Yogyakarta or “The City of Artists” hosts bounteous opportunities for experts of craft. And unlike many Westerners I know who’d pass up art exhibitions for televised golf matches, most of the Javanese actually want to witness what art has to say. In local galleries, the concepts of belief and surrender—both heroic and tragic—weigh on the human experience and display it over a flame.
Here no story is too old and no artist is too naïve. Puppet construction, dance, gamelan, mask-making, and batik-painting still command focus in art schools and museums across Yogja; and live performances, displayed with traditional taste, demand diverse audiences at cultural centers implanted like gems throughout the city. Here many Javanese—educated or uneducated, wealthy or struggling—savor inspiration from the old times. Almost everything is free.
Combining traditional craft with modern inventiveness, a new generation of artists displays its genius in public restaurants, private galleries, and open courtyards: visceral, and also, for the native Javanese, poignantly familiar.
Where best to witness innovative art? At Taman Budaya, “The Window of Yogyakarta,” where works from local artists are displayed in monthly exhibitions, and where at any hour of the day (perhaps Ramadan aside), dance, music, and puppet performances cater to the public.
I went to Taman Budaya with a friend from Switzerland who wished to see the latest exhibit on marine culture. While I had previously been impressed by symbolic batik displays and contemporary gamelan performances, I was not at all impressed by the Indonesian developments in the art mediums of television and film, which—my Indonesian friends will admit—feature special effects predating the 1950s; so I was convinced the marine exhibit would introduce me to a “mixed bag” of artistic talent, or cold-cut expertise at best.
The evocative effect of the exhibit was entirely unexpected, and perhaps greater than I experienced at any other art gallery, including the Louvre, Gaudi Museum, and (dare I say it) the museum most dear to my origins: The Art Institute of Chicago. When I arrived, the frontal face of Taman Budaya had been built up to resemble a colorful reef or ship, and in front of the entrance was a merry-go-round on which traditional puppets with horrified faces waved at onlookers as levers turned with the wind. Steady. Haunting. Without any hint of globalism, one could sense that the culture was hung up and set aspin.
The inside of the exhibit was equally mesmerizing. Ancient knowledge of puppet construction was used to build large-scale moving sculptures that periodically ejected hearts from bull-headed human soldiers; wooden wings hanging from the ceiling pumped on tireless hinges to demonstrate the ironically confining nature of “flight” and the development of man into machine. Western magazines paved space for an absent traditional boat. From a frame on the wall, demonstrating the consumptive nature of humanity at its height, a fish grasped a fish in its mouth that grasped another fish in turn, down to the tiniest sardine. And in small rooms throughout the gallery from high quality projectors rolled Indonesian films proving that I had judged the film-art industry too soon: films that explored the interior of a coffee drop, the disorienting direction of waves on a forlorn coast, the slow consumption of an edible masterpiece.
Taman Budaya introduced me to a facet of Yogya that made me proud to be its new resident. It was a side that had not lost sight of its tradition, and that also was not afraid to speak up for what globalism had set to fade. Artistic genius such that I saw at Taman Budaya must have come from a loaded place: one worth admiring, and—for a person curious like myself—one worth exploring down to the depth where the anchor sits.