The Newsletter 82 Spring 2019

Antipodean perspectives on Sundanese art, time and space

Edwin Jurriëns

Recently, some young Australian artists have been inspired by Sundanese culture from West Java, Indonesia. In their work, they integrate, translate and transform traditional Sundanese notions of time, space and nature. They engage with the Sundanese cultural heritage as a valuable source for cross-cultural artistic renewal and/or exploring issues of shared concern, such as more sustainable human interactions with the natural environment.

One of the main facilitators of the Australian-Sundanese cultural exchanges is the Melbourne-based ‘Asialink Arts’ program in partnership with the Bandung-based new media art collective ‘Common Room Networks Foundation’. Common Room Networks Foundation’s involvement itself represents a growing trend among young Indonesian artists and art collectives to move their attention from predominantly urban issues to engagements and collaborations with rural sites and communities. 

Asialink Arts is one of the programs of Asialink, a centre of the philanthropic Myer Foundation, based at The University of Melbourne. Asialink Arts was established in 1991 “to enable access, conversations and exchange to new international networks and cultural exchange for the Australian and Asian creative communities”. Over the years, the program has enabled residencies for numerous emerging Australian artists and assisted them in collaborating with local artists in Asia, including Indonesia. One of its local partners is Common Room Networks Foundation, which was established in 2006 as a continuation of the Common Room cultural centre (established in 2003) and the Bandung Center for New Media Art (BCfNMA, established in 2001).

In 2013, Common Room Networks Foundation was commissioned by the West Java Planning Agency to explore the possibility of developing eco-tourism in 16 regencies in the province of West Java. One of its partners, the rural Kasepuhan Ciptagelar community (Mount Halimun-Salak National Park) has attracted the attention of outsiders, including Indonesian and foreign artists, academics and tourists, because of the ways in which the community interacts with the natural environment. It is a migratory community which distinguishes between three different types of forest: protected forest, reserved forest and land for agricultural and agroforestry purposes. According to customary law, the community members can use rice for personal consumption, but are not allowed to turn it into a commodity for sale to others. Unlike modern intensified rice cultivation, Kasepuhan Ciptagelar has only one rice-growing cycle per year. These types of ideas and practices inspire and integrate well with contemporary thinking about environmental sustainability.  

In 2015, Kasepuhan Ciptagelar produced its own video album of Sundanese pop music, containing clips of performers singing about life in the community against a background of local landscapes, people, daily life activities and rituals. Since then, the community has invited artists from other places, including Bandung, Berlin, Sydney and Melbourne, to collaborate and create their own interpretations of the songs, with styles ranging from jungle, hip hop and reggae to industrial, ambient and electro. In 2017, the community worked on the ‘Ciptagelar Remixed’ project with musician-statistician and 2015 Asialink Arts resident Dan MacKinlay from Sydney, Common Room Networks Foundation, and the Bandung-based death-metal a cappella choir ‘Ensemble Tikoro’. The idea of ‘remix’ designates a desire to bring different times and places in innovative dialogue with each other.

Melbourne-based musician and radio producer Kieran Ruffles also created his own sound project, titled ‘Sunda Sway’. This audio-work was broadcast on Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Radio National on 7 October 2016 and is available as a podcast on the radio station’s website. Listeners can follow Ruffles on his journey from Bandung to Ciptagelar, where he attended the annual Seren Taun rice harvest festival. The use of sounds, music, voice and narration gives an intimate impression of pranatamangsa, or traditional Sundanese ways of measuring time relating to the lifecycle of musical instruments, the growth of plants, human and animal biorhythms, and astrology, among others. Common Room Network Foundations’ Gustaff Harriman Iskandar provides background to the traditional ways of time- and season-keeping in soliloquies or snippets of conversation with Ruffles. The themes of temporality and transition are replicated in various ways throughout the audio work, including sounds and narration relating to the producer’s road trip to Ciptagelar, and the use of drone-copters by locals and guests to traverse and explore the rural area from above.

Another Australian artist, Anna Madeleine, during a 2017 Asialink Arts Residency with Common Room Networks Foundation, produced an Augmented Reality (AR) art work, titled ‘Pranatamangsa AR’, based on Kasepuhan Citpagelar’s traditional farming calendar. In the work, which can be downloaded as a mobile phone application, virtual objects illustrating the various seasons overlay related stellar constellations in an accompanying booklet. The full-length animation was presented at the Melbourne International Animation Festival 2018.

The artistic work covered in this essay does not address important socio-political issues, such as Kasepuhan Ciptagelar’s legal struggles over land rights. The Australian art-translators do succeed, however, in creating awareness about alternative systems and devices for tracking time and space and organising society, outside hegemonic and environmentally destructive capitalist cycles of production and consumption. Following my previous research on Indonesian contemporary art in a predominantly urban context, I will continue to critically analyse the rural and international collaborations of art collectives such as Common Room Networks Foundation. Their work is relevant, not only artistically, but also in relation to one of the main issues of our times, the state and future of the natural environment.

Edwin Jurriëns is Senior Lecturer at the Asia Institute, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne