On the Mountain: Frangipani Trees, Microclimates & Community Entanglements

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As we travel to Kaliurang from Yogyakarta by car we pass an old cemetery, marked from the surrounding landscape by an orchard of Frangipani tree’s whose grey entangled branches are used to provide shelter for the sprits of loved ones. We stop here for a moment to look closer and take in the pocket of intense sunshine that can be all to fleeting during rainy season in the tropics. As we continue on route the temperature drops and the sky clouds over, not merely the effect of a meteorological change but a sign we are entering the microclimate of the foothills of the volcano Merapi, an area that is noticeably cooler than most of the region. Initially the drop in temperature comes as a surprise as the gradual gradation of the road left us unaware how high we had already climbed. It’s only towards the end of the journey, as we traverse sharp inclines and winding hilly roads, that we get a sense that we are in a mountainous environment. 

As we pull in to our destination, a large open fronted antique shop, we see the usual groups of friends and colleagues from the Yogyakarta art scene sitting on the steps of the shop smoking, laughing, hanging out. We’ve all made the journey to this village on the foothills of the volcano for the opening day of 900mdpl, a site-specific art project that invited 9 artists to develop works across Kaliurang, and to work with the inhabitants in their development and delivery. The project takes its name from Kaliurang’s height above sea level.  This village, hometown of the projects Curator Mira, has the familiar feel of a slightly jaded tourist resort. The once grand, now faded architecture of many of the buildings serves as an indicator of the resorts heyday in the first half of the 20 century. 

The antique shop itself is the starting point, as well as informal visitor centre for the project; hosting a hand drawn map of the town marking the location of each work, selling pocket guides to the exhibition as well as providing free food and drinks. For our visit, these maps are useful to get a spatial overview of the project but are not needed for routing as we have the luxury of joining one of the guided tours lead by project artists scheduled throughout the opening days. A small group of us gather out the front of the antique shop ushered by Dito Yuwono, an artist in the project and fellow resident of Kaliurang. He begins by giving a brief overview of 900mdpl, before directing us into the antique shop.

Its here we encounter the first work, a video by Simon Kentgens is projected on to the back of a shelf in one of the display cases. The video shows a succession of objects placed onto a table, turned, adjusted then swapped for the next by a disembodied hand. Over the top are voices telling the story of the objects and why they were selected, Kentgens having asked the different generations of this family run shop to narrate their favourite objects. We each que for our turn at a frontal view of the film as our guide describes the story of the work. We watch for a couple of minutes then move on, perusing the everyday objects in the shop as we work our way toward the exit. Dito gathers us on the corner of the store and when assembled leads us single file down a narrow ally to the side.

Passing through a concert doorway the ally opens out into a large empty plot to the rear of the shops building. At the centre of this overgrown patch of land is a rectangle concrete foundation and the low remains of walls. At first there seems to have been little to no intervention into the site, then as our guide starts to tell the story of the work, clearly intentional compositions start to come into view. It is explained that this is the work of the artist Maryanto. A work in which he responded to the story of a local man with metal health issues, Lik Sigun, who disappeared over three years ago. This site, once occupied by the missing man, was totally overgrown when the artist first came to it. After trying to find personal accounts from family, friends and neighbours about Lik Sigun’s life and activities the artist set about cutting back the trees and plants to clear the site, revealing the concrete base of the house the man once live in, a form of negative sculpture. Maryanto then created a range of compositions across the site using materials found there to refer to specific anecdotes about Lik Sigun. This included the display of a (kind of amazing) set of stone sculptures, presumed to have been carved by the sites former resident, as well as 5 live rabbits referring to the animals Sigun used to let roam across the site.

