor? Who is the victim and who wields power? Food turns to poison, taboos become accepted norms and shelters transform into traps. From the images, they tell us we are barbaric, contradictory, complex. Indeed, Man has moved away from his cave and we have since traded our hides and weapons for technological advances and urban accoutrements. Yet we kill, we feed, we hunt, we hide and we heal; barely escaping our savagery, merciless with our excesses and follies, and our horrifying capacity to summon up evil in the name of justice, or survival or for mankind’s greater good. Through the inversion of things, she reveals how different and unsettling the world might seem from the reverse viewpoint. As the common adage goes, “there are two sides to every story”; yet Mella‘s observations tell us there are more, that life is more convoluted than any single narrative, and human nature is far too complex to be mapped out --that ethics and moral values are less clear cut than we would like to admit.

Adeline Ooi
March 2006, Kuala Lumpur

Adeline Ooi in conversation with Mella Jaarsma, 2009

Adeline Ooi in conversation with Mella Jaarsma

A few years ago I wrote “Taking Cover”, an essay tracing the development of Mella Jaarsma’s work, which highlighted the transformation of her costume installations from their shroud-like origin to structural forms that evoke the notion of temporary shelters and portable homes. 

The essay discussed her earlier work’s corporeal and performative quality, which adopted the notion of garment as ‘skin’, as well as its symbolic meaning based on the materials chosen to create these costumes (animal skins, horns and cocoons among others) to highlight key issues of origin, identity and “Otherness”. From 2004 onwards, due to the events that took place in her surrounding environment –the Bali bombing, tsunami in Aceh and later the earthquake that shook Yogyakarta in 2006, a shift occurred in Mella’s personal exploration, as her work became more architectural and utilitarian in form and design. The scope of her focus seemed also to broaden, addressing wider issues in contemporary society such as the notion of seeking protection, migration and mobility, and other socio-cultural idiosyncrasies encountered during her travel abroad.

Over the past several years, Mella’s construction of forms and material usage has progressed further. Her works are no longer just “single-bodied structures” or shelters; they have become unusual hybrid forms as seen in This Land is Ours (2007) and Wo(man) of Quality (2007), and more versatile and playful – Zipper Zone(2009), actively inviting interaction between audience and work. Meanwhile, the artist’s choice of material has moved on from exotic skins and motifs that draw specific references to particular cultures or social groups, to ubiquitous objects such as zippers, buttons, wigs and hair curlers that address social encounters derived from the everyday. The relatively light-hearted tone of her work in recent years is perhaps a reflection of a more peaceful time (in comparison to the socio-political unrest of the late 1990s); contemporary Indonesian expression today is marked by a plurality of concerns and wide spectrum of individual narratives. There has also been an increasing emphasis on performance and the incorporation of video in her installations –My Name is Michaella Jarawiri (2007/09) and A Myth or Not? (2008), which may be attributed to her active participation in a number of performance art workshops and events, and experimentation with time-based media.

During a recent visit to Mella’s home and studio to view a new body of work she is developing for projects in Taipei and Utrecht, we re-looked at past works in her archive of images and discussed the ideas and influences which have come to inform her artistic approach, the new direction she is exploring and how her exploration of ‘shadow and light’, which brought her to Yogyakarta during the early 1980s, has come full circle 25 years later.

Animal skins and “otherness”

The exotic animal skins employed to create Mella’s costumes have been chosen as loaded metaphors for race, sexuality and questions of authenticity. I asked Mella if the works made between 1998 – 2002 in particular Hi Inlander (1998-1999), I Am Ethnic I, II (2000), I Fry You I, II (2000), Londo Ngemis/Gila Bule (2002), Bule Bull(2002) and Bolak Balik (2002), bore any relation to her displaced identity as a Dutch person who has chosen to call Indonesia home. "Contrary to what many people think, my works are not about me per se. The duality addressed in my costume (installation) works were not made due to my ‘displaced’ identity as a ‘londo’ in Yogyakarta, to comment on my ‘otherness’ –that I was alienated (by local society), or whether I belonged to this country or not. The inside/outside experience of the work relates to the observations of my surrounding, about human nature in general and the possibility of different or opposing viewpoints, that there are two sides, at times more, to a story. It is more about (human) existence actually, our responses to others and our environment.

