SINGAPORE: Bodybuilders and punks ready to do battle with water guns. Spiffy-looking generals whose heads are encrusted in shiny crystals. A fish with so-called communist leanings. A grandfather whose violent fate remains a mystery for years.
Images of these and more are part of a new show in Singapore that puts the spotlight on Indonesia’s most successful and innovative contemporary photography collective, Ruang MES 56.
Titled The History Of Boys: The MES 56 And Beyond, the show features works by members of the Jogjakarta-based group, as well as some of its peers. It will run until April 23 at container art space DECK in Prinsep Street.
The exhibition is the first in a series of shows looking at contemporary photography in various countries of Southeast Asia. And as DECK co-founder Gwen Lee explained, Ruang MES 56 represents the experimental spirit of the photography scene in Indonesia.
“When we talk about contemporary photography in general, we know very little from Southeast Asia. But it’s not a recent phenomenon in the region,” said Lee. “In Indonesia, for example, Ruang MES 56 has been pushing the medium for 15 years.”
Ruang MES 56 members (from left) Jim Allen Abel, Wimo Ambala Bayang, and Fajar Riyanto posing for the collective's interactive photo studio work Cool And Famous. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
Founded in 2002 and named after the address of its first art space – the dormitory and mess of the Indonesian Air Force in Jogjakarta – its 17-strong members include established names in the country’s contemporary art scene such as Angki Purbandono, Jim Allen Abel and Wimo Ambala Bayang.
The latter recalled how the group banded together due to a lack of space for what they were doing. “We were not considered artists by visual artists but at the same time, we were also rejected by the photography scene because we were experimental,” said Bayang.
While some of Ruang MES 56’s members have previously exhibited in Singapore, the show at DECK, which was curated by Alexander Supartono, marks the first time the collective is being featured here.
The History Of Boys highlights a wide range of themes and topics that ask questions about Indonesian identity.
From Yaya Sung's And To Never, Never Forget: Memorial Kamis Payung Hitam. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
On the gallery’s first floor, the country’s tumultuous political past resurface. While Purbandono’s stupa-like installation Cosmic Axis Memories features a kind of community-as-cosmology utopia filled with images of families and friends, other artists refer to the darker side of Indonesia.
Rangga Purbaya’s Stories Left Untold features archival photos and documents of the artist’s grandfather, who went missing during the anti-communist purge in 1965, where an estimated half a million to a million were killed.
From Rangga Purbaya's Stories Left Untold. (Photo: Rangga Purbaya)
Next to it are two works by Yaya Sung, which look to a more recent turbulent moment in the country’s past, the May 1998 racial riots that also resulted in many deaths. Her photography series And To Never, Never Forget: Memorial Kamis Payung Hitam features portraits of students and activists who were killed or disappeared, dripping white paint partially obscuring their faces. Meanwhile, the accompanying video installation And To Never, Never Forget: Kitchen Notes, focuses on a mother cooking food for her dead son, who was also a victim that same year.
Meanwhile, on the second floor are less-politically loaded works that nonetheless continue to underscore how Indonesia’s communities are shaped and perceived.
A detail from one of the photos in Jim Allen Abel's Board Of Generals series. (Photo: Jim Allen Abel)
Abel’s Board Of Generals series comprise portraits of Indonesian military and police generals, with their faces obscured by crystals, emphasizing the symbolic power of the uniforms.
Bayang, meanwhile, presents quirky photographs of different groups, such as female students from an Islamic high school or footballers, all of whom are holding water guns as if ready to defend themselves. The tongue-in-cheek humour is underscored by the series’ title The Dutch Are Already Near!, which playfully alludes to country’s colonial past.
But defining identities in the world’s largest archipelago is not as easy as one thinks – another work by Abel, an installation of images plastered on motorcycle rearview mirrors, symbolically reflects the colourful chaos of the country. The photos are snapshots of various incidents, from protests and accidents to commonplace images over the past five years as a kind of “diary … as the streets of Indonesia change through time,” said the artist.
A detail from Jim Allen Abel's installation Motorcycle Diaries. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
Finally, another big change in Indonesian society – the effects of social media - is tackled in two of the more quirky works in the show.
The Story Of A Fish, by Indonesian photographer Agan Harahap, a close friend of the collective, asks questions about the gullibility of society in the age of social media. Last year, he created a fake news about a fish that supposedly had communist symbols on its scales. His Facebook post was shared 4,219 times.
A detail from Agan Harahap's The Story Of A Fish, where the artist pokes fun at social media by claiming to find a fish with communist symbols on it. (Photo: Agan Harahap)
Also tackling social media is the collective’s Cool And Famous interactive installation, where they transform the third floor of DECK into a makeshift photo studio where people can take photos and upload them online.
From tackling pertinent issues about Indonesia’s recent past to examining where it stands today, The History Of Boys reveal how photography in the hands of Ruang MES 56 and its peers hold a mirror up to society with a knowing nod and a cheeky wink.
From Wimo Ambala Bayang's The Dutch Are Already Near! series. (Photo: Wimo Ambala Bayang)