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The Premise of Contradiction and Feminist Politics: Reflections on Arahmaiani’s Art and Life

Arahmaiani, Free Market Indonesia, 2008. Image courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York
Angela Dimitrakaki describes how Arahmaiani’s life and work expose the alliane of capitalism, religion and the state in the subjugation of women.
Arahmaiani, Free Market Indonesia, 2008. Image courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York

Arahmaiani’s art and activism suggest that she may have lived a slightly different history of the world. Or, to be more precise, born in Bandung, Indonesia in 1961, she seems to have lived a prefigured history of the world as known in 2016. This, of course, has to do with the vantage point from which the history of the world is normatively written and, by implication, presumed to be lived and ‘known’. It is a vantage point affirming the hegemony, in the Gramscian sense of the word, of a ‘Western experience’, and the principal issue addressed in this short essay concerns the conflicts and contradictions this hegemony generates for feminist politics in the global art field.

Coming across a vitrine juxtaposing a box of condoms, a Buddha icon and the Qur’an, one might be tempted to date the artwork to sometime after 9/11, when the history of the world began to be scripted openly along the lines of a ‘clash of civilisations’. 01 And one would be wrong. Arahmaiani made Etalase (Display Case) in 1994. In terms of what neoliberal higher education now calls non-academic impact, Etalase would score rather high. It resulted in death threats issued by Islamic fundamentalists, causing Arahmaiani to flee Indonesia to Australia and, later, Thailand.02 Like so many other contemporary subjects, Arahmaiani has come to live a life of departures and arrivals, partly because of the fear of persecution, partly because of forms of activism that environmental challenges in Asia have demanded, 03 partly because of the ways production is organised in the art field today. This pattern of life is recognisable as ‘contemporary’ in its requirement of mobility. And yet ‘mobility’ is wholly inadequate in bringing forth the diversity of forced movement that delivers the global terrain as the realisation of a complex biopolitical rule – of which more later, after a few more words on hegemony.

Arahmaiani, Etalase (Display Case), 1994, installation with found objects. Image courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York

Feminism, Criticism, Expectations

When Etalase was exhibited as part of ‘Global Feminisms’, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 2007, 04 The New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith mentioned Arahmaiani among the artists that the curators had drawn from ‘the international biennial circuit’. Associated with ‘the institutional stage’, this circuit was one of two connected ‘success platforms’ from which the curators, we were told, had selected the participating artists – the other being ‘the market’. 05 Smith’s observations concerning the contexts where women artists meet ‘success’ should already be sufficient to raise, yet again, the issue of a feminist canon: is it an inevitable outcome of what a feminist exhibition or art museum does? 06 The issue of the canon is historically specific, being inevitably implicated in an art world operating on the principle of competition as the quintessential value of capital as social relation, or what Arahmaiani defined, back in 1993, as the transformation of ‘human life into a hopeless rat race, each rat struggling to reach the top of the social pyramid (the pinnacle of which is “pure materialism”)’.07

The contradiction between artistic (and most likely also curatorial) intentions and the selection process identified by the reviewer is far from new. It has been the permanent headache for feminism in the art world, at least since the second wave demanded visibility for women artists in the art world’s actually existing institutions. But Smith, in The New York Times, went on to say something more: ‘Most of the work here [in ‘Global Feminisms’] is essentialist, body-oriented and familiar to the point of old-fashioned. Again and again and again women fall back on making art from the thing nearest at hand that separates them from men: their bodies – and often echo their predecessors rather literally.’ 08 Given that ‘Global Feminisms’ only included artists born after 1960, the above remark presumes a global history of feminist art, articulated generationally, to be not merely a curatorial argument (and as such, possibly contested) but a fact: a transnationally manifested reality of distinct national-cultural spaces living through the same historical evolution of ‘feminist art’, so that when this art enters a shared exhibition space its progress can be evaluated as satisfactory or not according to a unique, appropriate and universal yardstick. This art was expected to advance on the basis of a progression of recognisable themes: works that are ‘body-oriented’ were deemed ‘old-fashioned’ by 2007 – that is, they were outmoded already nine years ago.

