The Art of Environmental Activism in Indonesia: Shifting Horizons

Sagrika Singh

Edwin Jurriens’ book The Art of Environmental Activism in Indonesia fills an important gap in the literature on art and activism. This book thoroughly examines the interaction between contemporary art and environmental activism in Indonesia from the late 1960s to the early 2020s. As the sections in this book are categorized around the central concept highlighted in the book’s subtitle: shifting horizons. It crosses through key historical periods, highlighting the role of art in promoting ecological awareness and influencing societal responses to environmental crises.

The concept of 'artivism' is central, emphasizing the vital role of art in activism. The book assesses the potential and limitations of environmental artivism in Indonesia, utilizing the country's dynamic art scenes and social transformations as a backdrop. Providing a comprehensive overview of contemporary art in Indonesia, the book analyzes artivists addressing pressing environmental issues. 

The beginning chapters reflect Indonesia's complex relationship with its natural and cultural environments. Artist Setu Legi's solo exhibition explores “Tanah Air,” referred as land and water. Jurriens discusses the gendered and religious aspects in Indonesian environmental engagement, featuring artist Arahmaiani's work. The book emphasizes the interconnectedness of Indonesia's diverse natural and cultural phenomena and how the arts contribute to ecological awareness.

Against the backdrop of post-independence nation-building, the narrative highlights how political factors, especially during the New Order regime, impacted the environment and stifled freedom of speech. Economic development, under Suharto's "Father of Development," prioritized central regions, causing economic disparities and environmental exploitation.

Modern and contemporary artists from various regions in Indonesia respond to environmental impacts, politicizing and historicizing ecological issues. The text introduces the concept of "artivism," emphasizing art's role in connecting people with environmental concerns and inspiring sustainable relations between humans and nature.

Artists employ diverse strategies, including realistic paintings, collaborative works, and other projects, addressing issues like water pollution, reclamation, spiritual philosophies, and urban-rural networks. The book emphasizes the potential of ‘post natural artworks’ to promote awareness of socio-cultural, political, and economic equity related to natural disasters.

The book provides a comprehensive exploration of Indonesian contemporary art, centered around the overarching theme of "shifting horizons." These horizons symbolize the evolving perspectives and diverse artistic representations of the natural environment, resonating with artists' calls for alternative socio-political approaches to address contemporary environmental challenges.

The narrative begins by examining changes and variations in artistic representations of the natural environment. The discussion extends to the artists' calls for alternative socio-political and cultural attitudes to tackle complex environmental challenges, particularly in response to officially endorsed visual representations during Dutch colonialism and the New Order.

The analysis then moves into the role of contemporary art in addressing the complexities of the 'Capitalocene,' exploring the impact of capitalism on Indonesia's socio-cultural and natural landscapes. "The Imagery of the Capitalocene" chapter examines Indonesian artists' responses to environmental challenges within the Anthropocene, emphasizing art's role in countering desensitization. The book advocates for promoting non-capitalist values and innovative experiments, stressing media ecology's role in addressing environmental deterioration. It underscores the relevance of the Capitalocene in Indonesian environmental art, exploring the Bakrie Group's response to the Sidoarjo mud flow disaster and emphasizing outstanding creativity's potential to counter dominant powers. 

"The Art of Activism" explores contemporary art's role in addressing challenges within the Capitalocene, navigating various 'contemporaneous currents' and introducing 'artivism.' It emphasizes the interdependence of art and activism, exploring Indonesian artists' contributions to socio-political challenges. The chapter on early environmental artivism focuses on Moelyono, highlighting the pioneer's 'conscientisation art' and contributions to uniting artist-activists. Pioneering Indonesian artivist Moelyono's creative ideas and practices are scrutinized in detail.

The focus then shifts to the visual culture of Dutch colonialism and the New Order, dissecting romanticized depictions of rural landscapes. Contemporary artists Maryanto and Setu Legi emerge as voices critiquing exploitative visual culture, personalizing and politicizing environmental threats, especially related to oil palm plantations. Maranta and Setu Legi's artistry, critiquing historical spatial mappings, and addressing the political control and corporate sponsorship's impact on artivism.

The concept of 'space of exception' in Maryanto's art critiques environmental exploitation post-New Order. Setu Legi, deeply rooted in politics and ecology, crafts a multifaceted eco-aesthetic, offering a nuanced understanding of socio-political and ecological intersections. His exhibition 'Tanah Air' symbolizes Indonesia's cultural significance and critiques commercial interests. By exploring Legi's navigation of religion, politics, and the environment, challenging assumptions and promoting "multinaturalism" for multiculturalism. Overall, the book provides a comprehensive exploration of Indonesia's environmental and cultural landscape, linking historical contexts to contemporary challenges.

Then the narrative zooms into Jakarta's modernization from the 1960s to the 1980s, analyzing artists' responses to urbanization. Sudjojono's paintings capturing the transition from Sukarno to Suharto and the rebellious New Art Movement challenging Suharto's regime are explored.

A younger generation of artists, identified as urban natives, takes the spotlight, critiquing the Generation of '66 and reflecting on urban natives' consumerist lifestyles. Then exploration further extends into ecofeminism and gendered environmental activism, with a focus on Arahmaiani's contributions and her activism with religious communities in Yogyakarta and Tibet.

Bali becomes the stage for successful artivist campaigns against land reclamation, with Made Muliana Bayak's activism intertwining with visual art to address plastic pollution and challenge cultural traditions. The account explores new geographies in Indonesian artivism, examining campaigns against forest clearances and collaborative projects connecting urban and rural areas.

The study extends to the challenges and opportunities of international collaborations, addressing potential transformations of original artistic intentions. Creative hacking is highlighted as a strategy employed by new media art communities to counter accessibility issues and provide marginalized groups with information on environmental issues.

"Shifting Horizons: The Art of Environmental Activism in Indonesia" explores the dynamic relationship between art and environmental activism, focusing on the potential of artistic expressions to drive change. The book draws parallels with the 2019 Venice Biennale, acknowledging the contradictions of art's ecological impact while highlighting its capacity to raise awareness, especially among the younger generation.

The concluding chapter emphasizes the transformative power of art across genres, media, and technologies, encapsulated in the metaphor of 'shifting horizons.' The four sub-areas – socio-political engagement, intimacy, social participation and networking, and socio-political change – illustrate the multifaceted ways art and activism intersect for a more sustainable future.

Artists challenge traditional representations, utilizing new media to address specific environmental issues. Their socio-political engagement focuses on nuanced factors, avoiding generic responsibility assumptions. The book highlights artists' roles in effecting tangible change through artivism, using their bodies in public spaces and establishing networks for sustained impact.

In summary, the book upholds a holistic approach, combining creative imagination, knowledge-sharing, and socio-political engagement to address environmental crises. Indonesian artivists emerge as local champions resisting global impulses, promoting values of intimacy, the commons, and coevality, catalyzing positive change amidst environmental challenges.

The concluding remarks recap the book's exploration, emphasizing the dynamic interplay between art, visibility, and environmental crises. The metaphor of 'shifting horizons' encapsulates the core themes, illustrating art's transformative power, its ability to provoke engagement, and its role in reimagining socio-political structures through alternative visions and knowledge dissemination.

With a comprehensive and practical approach, it addresses a significant opening in the literature on art and activism in Southeast Asia. Designed for a diverse audience, including academics, students, artists, curators, policymakers, activists, and general readers interested in the environment and Indonesian culture, the book offers a valuable resource. It contributes to a nuanced understanding of the transformative power of art in driving social and political change within the context of environmental activism.