They like fashion, love to party and collect some of the weirdest art around. Meet the new generation of art collectors helping to bring emerging contemporary Indonesian artists to the world's attention.
JAKARTA, Indonesia: Entering a small, dark room, Paula Dewiyanti comes face to face with the rump of a rhino.
She scrutinises the unusual showcase, which is part of a sculpture by Indonesian artist Eddy Susanto, with the same purposeful interest with which she has been asking questions about this and that all afternoon.
The stylishly-dressed 43-year-old businesswoman is navigating the labyrinth of booths with paintings, sculptures and other works of art on display by galleries from Indonesia and beyond.
It’s Friday afternoon at the inaugural Art Stage Jakarta, and the crowds are thronging the brightly-lit ballrooms of the Sheraton Grand Jakarta Gandaria City with a palpable sense of excitement over the visual feast.
The inaugural Art Stage Jakarta fair was held in August. (Photo: Art Stage Jakarta)
Among them is 36-year-old Tom Tandio, a debonair-looking businessman who has just finished hosting a lunch for Yue Minjun - the hotshot Chinese artist who likes to paint wide-grinning bald men.
Meanwhile, Wiyu Wahono has arrived just in time after being caught in Jakarta’s infamous traffic jams. The quirky, spirited entrepreneur is one of the speakers for a talk on how to collect Indonesian contemporary art. First, though, he quickly drops by a book launch by Singaporean artist Jimmy Ong to say hi.
Unlike the majority of visitors who are soaking it all in (around 15,000 in all, by the fair's end), these few individuals aren’t content with simply looking at paintings or sculptures before moving on. For serious collectors like them, art fairs such as this one - which carries the same brand name as Singapore’s highly successful annual event - are too good an opportunity to miss.
Youngish, financially successful (albeit far from getting a Forbes invite), and with a taste for difficult and intriguing art, they are among Indonesia’s new breed of art collectors.
WATCH: A quick introduction to art's new patrons
Art collecting is a tradition that goes back to Indonesia’s first president. Sukarno is considered the country’s first proper art collector; he was said to be a regular at exhibitions and would buy works on a large scale.
The big guns come from the private sector, uber-wealthy tycoons in industries such as tobacco and real estate. For three decades, they have played the role of elder patrons, supporting Indonesia’s best artists and amassing vast collections. Some even have their own private museums - and during this art fair, have opened the doors of their palatial houses to visitors for art viewings.
But as the Indonesian contemporary art scene grows and evolves, others have joined in the hunt for art. Among them, individuals who are as colourful as the collections they amass - from the patron who insists on partying with artists before he collects them, to the wacky guru with a penchant for futuristic art straight out of science fiction.
BUT FIRST, THE STYLISH FASHIONISTA: PAULA DEWIYANTI
The art fair is buzzing with activity and Dewiyanti has been busy switching from admiring the artworks to greeting acquaintances along the way.
At one point, she bumps into a group of women friends, one of whom proudly shows off her new handbag. They all laugh in recognition - it’s from Dewiyanti’s recent line of bags.
Paula Dewiyanti with one of her Loev bags at the art fair. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
A year ago, she and her two sisters launched a line of leather handbags under the Loev brand. “Beginning this year, we started marketing them on social media and through our network of friends and it’s doing pretty well. It’s also in one or two department stories and in Mandarin Gallery in Singapore, too,” she reveals.
Her slowly-growing fashion accessory business aside, collecting art is still Dewiyanti’s biggest passion. And if you thought it was a man’s world, she’s here to prove otherwise.
“There are many young female art collectors, but maybe they just don’t show up on the radar or they collect together with their husbands. But there are serious ones, and I think the number is growing,” she says.
Yuli Prayitno's Lazy Chair. (Photo: Paula Dewiyanti)
Dewiyanti herself is married, but when it comes to art collecting, it has been a one-woman project for the past decade.
“My husband isn’t too interested in art so sometimes, it’s difficult to display these at home because, you know, contemporary art isn’t always pretty,” she laughs.
Brought up by parents who were also collectors, she grew up exposed to art and eventually, “sort of wanted to have my own collection”.
It all began with a painting she bought during a trip to Vietnam, followed by another one by an Indonesian artist. After a few months, she realised these weren’t enough. “I wanted something more than just decor,” she says.