In reference to her surroundings, in particular the turbulent events following the 1997 economic crash that led to the anti-Chinese riots, Reformasi, and a number of religious clashes dominating Indonesia’s socio-political landscape during that period of time, she adds, “It was impossible to ignore all that was going on at that time… whether or not I am ‘londo’ was beside the point, I felt I should address the problems in my surroundings as I am a part of this society.“

Addressing the body

Mella’s work due to its inter-changeable nature can be read as an object when it is seen on its own, a performance when it is worn by a model, or an installation –in the absence of a model, when the costume is usually accompanied by a series of photographs or a video portraying the costume and its wearer in action or standing motionless. These documentations serve as a reminder to viewers that the work cannot be separated from the human body. Without it, her costumes and structures appear like discarded shells, dead and empty, lifeless. The presence of the human body inhabiting or wearing the costume/structure is necessary to ‘complete’ the form and intensify its symbolic meaning. If we adopt the principle that the artist’s costumes/structures are based on the inherent notion of ‘dress’ or ‘skins’ to present particular identity/ies or ‘self’, then the body and the costume cannot be perceived separately, but simultaneously as a whole.

For instance in the work for Yokohama Triennale 2005 (Shelter Me I, II, III & IV), I originally wanted to present the structures on their own. Usually in my other works, there are photos of the costume being worn by a model to accompany the installation when the models are not present. However, in this instance, the structures forShelter Me looked really incomplete. I decided to incorporate the clothes worn by the model during the performance in the structure (especially for Shelter Me I) and the video documentation of the site-specific performances to suggest a sense of absence. My work is only complete when it contains the presence/absence of the body. Otherwise, they look like mere structures, like strange cupboards and shelves, which is not what I want at all.“

The presence of the body highlights the constraining quality of the costumes/structures. It demonstrates the way a body is bound by its shape, allowing the body to move only in a certain way, exposing parts of the body – eyes and legs in earlier works, and later other body parts usually considered taboo, such as the buttocks and most recently, the male genital area, in My Name is Michaella Jarawiri (2007/2009). This can be read as a metaphor for the way individuals are required to conform to particular codes of etiquette, and social expectations, the unwritten rules laid down by society that determines the acceptance and definition of ‘rightful’ behaviour, based on one’s social and cultural context.

Without tension there is no interest, Mella elaborates further about the relationship between model and observer: “The observer and the model do not share the same experience. The model knows what it is like to be in the costume –the physical feeling of being shrouded by the materials, the weight of the costume on his/her body, and the experience of standing there, being looked at by so many people. The observer holds a different perspective, as he/she can only look at the costume and the model…he/she (the observer) can only ‘enter’ the position of the wearer through his/her imagination to imagine the feeling of being inside the costume.”

The realization that there is a human being, living and breathing beneath the costume/structure, not only uncovers another layer in the artist’s Pandora’s box of meanings but also challenges the dynamics of the room which the work inhabits. The presence of ‘a living exhibit’ triggers a feeling of unease in the viewers’ consciousness, shifting the context of ‘an exhibition’ a little too close to that of ‘a spectacle’. An observer’s uncertain reaction to the model’s presence is not dissimilar to the way people normally react to living mannequins (chanced upon in street acts or at human circus attractions): the awkward encounter with the stillness and silence of these 'living costumes/sculptures’, the eerie sensation of being watched, or that certain clumsiness or embarrassment when regarding ‘the exotic other’ as one is uncertain where to place one’s eyes.

You begin to question your own response, ‘is it rude to stare? Are we allowed to touch? How should you regard the work (and by extension model)? Do you ignore him/her, can we speak to him/her?’ All these uncertainties are expected… what is interesting is knowing that these feelings are probably going through people’s heads, but they try very hard to act nonchalant… to not show it or talk about it. It’s like the English saying, ‘an elephant in the room’. Hopefully this is not all they think about, and the experience of encounter does not stop there, that this is just a layer among their many feelings and thoughts.

At the end of the day, the costumes/installations I have created are based on my experience with different communities; some relationships run deeper than others. I hope the viewers are able to reflect on their personal experience, memories and interpretations when looking on my work. I hope to challenge them to think differently or offer them something to think about.”