Insofar as ‘Global Feminisms’ was not just an exhibition of works/projects but a showcase for feminist artists’ commitments and long-term visions, Smith’s remarks epitomise the problem of criteria in the reception of feminist artists’ lives rather than just work. This has important implications for feminist methodologies, both in academia and curatorial practice, for it shows that overcoming biography as celebration of individual difference has not necessarily led to an updating of materialist feminist approaches in art history. While materialist feminism remains the only methodological approach to art history that enables us to attend to the connection between actually lived lives and the structures, processes and conflicts that dictate life choices and patterns, it urgently needs to address the loss of distinction between work and life identified with post-Fordism as the broader context of artistic production. Besides this, the critic’s demand for thematic evolution is symptomatic of feminism’s entrapment in the project mentality: not only individual artists but also generations of feminists should invent ‘new’ projects, that is, projects of sufficient innovation. Adopting such a project-based mentality is not without contradictions when it comes to feminism. Feminist artists’ lives are expected to unfold as a serial pursuit of reinvention while also sustaining a permanent political state of being. What is asked from artists such as Arahmaiani is to be unique as well as embedded in the allegedly collective advance of feminism as a global history. But global history, so far, is not one of collective advances. In fact, it is proving to be one of locally managed legacies of imperialism. Which may well be why the body, on which imperial violence is inflicted, refuses to evacuate the (art) historical scene.

The Forces that ‘Move’ the Body

If Etalase makes an oblique reference to the body, other works by Arahmaiani – especially her performances – deploy the body in immediate terms. And as Arahmaiani has herself explained, her interest has been in the body rather than in the category of performance art (a term she was introduced to by curators visiting Indonesia from Australia and Japan in the early 1990s). 09Already in 1993, she said: ‘What has become the focus of my attention are the situations, the forces that “move” the body.’ 10 This statement becomes more concrete if one considers Arahmaiani’s work overall; her focus on specific historical events, on the passage of history as such, is unmissable. This history is often highlighted as one of ‘disaster’ – disaster that refuses to go away and in relation to which (rather than in the aftermath of which) Arahmaiani creates.

Arahmaiani, Petaka (The Disaster), 2015. Installation view, Jakarta Biennale, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Jakarta Biennale

In Petaka (The Disaster, 2015), the piles of ‘used’ clothes interspersed in the exhibition space, as if discarded following the death of their owners, referred not just to the hundreds of thousands tortured and killed in 1965–66 during the infamous anti-communist purge led by General Suharto, but to the ways in which a past atrocity extends itself into the present: the history textbooks where the leftist intellectuals and farmers who opposed the Suharto regime are presented as murderers rather than victims; the precarous position of the Chinese minority in Indonesia, and the constantly exploited legacy of colonial rule; the regime’s former cadres’ continued spoliation of the country, now as directors of companies engaged in environmental destruction. Arahmaiani’s response, in 2013, to the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands was: ‘No, that is not true. It’s still ongoing.’ 11 In a recent national-press article written in response toa specific incident in Yogyakarta, where she currently lives, Arahmaiani criticised the violence of Islamic fundamentalists towards the LGBT community and highlighted the centuries-old tradition of Indonesian dance wherein men publicly perform in drag. 12 One might say, then, that if the body continues to be present in her work, as much as in anyone’s, this may well be because the body is not a ‘theme’ to be potentially dropped (in favour of less explored themes), but the target, register and effect of power. There is, indeed, nothing new in this, although power as such has a history.

Arahmaiani, Jangan Ada Lagi Kekerasan II (No More Violence II), 2015. Performance view, Jakarta Biennale, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Jakarta Biennale

Michel Foucault used the term ‘bio-power’ 13 in connection with the techniques of power adopted by the modern nation state, but what constitutes the ‘modernity’ of the contemporary, twenty-first-century state is becoming increasingly complex – not least because of the state’s role in what we have come to know as ‘globalisation’. Far from disappearing, the state now plays an indispensable role in dividing a globally connected workforce and the equally global surplus labour reserves into management-friendly units. In 2007, the year of ‘Global Feminisms’, Malcolm Bull wrote in his introduction to the Spring issue of New Left Review: ‘A selection of the most pressing political questions of the moment might include the following: Should women wear headscarves? May we buy and sell our bodily organs? How can we control the weather?’ Whereas such issues had been associated with the uneven terrain of globalisation as geo-political process, ‘now, many [such issues] are considered biopolitical in the sense that they are produced through interactions of political power with the private and the corporeal. Almost imperceptibly, globalisation has become biopolitics.’ 14 Women, as expected, have a special role to play in this process, since their crossing from the (presumed private) space of oikos to the (presumed public) space of the polis can still be described as a struggle. 15

Increasingly, it is becoming understood that this crossing may not be to emancipation but to a different domain and structure of subjugation. To say that ‘globalisation collapses the distinction of public and private’ hardly means that this collapse takes effect in favour of women. 16 If anything, we are hereby forced to recognise that a key demand of feminism (this very collapse) is realised to the opposite effect when not executed in the context of a feminist politics: the collapse of private and public under the aegis of global capital has not meant the liberation of women but a general feminisation of subjects, a constant pull of so-called singularities towards the loss of the rights of the polis as the rights of the fully human. Feminism must now speak about feminised bodies in this sense. But in this globalised sphere the state is not the sole engine of disempowerment and regulator of subjugation.

