Rio Helmi got into conversation with Jim Supangkat, curator of the Age of Photography exhibition currently on display at Tony Raka Gallery in Mas, Ubud.
RH: Where did the idea for this exhibition come from?
JS: Actually in the beginning Sjaiful (Boen) and Pak Kun (Tanubrata) did an exhibition and then had the idea to extend the scope and include more photographers. But after approaching a few people it became obvious that there was a need for a theme that could spark their interest. So the theme that came up after we discussed it together was the idea of providing information to the photography world in Indonesia and the public regarding the positioning of photography in the contemporary art world. Actually photography has become very, very important in the art world.
RH: So why in Ubud?
JS: Well Tony Raka had requested me in the past to do something like this.
RH: The market for art in Bali is comparatively well developed here, was the idea to break into that?
JS: No, not really. It was more: “let’s not always do things like this in Jakarta…”
RH: So it’s just decentralization?
JS: In truth there was no special agenda behind doing it here. It just kind of evolved. I met up with the painter Manggu and he also said “why not do it in Bali?” The group of photographers in Jakarta said: “we should involve photographers in Bali, including the expat ones” and so it happened.
RH: In reality you only saw the complete range of the exhibition when you got here the other day. What was your impression?
JS: Well I was impressed by how extensive it was. I really felt photography was expanding in so many ways. That was actually one of the main points of this exhibition. During our early meetings with the photographers I emphasized for them to reconsider how photography was doing this, expanding (into different dimensions). The idea was to get away from the “normal” or the obvious, to get away from the “photo club/photo salon” look. Many of the professional photographers who were invited to participate were already concerned that it shouldn’t be that kind of event.
RH: Were you surprised to see the results?
JS: Yes I was surprised! There are so many possibilities that perhaps have been explored elsewhere abroad but not here in Indonesia. I think this might be the first time (in Indonesia) that there has been a photography exhibition with such an expanded range. Before this we tried at Ciputra (in Jakarta), it was a big exhibition but wasn’t as progressive as this. I think this is really a first.
RH: Do you think we are breaking new ground?
JS: Well not exactly. There have been many contemporary artists who have used photography as their medium or part of their medium. But many photographers who came to their exhibitions were disturbed by the way they used photography. The thing is the contemporary artist will use any medium to hand, it could be photography or video etc, but for them it’s just to be used. They just use it in a very basic way. So the photographers were protesting at the way photography was being treated.
RH: Was that an issue of proprietorship or was there something else behind it?
JS: It’s really an issue of “language”. A contemporary artist doesn’t really care about the skills, the craft etc.
RH: The photographers were upset at the “grammar” that the contemporary artists were using?
JS: Yes, the technical aspects. So the issue was the lack of mastery. But here the players who are experimenting etc are all photographers, so you can really feel the difference. They have mastered the language of photography so if they deconstruct it they are totally aware of what they are doing.
RH: You have to know the rules in order to break the rules?
JS: Exactly. You can’t get away from a fluency in the language.
RH: Sometimes I think that photographers like me, our generation who had to work hard to learn the art of photography are just a bit annoyed now that everything is so easy and automatic etc. Maybe it’s just sour grapes?
JS: I don’t think so. There’s another aspect to this besides the skills. Because photographers work so intensively in their medium, constantly photographing etc, their visual memories have built up a tremendous bank. Of course they don’t always shoot what they see. But their eyes are always recording. So when a photographer decides to take a photo, he isn’t just shooting just that reality of the moment – there are all kinds of visual memories in his mind that come into play in the decision making. So one click, one photograph is actually a pile, layers of visual memories. It’s semiotic.
RH: When I give a workshop I often talk about the ethics of being a photographer, because the photographer has a major role in forming the visual psyche of the public. Many are not aware that they are part of a large, powerful movement. In that context do you see this exhibition as a spearhead or just a simple expression of the existence of this role?
JS: I think here it’s a question of awareness raising.
RH: The awareness of the photographer as well?
JS: Of course. They should explore. I am convinced if they (photographers) experiment they will have better results than contemporary artists who use photography as part of their experimentation.
RH: But there are challenges. For example, while I come from a more documentary background, Oscar Motuloh (who is also in the exhibit) comes from an almost exclusively journalistic background. So when we are invited to join this we feel some kind of need to present something that is more “ART”. Even you commented yesterday on Oscar’s submission: “Well this is really different from his usual work”.
JS: Well if you reread my introduction, actually what switched a lot of avant-garde artists to the use of photography was actually documentary and journalistic photos of the time. That was the turning point. Because it had a message. People where taken aback when modernists took this route. It actually came through journalistic and documentary work.
RH: A couple of years ago I got into a friendly argument with Firman Ichsan (lecturer at the Film And Television Faculty of IKJ in Jakarta) about some contemporary photography I had seen in Jakarta. I thought it was just bad, and he laughed and said I was too old fashioned, stuck with the need for message, content etc.
JS: Well for the very progressive, when they experiment the first time it’s a breakthrough. But when people then just copy it, it just becomes bad. When someone does something totally crazy initially it has its own value, but if you just repeat that and try and make it your expression people are going to make demands. If you don’t know the ‘language’ then it’s just babble. Language is not just a medium of communication; it’s also respecting others. If we just babble at someone and don’t care if they understand then it’s a waste of time.
RH: But is the visual literacy in photography in Indonesia there? People ask me what makes a great photo and the only thing I can say that gets through is “well hang it on your wall, and if you still like it in six months, then it’s good for you”. I mean I can talk composition etc, but in the end are you touched by it or not?
JS: Well even if a photo is just a snap shot, the reality of that photograph is that it has many layers, that have a semiotic connection. It’s not just “reality”. There are many factors, angles etc, and many layers. Photography has pervaded our lives. It is the Age of Photography.
Portrait of Jim Supangkat © Rio Helmi
“Reactor” light portrait of Rio Helmi © Jiri Kudrna
All other photos by Catriona Mitchell