The Artist as Ethnographer

Mella’s approach possesses a strong ethnographic inclination, taking her away from the confines of her studio to embark in ‘fieldwork’ to unexpected places and communities. For instance, the animal skins costumes from early 2000 connected her to Yogyakarta’s artisan community, in search of craftsmen who will collaborate or assist her in realising her work. The preparation of each skin, reptile or mammal, requires particular knowledge and skills. The different types of skins and their respective ‘harvesting’ process also lend the work a symbolic weight as certain hides are farm raised, while others may require a more predatory approach that involves hunting and gathering. “The material, maybe because it is taken from a living thing, has a way of provoking particular responses... It is normal that people would bring along their own baggage when reading an artwork or anything visual. I suppose that is why I chose to work with certain materials, the animal skins especially. Different cultures and different peoples hold different perceptions to animals and their skin… it can be loved, it can be hated… some people react very strongly against it –they find it sinister, gross, fetishistic… I knew there would be different responses, especially when the work travels to different parts of the world. What is gross (jijik) to some may be quite normal to others…”

The notion of taboo is later explored following an unexpected trip to West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya), albeit from a different approach in My Name is Michaella Jarawiri (2007/2009). “I don’t think I had a clear idea of what I was going to do before the trip. All I knew was, I wanted to go to (West) Papua to go penis sheath hunting!” The result is an installation consisting of two videos –featuring the art of koteka making and a biography of a fictional character Michaella Jarawiri, a contemporary artist from Papua, a display of 150 koteka(penis sheaths commonly worn by Papuan men from the Baliem area) of different sizes, forms and descriptions, as well as two changing rooms for men only. Male audiences were encouraged to try on these koteka andshow off their ‘fit’ to the public.

In a way, Michaella was my ‘alter ego’… I created her to address my encounter with Papua. Being in a place so far away from ‘the center’ (Java), made me think about dominant and marginalised cultures, what is acceptable and what is taboo, … the images that we conjure when we think of ‘Indonesia’ and the reality that is ‘Indonesia’ are deeply conflicting. I also question the ‘taming’ of one’s culture because of religion, and how easy it is to disregard what was once sacred … In Papua, ‘foreigners’ who are not from Papua, especially Javanese, are called ‘straight people’ because of their ‘straight’ hair. Many men and women in Baliem Valley –the place where I visited– still dressed in their traditional way…aside from their koteka (penis sheaths), the older men didn’t wear much else; it is interesting to note that their kotekas are their makeshift purses also. Some of the women walked around bare-breasted although many of them have covered up ever since they converted to Christianity.”

One of the most meaningful encounters from working with different communities stemmed from The Last Animist (2008), made in collaboration with Nindityo Adipurnomo and the town folks of Arnhem. “This work misses the point when it is seen without the people who acted as ‘carriers’ or object bearers. The participants of the procession and the objects they carried played a major symbolic role as they provided meaning and significance.

Arnhem is populated by a large number of migrant communities… we wanted to get to know more about them and their stories. We explored the different notions of ‘treasured objects’ with the town folks, interviewing various individuals and families about the things they brought with them when they left their home country, especially those who fled under duress, leaving literally with the clothes on their backs. The intention was to highlight the different ways human beings choose to look at objects and place emotional value and meaning on them. It is fascinating how something ordinary can be precious because they commemorate a particular event, or hold the key to someone’s past and so on.

In response to their stories, we designed a series of floats and shelters, inspired by forms and materials that local animist culture in Indonesia believe to possess particular ‘powers’. These floats and shelter-like structures were our way of ‘sheltering’ and emphasizing the sacredness or significance of the objects brought to the procession. They echo they way we would treat treasured objects, which are either concealed in a ‘safe’ or secure space or displayed prominently… think along the lines of treasure chests, altars, wunderkammern and etc.”

Exploration of Shadow and Light

Kanda Empat (Square Body)(2009) is inspired by the Balinese belief of ‘The Four Protectors’, the guiding force in every human being’s life. “It is believed that these ‘four brothers’ (or forces) metamorphose into different shapes and are known by different names according to the different stages of our lives, from the time we are six-month old fetuses in our mothers’ wombs.”

First seen at “Blueprint for Jogja” organised by Tembi Contemporary earlier this year, this idea is currently being expanded for a major exhibition showcasing works from Indonesia entitled “Beyond The Dutch” at Utrecht Centraal Museum. “For the exhibition in Utrecht I want to create ‘shadow dresses’. I positioned four leather cut outs of hybrid animal motifs on the edges of each dress and installed a light source inside them to project the shadows of the animals on the surrounding walls. Models wearing the dresses will be performing with the shadows, slowly moving back and forth in a room that measures approximately 3 meters wide, controlling the projection by enlarging and reducing the shadows (of the animal forms) in the room.