Articulations of Biopower

Arahmaiani’s prefigured, rather than deferred or belated, history of the world is important in many ways, but perhaps principally because it breaks with the tradition that sees radical art as always somehow being trapped in an ‘afterwards’, speaking its truth (and this can only be a social truth) from a future position. 17 It is this future position that will cause the oppositionality or criticality of art to be concretely experienced. Etalase is an example of a work that spoke a social truth in the ‘here and now’ of its making, and brought forth a biopolitical reception as a result. It was not the first time that the Indonesian artist experienced the impact of her art on her life. Since the early 1980s, Arahmaiani’s work has consistently challenged the oppression of women by religion. I will refrain from saying that her art has consistently challenged the oppression of women ‘by Islam’ or ‘by certain versions of Islam’. I do so not out of political correctness but rather because religion, historically and today, is the general framework sustaining patriarchal rule as women’s material and ideological reality of subjugation – even if in different eras and contexts one religion may appear more patriarchal than others. This typically has to do with the degree to which this or that religion manages to impose its rule in a given social context. What is called ‘fundamentalism’ can therefore appear, at least to those who represent it, as the logical extension of this primary imposition as a social consensus.

Arahmaiani would almost certainly disagree with the above position, as she does not reject religion altogether but rather defends the right to be critical of one’s religion in its relation to realised social power. And as one might expect, Arahmaiani’s critique is not exhausted with Islam, which is very important for negotiating how the critique of Islam is scripted into her art. She is also critical of capitalism, especially of its propensity to appropriate the wealth of life into the ring of consumerism. Etalase is also an ironic exposition of commodity fetishism, including the commodity fetishism that applies to the artwork as an assortment of ‘things’ brought together by the artist’s singular vision and encased as ‘the work’. The proximity of the condom, Qur’an, Coca-Cola bottle and other objects in the glass case is what has been perceived as offensive to a great extent – a double offence, for not only is a sacred text equated with mass-produced objects signifying ‘pleasure’ (condoms and Coca-Cola) but all are contained and overwritten by the authority of the artwork. However, the scenario becomes plausible only if one has the power to attribute to art the power to cause offence. The paradox of art as non-deferred but actually existing critique is this: art’s power to undermine is recognised as ‘real’ first and foremost by those who hold real power – by which I mean power that can be evidenced in its material consequences rather than held symbolically as the promise of power.

Arahmaiani’s work, its reception and the impact of this reception on the life of a ‘woman artist’ (if we are to retain this important historical and political category introduced decades ago by feminist art history), invites reflection on the range of agents commanding power over life, or what is called ‘biopower’. The concept of bio-power has generated such widespread interest in conjunction with the biopolitical reality of capitalist globalisation and neoliberalism as to hide from view what the etymology of the term suggests. Whereas there is no doubt that capital institutes forms of governance that are biopolitical, organised religion’s participation in ‘techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations’ is hard to refute. 18The reflections that Arahmaiani’s work and, crucially, life itself invite cannot but address that gender, sex and reproductive politics remain the fundamental parameters in the critique of biopower, and that on many occasions the symbiosis of religion and the state is symptomatic of the culture of alliance required for the articulation of biopower. Such an alliance grows stronger if capital joins it. Globalisation presents numerous examples where the triangle of capital-state-religion is becoming normalised. In Europe this is evident in nation states where post-socialist regimes have been adopting a model of transition that comfortably combines capitalism, the state and religion in dictating specifically the management of women’s bodies (in relation to abortion, foremost). 19 In these cases, the religion is Christianity, which I will take as corroborating the argument that we must look at religion at large as a mechanism of combining control and discipline as well as the management of behaviour, rather than at this or that expression of theocratic rule.

The issue of religion and feminism can no longer be sidelined. Inevitably, the discussion has to encompass the troubling question of whether the idea of politics as such (including feminist politics) is compatible not just with the framework of any organised religion but with belief in a power that is placed over and above the world of human affairs, including society, history and biology. The contradiction at the heart of modern politics, that social relations are mediated both by an immanent and an extraneous power, is symptomatic of modernity’s failed project of secularism; but this should not be seen as an accident. In this light, a feminist critique of religion that does not disregard religion – such as that practiced by Arahmaiani – is not a non sequitur but rather a form of critical pragmatism as the ground for politics. And this includes feminist politics. It is a critique that confronts the actuality of power not only in the ‘external’ environment but also in the processes and sedimentations of internalisation – in what used to be called ‘ideology’.

Arahmaiani, Nation for Sale, 1996, installation and performance. Performance view, 2nd Asia-Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, Australia, 1996. Courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York

A Return to Ideology?