Octora Chan's Private Invitation. (Photo: Paula Dewiyanti)
The MBA graduate from Babson College in Massachusetts, who’s also involved in the family’s car dealership business, plunged into her new hobby and began to take things more seriously.
“I kept visiting galleries, maybe almost every week I’d go and ask questions. And I tried to look up books." Every time she travelled abroad, she also made pit stops at museums or biennales.
But it also turned out that 2007 - the year after she embarked on collecting - hadn't been a good one for newbie collectors. The Indonesia contemporary art scene was booming, prices of works shot up, and auction records were being broken.
The following year, a triptych painting by Balinese artist I Nyoman Masriadi sold for US$1.1 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong - the highest amount garnered at the time by a living South-east Asian artist at an auction.
Around that time, works by another hotshot artist, Eko Nugroho, were selling for US$30,000 a pop. Things were, in Dewiyanti’s words, “messy”.
“We couldn’t get our hands on really, really good artworks and even if we had the chance, it was expensive! Everyone was fighting for good works, buying, selling and trading. That was a crazy time,” she recalls.
From Wimo Ambala Bayang's Tissue Bride. (Photo: Paula Dewiyanti)
During all that madness, Dewiyanti and others like her began to get together in the book club equivalent for greenhorn Indonesian art collectors.
“We’d eat, have some slide presentations about artists and artworks… so serious right?” she laughs. “I don’t know if other older collectors did that, but there were maybe 20 of us who’d informally meet once a month. We’d go to different restaurants and sometimes we’d have to plead with (the owners) to let us do our slide shows!”
Like art world geeks? “Yeah,” she agrees, with a sheepish smile.
The meetings didn’t just foster a bond, it also trained them to think deeper about the artists and artworks they wanted to buy (the affordable ones, at least).
“At the start, I was attracted to things that were more sweet and pleasant to the eyes,” Dewiyanti says, “but now I like works that are not so ‘obvious’ but ones that, when you dig in, you find that a lot of thinking went into them.
"When somebody asks me about contemporary art, I tell them, you don’t look at it with just your feelings. It’s about the intellectual process behind it."
Aditya Novali's The Alphabet Of Dialectic Territory. (Photo: Paula Dewiyanti)
She now has around 50 artworks in her collection, of which four-fifths are by Indonesian contemporary artists whose stock has risen in the past few years, such as Wimo Ambala Bayang, Ay Tjoe Christine and Jompet Kuswidananto.
But, she points out, it’s a very modest collection compared to others'. Especially the more senior collectors with deeper pockets and decades-long involvement, whose collections may run into the hundreds or even thousands.
These days, she has slowed down her collecting ways. But once she got her new handbag business up and running, she picked up an installation piece by Aditya Novali, another Indonesian artist she admires.
“I bought it last month. It was my newest purchase in a year. I’m not aggressively looking for artworks now, I think I’ve passed that stage. But I do want to focus more on earning enough so that later I can buy more art!” she laughed.
THE ARTIST’S DRINKING BUDDY: TOM TANDIO
That Friday night, a big party kicking off the fair’s first day is in full swing at the hotel’s poolside area. Some of the country’s senior art collectors are letting loose on stage, belting out songs live-band karaoke-style.
There is property magnate Deddy Kusuma taking on an Elvis tune. Fellow multimillionaire collector Alex Tedja (who’s chairman of the entire hotel property, incidentally) also takes the mike for a bit.
But in between the two bigwigs’ performances, someone from the younger set gamely joins in the fun: Tom Tandio, with Pergi Untuk Kembali, a song by young Indonesian singer Ello.
“Everyone was singing in English, so someone had to represent Indonesia!” he quips, when we catch up later.
Tom Tandio with the photographic works of Wimo Ambala Bayang in his collection. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
For Tandio, partying, having fun, and perhaps having a drink or two, are all part and parcel of art collecting. In fact, he reveals, he buys works over drinks with artists.
“It’s different from some of my friends who also collect. I won’t go ‘Wow, it looks so nice, it’s crazy, I’m going to collect it.’ When I see something I like, I don’t immediately buy it. I hang out with the artist first, maybe pose some questions over drinks.