I chose the animal form as a ‘vehicle’ to convey this idea... animals are often perceived as archetypes, possessing certain spiritual powers, Man’s symbolic partner according to numerous mythical beliefs and etc. I made them out of black leather, after the sketches I had made in ink. I did not create each shape with a specific animal in mind while painting, they happened to appear like hybrid animal forms, suggesting numerous possible associations.

One of the reasons why I came to Indonesia in 1984 was due to my interest in shadows. I wanted to learn more about shadows by researching the significance of shadows in Indonesia’s diverse culture. During the course of my research, I encountered this idea of shadow as a ‘medium’, an intermediate between the material and immaterial world. Now, twenty-odd years later, I am revisiting this interest, as well as to re-examine the significance of shadows in contemporary Indonesia, its relationship to history, culture and tradition.

I will be performing with the models on opening night, I will be wearing one of the dresses... the public will also be a part of this installation as their shadows will be cast by the lights from our dresses. This work is about the symbolic meaning of light and shadow, how interpretations of light and shadows often overlap in different cultures. The four animal forms on each dress can be seen as surrounding (or protecting) the centre, the human body...it can be read as a spiritual shelter, protecting the invisible force of our existence.”

Adeline Ooi in conversation with Mella Jaarsma

August 2009, Yogyakarta/Kuala Lumpur

'Skin, Veil, Tent, Sheltered Place', Agung Hujatnikajennong

Skin, Veil, Tent, Sheltered Place

From the many characters and subject-matter which have emerged through Mella Jaarsma’s work process, one which stands out prominently is the intent to practice art as an entry point into the discourse on cultural identity. Not without a reason, Mella pioneered this characteristic model of her work upon witnessing, observing and becoming involved in various social and cultural tensions, at least since the mid-80s, when she decided to live and work in Indonesia — a distant domain which not only provided her with many inspirations and aesthetic ideas, but also enriched her living experiences.In the context of the contemporary art scene in Indonesia, Mella’s position is unique. She simultaneously plays two active roles: as a manager of a gallery and as an artist. At the end of the 80s, Mella began to be recognized in Indonesia as an “activist” who introduced the model of managing an alternative art space with the founding of Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta.

This art institute which she pioneered has made an important contribution to the development of art organizations in Indonesia, in the midst of minimal government support and a confusion of evaluation standards of art works caused by the boom of art in Indonesia in the early 80s. On another side, Mella is also a productive artist. Her works represent aspecific perspective of a “migrant artists”, who is capable of intelligently working with local materials and issues. However, it must be emphasized that she is not the typical “Western artist” who comes and seeks exotic values in the East. Indeed, it is the opposite, as Mella’s works are able to shift and turn around all viewpoints which construct cultural identity — between “Occidental” and “Oriental”, between “those who see” and “those who are seen”, between “me” and “others” — as stereotypical and rigid binary opposites. In general, Mella’s works express questions concerning the differences of human lifestyles in a broad understanding: spirituality/religion, social classes, communal identity, political perspectives, ethnicity, morality, tradition, etc. In a global context, the city of Yogyakarta, where Mella resides, is indeed only a small world filled with these differences. However, from her experiences as a member of Indonesian society, in addition to her social-cultural background as a European artist, Mella is able to promote questions relevant to cultural problems which are latent in conflicts everywhere in the present world. We can place Mella’s sociological background as the hermeneutic anchor which influences and underscores all of her works.

Mella has a very particular interest in the existence of idioms and symbols in society. Her solo exhibition, “Think It or Not” at Bentara Budaya Yogyakarta (1997) placed symbols as the central problem. Symbols were understood to be signs which had multiple meanings. On the one side they are characteristically private/individual, and on the other side, they are communal/social. The works in this exhibition focused on the procedure of giving symbols meanings in the society as a process that was arbitrary. It was proposed that symbols have a context and history of their own in a specific sociological environment — they will never be universal. Mella considers that associations of a symbol which are believed in by a certain group will never
truly be fully adopted by any other group.