We wondered about the ethics of re-claiming the site and how the family felt, but were told all were involved in the process of making this home(age) to the missing and marginalised man, and saw the work as a welcome tribute. We also wondered about the ethics of including the rabbits as props in an artwork (one of which went missing during the project). Visiting this site we felt part explorer, part actor in a movie set, part crime scene investigates. It seemed to us the discomfort engendered through the telling of this personal history, where it took place; asking the public to trespass on the abandoned home of a missing person whose difficult reality living with mental health issues, was key to the works agency. However, the micro-politics of the artists conversations and negotiations with Lik Sigun’s family and friends, as well as the legacy of the project (so as not to create another moment of loss) were key to understanding the ethics of the work, none of which we had access to as an audience. Although our guide gave an overview of the project, described the various elements of the work and chatted through any questions, answers were brief and convivial. Upon reflection the project could have benefited from the guides narration moving beyond descriptive, each guide being briefed to address the particular problematic’s of each work and how these issues were navigated. Although, as a public you can never truly make a judgement about the micro-politics of a such a project without meeting the community directly, or better yet, observing the process yourself. 

As we left the site we walked across the road and down a small incline towards one of the older faded houses.  We entered what turned out to be a hotel and saw documentation of an interactive performance by Mella Jaarsma that used the cold of a fridge to cool guest’s body temperatures in order to feel the full warming effects of the hot chocolate served there. Passing out the other side, we walked further this time, all the while chatting about the past and present of the village, the architecture of the buildings, the weather and the biennale this project was timed to coincide with. Turing left down a steep hill we came to the home of the curator and our guide, hosting works by Dimaz Maulana and Sandi Kalifadani. Maulana created a setting for the re-telling of stories from interviews he conducted with residents about personal memories of place, combined with fictionalised narratives. Kalifadani presented a documentation installation of Walk The Folk, a project in the form of a walking tour / gig / story exchange. 

A few hundred yards further down the same road we come to a series of adjoined spaces. What seems to be a small hotel hosted the project by our guide Dito Yuwono, with the work of Anggun Priambodo in the next unit. Here Yuwono re-imagined a previous project in which he worked with Tukang Photos; tourist photographers who would take Polaroid’s of visitors, providing an instant souvenir. He discussed with them their changing labour conditions as tourism slowly declined, as well as the effects of changes to the technology of photography; the cessation of Polaroid film production combined with the proliferation of the smart phone camera proving the ultimate death knoll for this form of work in the area. Priambodo’s work involved an overlapping set of actions with an elderly community. He began by volunteering with the group, teaching a acting class, as well as lending his skills to local efforts to promote the area to visitors. His final installation included a video of the senior citizen group singing a song written by a local activist of the elderly, as well as pile of found branches, neatly trimmed to serve as walking sticks that could be freely taken for use as long as they are returned or passed on to the next walker. The final two projects, completing the meandering loop, were a sound installation by Eva Olthof in the Merapi volcano monitoring station and a plant exchange shop by Edita Atmaja that asked local residence to swap household plants and mapped the dissemination, creating a place for passer-by to stop, discuss, and share stories.  

For me the key question that I kept asking for all the works in 900mdpl and ultimately for the project itself was; what is the quality of the relationship between the visiting art world (including both the artists engaging for a few weeks as well as the audience) and the local community of Kaliurang. Like the branches of Frangipani trees in the cemetery, the layers of social relations in a place like Kaliurang, or most communities, are a entangled and complex. These relations are underlined by the changing economic and social conditions of the context. When engaging in such a context its important to ask how a visiting group of artists can divert the systems of production and circulation within which they operate (the art system) to usefully effect real and lasting contributions to the local condition. Working with the local community to critically interrogating their past and present, in order to think together about futures beyond those prescribed by the logic of the market. A question that we start to see emerge in projects of Priambodo and Yowono, for example, but that could be further developed. 

These formulations are important, as any form of situated social practice is always, to some extent, extractive. Even if only in as much as the artist gets the opportunity to make new work and the curator attains a certain cultural capital. As such, in the development of such projects it is necessary to think in-depth about how and why we ask the community to enter into a host / collaborative relationship. For me the ultimate aim of any social practice should start from the community, to work together with them to effect long-term social change (how ever small scale that change might initially be). At the same time as working in-depth on a local level, also asking how any successes might be scaled up to trans-national systems, even if this only exists as an unreachable target on the horizon. Going back to the specific context of Kaliurang, an old tourist town, one question might be; what can the local community do after the trend/meme summoned bodies and bucks of tourists move away on a wave of viral posts searching for the next big selfie. Can this microclimate on the side on the mountain serve as a space in which alternative forms of community organising and micro-political systems can be nurtured and developed?

(Alec Steadman)