"You need time to make friends and find out what they’re crazy about. Once I love their personality and their practice, then I start to collect,” he says.
The intimacy and friendships he now builds with artists over art is a far cry from a decade ago, when the only reason he’d go to an exhibition was to “give face” to his then-sister-in-law, who happens to be Paula Dewiyanti.
“I wasn’t really an art person when I was young. Whenever I travelled, I’d skip the museums,” admits Tandio, who grew up in Singapore from the age of two until he was 16.
Even when he finally decided to give collecting a shot, the marketing and finance graduate from Boston University, who works in the automotive industry, initially played the investment game.
Until he started hanging out with artists and curators, that is. “As time went by, I’d learn from other people - I would hang out in Yogyakarta, Jakarta, and finally got to know what art was about. They’d scold me when I talked about investments,” he laughs.
Eko Nugroho's Generasi Monoton. (Photo: Tom Tandio)
Nowadays, Tandio’s involvement in the art scene is deeper. He’s currently the president of the Board of Young Collectors for Art Stage Jakarta and has also served on the board of the Jogja Biennale.
But perhaps his main contribution has been setting up Indo Art Now, a foundation that provides an online archive of Indonesian artists.
“We started off just archiving exhibitions, then we did videos. We would shoot at (artists') studios so you could see what kind of drinks they drink, the simple things,” he explains.
The foundation has also started doing other things in support of artists: Last year, it organised an exhibition of Indonesian artist Handiwirman in Japan and this year, it published a book on Ruang MES 56, a collective of photography artists based in Yogyakarta.
Melati Suryodarmo's Alienation Of The Stone Kemlayan. (Photo: Tom Tandio)
At the end of the day, however, Tandio is still a collector. And when he gets in the mood, he says, “it feels like a treasure hunt”.
“The thing about me is, when I start collecting, I like to do so in whole series - I’ll always collect their new works (but I also) love the process of hunting down their old ones.
"When I find out that an artist likes a particular old work of his, I’d hunt down the collector who owns it and try to get him to pass it to me,” he laughs mischievously, citing his substantial collection of videos by performance artist Melati Suryodarmo and photography artist Wimo Ambala Bayang’s series of photographs.
Albert Yonathan's Cosmic Labyrinth: The Bells. (Photo: Tom Tandio)
But the completist in him isn’t simply about collecting for collecting’s sake. As strange as it may sound to some, he isn’t collecting artworks but an artist’s “practice”.
He gives the example of why he collects the works of the famous artist Eko Nugroho, including the latter's works as a student.
“In my opinion, Eko is not just about himself. He represents a whole group of people working with him, because he has a few who help him with his embroidery works, a few who does his sculptural works, a few who does his contemporary wayang (theatre).
"He’s very unselfish and always thinks about how to build his community, and through him I understand that life is not about yourself but about a group of people,” Tandio says.
Tom Tandio will be showcasing his collection, including this piece by Jompet Kuswidananto, in Korea. (Photo: Tom Tandio)
Yes there is a gap between the older generation of Indonesian collectors and the younger ones in terms of spending power and years of experience, and Tandio points out that there’s a lot they can learn from their elders.
“Because of the lack of infrastructure here, a lot of the older private collectors have stepped in. Some would support projects or start museums, so I think they’ve influenced the younger collectors to be more involved and not just collect art for themselves,” he says.
Tandio's own efforts are slowly paying off. Some of the works from his “less-than-a-thousand-pieces” collection are set to be exhibited in Seoul. “I think they appreciate how, as a young person, I’m very involved in the arts here.”
Now that's being a true artist’s buddy, drinking or otherwise.
THE WACKY ART GURU: WIYU WAHONO
Somewhere inside Wiyu Wahono’s office is a potted petunia.
It looks like any typical flower you’d display to liven up a room. Except that it’s not just a pretty plant but, quite literally, a work of art. Called an Edunia, it was created by a Brazilian artist named Eduardo Kac, who had inserted his DNA into the flower.
“One time, I was going for a Christmas holiday trip to the US and stopped by Tokyo to visit an exhibition at the Mori Art Museum. I saw one of his artworks there, a living rabbit with jellyfish DNA mixed into it and it glowed in the dark!
"So I researched more about him online and found out he created art with living things. But I didn’t want to have a rabbit in my office, so I emailed him and bought his flower last year instead,” Wahono recalls with a chuckle.