However, Mella’s works are actually far from symbolism — in fact, she has never meant to create meaningful symbols. Indeed, her method employs the familiarity of the use and meanings of daily objects as phenomenological reality. As seen in the exhibition, “Think It or Not”, Mella used objects and imagery of frog’s bodies that had been skinned to provoke certain associations with sex, death, birth, victims, etc. She found the skinned frogs that were bought and sold in a traditional market in Yogyakarta for daily consumption, particularly those of Chinese descent. Through several paintings and objects, Mella composed an interesting juxtaposition between the “naked” frogs and her own memories of frogs. At that moment, she began to become aware of the use of symbols as something that was individual, but had the potential to become a contradiction when it collided with communal understanding. This period is important as an initial phase which began her research and art projects about cultural identity.

The use of materials and idioms in Mella’s projects from 1997 – 2006 truly indicate an intensive exploration of ideas. We can interpret the continuity of Mella’s artistic journey from one project to another as a process which has a cultural meaning. The idea of the “frogs” that began in the exhibition, “Think It or Not”, developed in a series of works, “Hi Inlander (Hello Native)” (1998 – 1999). This series took the form of wearable objects made from animal skins (frogs, fish and chicken) that were arranged and sewn into traditional veils worn by Muslim women. Mella appropriated the veil as a symbol that directed our associations towards the identity of Muslim women. In the context of the Indonesian community’s understanding, the use of frog skins as the material for a veil has the consequence of being provocative because in Islamic tradition, particularly in Indonesia, frogs are considered unclean (hence forbidden) to be consumed.

The process of changing the material use of the naked” frog’s bodies can be interpreted as an interesting process of shifting thoughts, especially in relation to the binary opposition between “body” and “skin”, between “filling” and “appearance”. It must be understood that the use of the frog skin in “Hi Inlander…” is not an expression of cultural confrontation, nor is it a metaphor which intends to confront a certain community’s identity. This work was born from the direct contact Mella experienced in the social situation in Indonesia at a time when issues and the conflict of differences of race and religion were very sensitive. The use of the skin veils here reconciled the social reality which claimed that one’s identity could be determined by the wearing of symbols, features, or signs that actually can be artificial. This symbol in the form of a costume could not actually ever express true identity, moreover it is often used by a group for pragmatic purposes.

Mella continued to borrow the idiom of the veil in a series of works that used a variety of materials: cocoons, squid, seaweed, political party emblems, buffalo horns, kangaroo skin, goat skin, army uniform cloth, etc. These materials were chosen because they each were able to express a different narration. For Mella, the characters, features and appearance of the materials in each veil could not be replaced by other materials because she felt that they each embodied their own specific history and meaning. Mella’s projects which involve clothing are related to the discourse of body politics. 

Since the beginning of 2003, Mella began to expand her thoughts about “skin”. Similar to her borrowing of the idiom of the veil, she then adopted the form of a tent. The tent was constructed simply to resemble a costume which could protect only one (human) body, as seen in the serial work, “Refugee Only” (2003) and was continued in the series, “Shelter Me” (2005). These two series of works represent the latest phase of Mella’s artistic journey which is increasingly complex in exposing increasingly varied narratives, however they still exhibit her continuing efforts to understand the problems of symbols and signs as they relate to cultural identity. 

In the series, “Shelter Me”, the materials borrowed and used represented a hybrid situation.This reflects how the problem of identity is actually relates to the reference of our memories regarding positions which at this time will never provide a stable, sheltered space.

Agung Hujatnikajennong

Agung Hujatnika a.k.a Agung Hujatnikajennong, was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia, 1976, is a lecturer at the Fine Arts Department, Faculty of Art and Design, Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia. Besides working as curator at Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, Bandung (www.selasarsunaryo.com), he has been contributing essays to national and international exhibition catalogues, mass media and journals. He has conducted exhibitions, curatorial projects, research, and written publications relating to Indonesian art, including "Taboo and Transgression in Contemporary Indonesian Art" (Herbert F. Johnson Gallery, Cornell University, USA, 2005), “AVICON - Asia Videoart Conference” (2003 and 2004, in Tokyo and Bandung respectively) and “O.K. Video, Jakarta Video Art Festival” (National Gallery of Indonesia, 2003 and 2005). He has participated in curatorial residency programs in Canberra (at Drill Hall Gallery) and Brisbane (at Queensland Art Gallery), Australia, granted by Asialink, 2002; and in Tokyo (at Nanjo and Associates), Japan, funded by The Japan Foundation, 2004. Since 2002, he is also actively involved in projects at ruangrupa, Jakarta

'Space to Dress' by Agung Hujatnikajennong, 2009

Space to Dress

We wear our second skins every day" Mella Jaarsma [artist statement,1999]

Can humans choose who their parents will be? Is it possible that a person could determine what their parents look like, so that he/she could choose their body shape and the color of their skin and hair before they were born? I pose these questions to point out that humans actually do not have autonomous power to determine their self-identity.