Ideology, in its Marxist apprehension as the set of naturalised ideas covering the reality of social relations that must be reproduced to the benefit of the ruling class, was once a core term of feminist art history, at least as thought and written in Europe and North America in the 1970s and 80s. Progressively, and as the tensions of societies made to operate for global capital became apparent, from the 1990s onwards – and at an accelerated pace since the ‘crisis’ of 2008 – ideology has fallen into gradual disuse. Who needs to understand the formation of subjectivity through the naturalisation of values and ensuing interpellations (to remember Louis Althusser) when both subjects and values end up reproducing a planetary social reality strewn by devastating hyperproduction (and therefore consumption) and unbridled dispossession? The systemic ills arising from global capitalism are plain for all to see, and as regards the position of most women, suffice to download data from the World Bank and International Labour Organization (ILO) websites. 20 Importantly, the ‘position of most women’ is generated by the culture of alliance among current forms and institutions of biopolitical governance. This alliance may be expressed according to whatever variety of forms, ‘local’ parameters or customs, but women continue to carry the burden of gendered oppression. In her 1997 performance Handle without Care, a video record of which is held at the re.act.feminism performance archive, the commentary on the alliance was obvious. It is worth giving the archive’s description of the work:

The performance takes place on top of a hill just before sunset. The artist, clad in an elaborate ceremonial outfit, performs Balinese dance movements around a white circle painted on the ground with a large bottle of Coca-Cola standing upright in the middle. The artist, wearing black sunglasses, holds two plastic toy guns in her hands, incorporating them as ritual elements of the dance. During the performance she shakes the Coke bottle and eventually opens it with an explosion of pent-up carbonation that spills into the smaller circle. Mantras can be heard on a CD player, whose singing mixes with the electronic sounds of the guns, producing a cacophony of sound. Through a game of extremes between sacred and profane, between the religious objects and the cheap ones of mass consumption, Arahmaiani introduces dissonant elements in her interpretation of society and questions its ritualisation, reflecting on its tensions and contradictions.21

Arahmaiani, Handle without Care, 1996. Performance view, 2nd Asia-Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, Australia, 1996. Photograph: Manit Sriwanichpoom. Courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York

As a totalising enterprise, globalisation (a term whose glorious ascent to ubiquity began around the time of this performance) is the expert field where dissonant elements come into confluence to bring forth a specific, if formidable in scale, organisation and management of, well, dissonance. Globalisation overcomes what postmodernism delivered as ‘surrealism without the unconscious’, in the unforgettable expression of Fredric Jameson. 22 Rather, each fragment finds its place, arranged by the alliance of biopower to fairly specific effects – the overarching of them dubbed a more or less operative ‘empire’ despite capital’s crises. 23 The ‘cheap’ objects of ‘mass consumption’ used by Arahmaiani in her performance are also objects of mass production and cheap labour. The ‘game of extremes between sacred and profane’ is a prophesy of the nineteenth century, worded back then as ‘all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’. 24 It is The Communist Manifesto’s remarkably accurate prediction about turbulence in the twenty-first century. But curiously, globalisation as the ground where holy things become profaned is also where human beings are held increasingly hostage to the biopolitics of holiness. The return to a certain kind of surrealism is undeniable, except that now the designation applies to the autonomisation of the economy from politics as a real-life vanguard generated out of capital’s dynamism, on the one hand, and to increasingly persuasive articulation of capitalism’s materialism with religion’s promise of post-life exodus through immateriality, on the other. Arahmaiani’s art addresses the failure of any such synthesis.

In Conclusion, Nothing Is Left Behind

What can feminism learn from Arahmaiani’s art and life story? And more importantly, perhaps, how can feminism avoid marginalising it as a challenging anomaly to canonised expectations about how feminist art history ought to be proceeding? What is to be done with an embodied paradigm that is ‘different’ to the one already normalised in, and through, feminism – a political discourse and praxis that, in addition to other ruptures, has succeeded in creating its own periodisation of art’s history? I am purposefully using the singular ‘history’ to refer to an evolving narrative about contemporary art. Yet this is not to propose a false unity of simultaneous feminist activity in relation to it, but rather to indicate a political reluctance to concede to a compartmentalised articulation of the rebelliousness of feminist consciousness. High globalisation and its biopolitical matrix of power disallow the fiction of such compartmentalisation. Effectively, globalisation as biopolitics compels us to do away with the idea not of the new but of the old.There is no old subject matter. There is nothing old in a mode of production that has a place for everything and everyone. There’s just constant synchronisation and its setbacks, which social struggles must strive to make the most of. Hence the importance of Arahmaiani’s prefigured history of the world. Her long-term politics appears to be located in exposing the contradictions this intricate administrative regime is most eager to accommodate. And feminism in the art field can, and must, register, politically, what this accommodation holds for the subjects that get caught in the impossibility of completing this process.