Not your typical collector, Wiyu Wahono poses in front of a multimedia work by Ryoji Ikeda. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
Suffice it to say, the plastics industry businessman is not your typical art collector.
On display somewhere at the fair grounds are two works from his collection that wouldn’t look out of place in a science museum: A futuristic-looking video of fast-streaming digital data projected onto a wall straight out of the Matrix movies, and another work that hangs where visitors can stand in front of it and see a portrait of themselves - thanks to bacteria living inside 265 flasks.
At 58 years old, he’s slightly older than many of the younger collectors, but “someone has said that my taste is younger than any of them,” laughs Wahono, who plays something of a nerdy big brother to many of them.
Indeed, talking to him about art feels more like an intense loopy science-meets-history lecture by an excitable and extremely likeable professor.
Jim Allen Abel's Uniform series, Kopri. (Photo: Wiyu Wahono)
Within a span of one hour, Wahono manages to visit a multitude of topics, from the roots of 20th century American avant garde art and the relationship between Impressionism and photography, to the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, to the start of globalisation and the birth of the Internet.
He even squeezes in a comment or two about how passe Facebook and Instagram are, and how Snapchat is in. All punctuated by animated “oohs” and “aahs” and the charming cackle of someone delighted to share a secret with you.
Chalk it down to his experience living for 20 years in Berlin, from 1977, where he took up a PhD in plastics and taught in a technical university there. Living in the city’s cultural centre - just a hundred metres away from the New National Gallery - also exposed him to art.
But it was a trip to Venice during the early years living in Berlin that piqued his curiosity.
“I was backpacking and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum was one of the must-sees. So I went, and I can still remember, I saw a really ugly painting by Jackson Pollock. I was so confused - why is Indonesian art so colourful and European paintings so ugly, yet exhibited in a prestigious museum?” he laughs.
“My collecting journey has been a journey of finding answers to that shocking moment.”
Wahono's office looks more like an art gallery. (Photo: Wiyu Wahono)
Returning to Indonesia in the late `90s, he promptly began collecting art. At first it was the more conventional pieces like paintings and sculptures by Indonesians.
But by the mid-2000s, he became a little more adventurous. Noticing that gallerists were obsessing over art as a profit-making venture, Wahono turned to art theory books.
His horizons expanded, too, as he began to collect the lesser-known mediums of video and media art, which now comprise about half of his collections that number in the “several hundreds”.
He also realised there was an exciting world of contemporary art beyond Indonesia, such as Granular-Synthesis, a pioneering digital art duo from Austria who did unnerving spliced-up videos of heads, and Singapore’s Ming Wong.
In fact, when a friend told him about Wong’s award-winning video installation work Life Of Imitation (where he role-plays other characters) at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Wahono scrambled to sell an artwork in his collection to buy the fifth - and last - edition of Wong's work.
“I will do that again. If I want a very good piece and don’t have cash, I will sell,” he says.
Angki Purbandono's Instinct. (Photo: Wiyu Wahono)
He didn’t keep his new artistic insights to himself, either. According to collector Tom Tandio, Wahono would blast out weekly announcements of exhibitions taking place and encourage the younger collectors to get together.
For Wahono, collecting art has to do with the idea of the zeitgeist, the defining spirit of a particular time. It’s a favourite word of his to describe why he collects what he does - digital works, works by people of other nationalities, works that deal with identity, it all fits in an era of globalisation.
While many of his peers still concentrate on paintings and sculptures, Wahono gets philosophical about his collection and getting it right for future generations.
“There’s a big difference between what I think is the future and what those who are, say, 27, think is the future - and some of them will become collectors. What will they like? Certainly not boring artworks like paintings or sculptures.
" I don’t want (to be outdated) and for my kids to go ‘this is my grandfather’s collection’. I’ll commit suicide out of frustration!” he quips, again with his trademark laugh, before explaining his next obsession: An artist who has been making music using a piano and mushrooms.
Wahono has emailed him but has yet to receive a reply. When he does, you can be sure that at some point, it’s going to be part of his wacky collection - possibly right beside that potted human petunia of his.
More artworks at Wiyu Wahono's office. (Photo: Wiyu Wahono)