On the one hand, the body is the identity we are given that we cannot refuse. Meanwhile, on the other hand, humanity has made the body into a code or meaningful symbol. Modern science has arbitrarily categorized the exterior human features—physical/biological characteristics that are naturally, genetically inherited—into various social classifications, such as gender and race. It is perceived that physical characteristics can explain a variety of different individual positions in the society, such as origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and level of intelligence. The belief in racial and gender classifications encourages the emergence of constructions and social hierarchies that, in practice, generates repression and discrimination, including, for example, in the extreme, colonialization, slavery, genocide, and gender violence.

When the body is no longer able to define itself, we wear various coverings that are associated with certain images in the presence of other people. A set of clothing, then, has a double function in overcoming the vulnerability of the body both physically and symbolically. In its symbolic function, clothing covers whatever should not be seen, while showing something that we wish to expose to other people. Wearing clothes in this way can be analogous to the process of self-identification where humans become ‘agents’, subjects that are actively involved in the formation of meaning about themselves.

The issues of the ‘body’, ‘coverings’, and the relationship between the two with identity have been the primarily focus of Mella Jaarsma’s attention for quite awhile. Since the early 1980s, Mella’s artistic journey has been colored by exploration of various art materials and media, ranging from illustration, photography, painting, objects, video, and installations, through performance art. Despite this variety of media, we can see how the ‘body’ and ‘coverings’ occupy the central position of her focus. Mella presents the human body and its coverings physically—in various ways and in various forms (costumes/clothes, veils, houses, tents, shelters). However, in addition to this, she also thinks about the body and coverings in a more basic and philosophical way, then uses her works to link to broader social and cultural issues as a way to initiate new dialog and stimulate new ideas.

Featuring selected works that she has created since the early 1990s, the exhibition “Fitting Room” positions Mella Jaarsma’s works in the framework of the issue of cultural identity. “Fitting Room” is a metaphor about the space for negotiation that is very subjective. In a fitting room, the individual (as the agent) has full, unhampered personal authority to dress him/herself. In the fitting room, one can experiment, try new clothes that had previously been considered to be unsuitable for their body, then can change to other clothes. The fitting room can be used as a place to test one’s authority to finding ‘themselves’. It is a space that can provide freedom to anyone to play any ‘role’—although this freedom in the end is always limited by the available choices.

→ Idea ↔ Material ↔ Form ←

Mella Jaarsma’s works often appear to be ‘simple’ because many of them use every day materials. Even the forms resemble domestic objects. There has yet to be any commentary on how this simplicity of form actually represents a strategy and artistic decision that has emerged out of a long exploration process.

Ever since she began to create art, Mella has yet to develop a particular visual style or personal medium. Her attention has always been focused on thematic issues: ideas, meanings and most importantly, how her work can provoke or stimulate thought and reflection. I liken the character of Mella’s works with a ‘direct’ linguistic expression, such as a narrative told without too many flourishes. If there are any decorative ornaments in her work—see, for example, Shelter Me (2005) and Asal (“Origin”, 2005), which present batik cloth with the Mega Mendung pattern—they are presented as concrete texts, suitable in the object. For more than 25 years as an artist, Mella’s works have never been excessive. I see this consistency as an important characteristic of Mella’s art.

Similar to the work of a visual anthropologist, one of the requirements of artistic production that Mella has followed continuously until the present is research of the various characteristics and typology of symbols, and how the meanings of these symbols are understood specifically by different groups in the community. In her research process, Mella often goes into the field, documents and notes various specific visual phenomena. In her works, the various signs or symbols she finds are often stretched, combined with other symbols, deconstructed, and played with, so that they are then formulated into a personal statement about a phenomenon.

The work, Pralina–A Fire Altar (1993) is a fine example that illustrates Mella’s characteristic work pattern. It was created when Mella was involved with “Art and Nature”, a site-specific project in Munduk village in Bali, with a number of Indonesian and German artists. In the village, she was inspired to make an installation at an alter for cremating corpses, a practice that is still active in the Hindu-Balinese tradition. This was, of course, a risky idea, because the altar served an important function in the life of the community. However, through a personal approach, Mella secured permission to make the installation there, indeed, in a collaborative effort with the users of the altar. The local residents who took care of the altar were open to the innovation. The result was an installation that reflected an understanding of death as the ‘shadow of life’, and its reverse. This work was able to meld the practice of the creation of contemporary art with daily community ritual. The content of this work was more concrete, surpassing understanding of art installation as only a spatial visual product, because its function as an altar until the present day, has never been lost.

Mella’s personal experience—as an artist who came from the Netherlands and then lived and worked for 25 years in Indonesia—has encouraged her artistic concept as a path for discussion about differences in perception and culture. Mella is aware that the meaning of a symbol is always changing—the meaning changes based on the context of time and space. Her work, Peranakan Shelters (“Shelters of Mixed Ethnic Origins”, 2004), for example, was in the form of a costume that combined the form of the belly of Buddha with an Indonesian army uniform. The pattern of combinations of signs in Mella’s work often contains juxtapositions that are provocative, controversial and paradoxical. In Peranakan Shelters, the Buddha belly that could be seen beneath the military costume implied the presence of a sense of spirituality/Buddhism in warfare. Whereas, in the context of Southeast Asia, the Buddha belly is a symbol that is related to wealth and good fortune.

In addition to the intension of stimulating dialogue, the juxtaposition of symbols in Mella’s works also represent a cultural hybrid of whose presence we are often unconscious because it is dominated by myths about originality or ownership of a symbol in the society. Mella perceives that culture is always stirred by contradictory and diverse values. With the passing of time, culture actually lives off of contradictions, tension, contact, exchange, and the mixture of different values, both visible and hidden. Mella’s works are an effort to dismantle stereotypes of a social culture by disentangling its symbols, then rearranging them into new configurations. Because of this, I consider Mella’s works to speak not only at the level of pure visual genealogy, but also social genealogy.

The work, (Wo)man of Quality (2007), for example, provocatively aligns the concepts of machismos, religion, nationalism, feudalism, and militarism in an installation of costumes and performances that resemble a carnival/ritual parade. This work is an entry into a discussion of the culture of patriarchy that is still dominant in Indonesian society. Mella’s adoption of the parade as a performance medium is unique, as well as clever, because this ritual that has existed since ancient times is still practiced in a variety of contexts in societies throughout the world for different reasons—from the ngaben ceremony in Bali to the Mardi Gras in Australia. With the parade of costumes, Mella can speak this ‘universal’ language, while, at the same time, entering into a variety of public contexts. More recently, this form of the parade has emerged again in The Last Animist(2008), which she created with Nindityo Adipurnomo.

Mella’s forms are always ambiguous—for example, in Refugee Only (2003), which presents forms of clothes and tents, or Shelter Me (I, II, III & IV, 2005), which combines the concept of clothes with architectural frames (food vendors, pavilions, and temples). The one thing that ties these ambiguous forms together is only the presence of the human body inside them. On the one hand, the combination of various concepts of body coverings (costumes/clothes, veils, houses, tents, shelters) can be read as an attempt to see identity as the omnipresent authority. However, on the other hand, the ambiguity of the form can also be seen as an artistic strategy to present an issue as a question, not an answer.

In the diversity of Mella’s works, there is always a meticulous choice of materials. She is aware of the ideological connotations of the objects produced and consumed by the society. The materials function not only as raw, neutral substances that can be manipulated into forms or idioms, but they also represent idioms or texts themselves, because they bring with them certain meanings of their own. In the work, Hi-Inlander(1998–1999), animal skins (fish, kangaroo, frog, and chicken) that were used as veils—resembling the form of the traditional Islamic veil—were chosen because of their different connotations in different cultures. This work was Mella’s response to the ethnic riots that erupted in Indonesia during Reformasi and the targeting of Chinese-Indonesians by the rioting crowds. At that time, a Muslim costume could be used as a camouflage for survival purposes.

Map of the Fitting Room, Context

In her artistic journey, Hi-Inlander is an important milestone in her artistic achievement. It can be said that Mella’s works on costumes began here. After this work, came others, including I am Ethnic, I Fry You (series I & II, 2001, 2000), and SARAswati (series I & II; 2000); Shameless Gold, The Follower, Bolak-balik (“Back-and-Forth”), and Bule Bull (“Foreign Bull”, 2002); The Warrior, The Healer, The Feeder, and Refugee Only (2003);Peranakan Shelters (2004); Shelter Me (series I – IV, 2005); This Place is Mine (2006); (Wo)man of Quality (2007);Shaggy (2008) and the most recent, Zipper Zone and Square Body–Kanda Empat (2009). These works have been exhibited widely in various exhibitions, both national and international, in a variety of contexts and curatorial themes. It is not rare that these works are presented in art exhibitions of wearable art or events that spotlight the meeting point between art and contemporary fashion.

In every exhibition, Mella’s costumes are worn by models who become integral parts of the works. With the presence of the models these works become actual, as well as functional. It is her intention to create unexpected special situations with the presence of the models and their coverings to stimulate the responses and the vision of the audience.

The exhibition “Fitting Room” presents a comprehensive picture of Mella Jaarsma’s artistic journey of 25 years of living and working in Indonesia. In addition to presenting most of the works that use costumes as an idiom, this exhibition also presents several other installations, such as Rubber Time II (2003) and My Name is Michaella Jarawiri (2007). These two works are still closely related to the essential issue of body coverings. Special notes must be given to My Name is Michaella Jarawiri, because this is an experimental work that presents the complex relationship between cultural symbols, taboos, religion, fiction, concepts about nation, surveillance practice, and fitting rooms (in its original meaning) in a provocative manner. This work resulted from Mella’s trip and research in West Papua that produced unexpected public interaction when it was first exhibited in a biennale in Yogyakarta, where Mella invited the male visitors to experience wearing kotekas of various shapes and to find the size and model of koteka that was suitable for their own penis. I am sure that the presentation in a different context of space and time will produce a different interaction. Michaella Jarawiri is an imaginary artist who became Mella’s collaborator in this work.

Mella’s most recent work in this exhibition, Square Body–Kanda Empat, presents the interesting relationship between the exploration of the idiom of costumes with the issue that first brought Mella to Indonesia, that is, shadows. In the mid-1980s, much of Mella’s artistic inspirations came from the visualization of shadows, from wayang kulit performances to the shadows of objects and humans that were produced by the tropical sun. In the work, Square Body–Kanda Empat, a model wearing a costume creates the visualization of shadows.

For me, Square Body–Kanda Empat reflects a further exploration of the concept of body coverings and the images that result from it. If in Mella’s previous works the image of a covering was produced by tangible material, in this work, the image is determined by light. I found an interesting connection between the concept of body, covering and shadow in the treasury of Javanese wayang kulit philosophy. In wayang kulit, the shadows on the screen represent the body, which is, by nature, transitory. We can understand this perspective if we are aware that shadows are by nature fleeting, dependent upon the intensity of the light present. Meanwhile, the wayang itself is a symbol of authenticity, the eternal soul of humanity (because of this, the wayang puppets are always colored, even though only the shadows are shown). If we use this perspective in viewing Square Body–Kanda Empat, at a certain point, our concept of coverings will shift from the material to the immaterial, and vice versa.

Mella’s works cannot be separated from broader discussions about society, community and visual culture. Mella’s artistic ideas, in general, almost always touch upon problems concerning the relationship between the ‘individual’ and the ‘social’. Upon examination, Mella’s artistic practice is formed by a thought process that has many layers. Her works repudiate a connection between reality and language, which in daily life undergoes simplification by becoming artificial stereotypes. Mella’s works generally do not only speak of symbols, but also of the structures that form the symbols, and the status of the symbols in social life. This reminds me of the artists’ conceptual creed of the 1960s that questioned aspects of political language, instead of just producing meanings with language itself.

Agung Hujatnikajennong

Curator of exhibition ‘The Fitting Room’, 2009 

Bambang Sugiharto, Penjara Jiwa, Mesin Hasrat, Tubuh Sepanjang Budaya, in Jurnal Kebudayaan Kalam No. 15, p. 26 – 42. Yayasan Kalam, 2000. 2. Michael Rustin, Psychoanalisis, Racism and Anti-racism, in Identity: A Reader, Paul Du Gay (ed., et al), Sage Publication, 2000 3. Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art, Phaidon Press, 1998.