Journal

Das Journal auf portikus.de dient als Erweiterung der Ausstellungen im Portikus. Verschiedene Beiträge wie Essays, Interviews, Erzählungen oder Foto- und Videobeiträge vermitteln einen genaueren Blick auf die Interessen der ausstellenden Künstler und reflektieren Themen, die unsere Gesellschaft, Politik und Kultur betreffen.

In the Mood for Bengawan Solo

Paula Kommoss, Arin Rungjang
2018-09-17

Anlässlich Arin Rungjangs Ausstellung Bengawan Solo im Portikus spricht Paula Kommoss im Interview mit dem Künstler über die Entstehung des Werkes und die Bedeutung des Flusses Bengawan Solo.

PK: What really interests me, first of all, is how did you come to find the singer for your work Bengawan Solo?

AR: A while ago, I was in Yogyakarta [in Indonesia] and had started to do research on Diponegoro, the priest to the Sultan of Yogya who is depicted in a painting by Raden Saleh. Raden Saleh was an Indonesian painter who fled from the country because of political aggression between the Dutch administration and indigenous Indonesian monarchy during the mid-19thcentury. Saleh went on to study Western painting, and his style was inspired by Delacroix, for example, which you can see in his compositions, use of lighting and so on.

Of course, all of this has been studied, and here I was wandering around in all this history about Yogyakarta and Indonesia in general, and I was also looking at the Chinese communist movement in Indonesia and so on. So, I had done all this research, and then I kept thinking about my relationship to Indonesia in general, which is always my starting point to making work. But I couldn’t find a very real connection to this material, except with the song ‘Bengawan Solo’, which I began to see would be my point of departure.

The first time I heard ‘Bengawan Solo’, I thought it was a Chinese song because I didn’t realise it hadn’t been written by the Chinese woman who sang it in 1960s. In a sense I had taken the Indonesian away in my mind. The song was really important personally because it was connected to a time in which I was questioning my sexuality, I was gay, I was not that gay, I didn't know what I was. I fell in love with a guy because of this song – it was a very romantic period for me.

I had the song in my mind for a very, very long time – stored in some part of my brain and my memory and then, even before I came to Indonesia, I discovered that the song was not by the Chinese woman after all, but that it was an Indonesian guy who wrote it in the 1940s, when he was only 19 years old. He had quit school and was working in a Kroncong band, the traditional Indonesian band that you can see in the video. And so, he created ‘Bengawan Solo’, which became incredibly popular. When Indonesia came under Japanese occupation [during the second World War], two years later, the song spread throughout Japan. There was a Dutch woman who was born in Indonesia but grew up in a Japanese internment camp, and she knew the song because it was played by the Japanese. It became stuck in her memory too, and so she sung a version of it as a teenager in the 1960s, which became really popular in Singapore and in other parts of Asia. So that was the song, and all these stories that are part of it became part of my knowledge, too.

I then got to know Rochelle – who sings this version of ‘Bengawan Solo’ – through a mutual friend. At that time, I was looking for someone who could imbue the song with more meaning beyond my own personal memories, and to share the song and its resonance with that person. So, my friend introduced me to Rochelle, a singer in a Kroncong band. Before we met, I didn’t know that Rochelle was the daughter of Lendra, a very important poet, or that her mother was a Princess, one of the daughters of the Sultan of Yogya. I was just looking for a singer who could deliver this song and share in its meanings. We met and got to know each other, and I learnt about her personal memories and history and so on, and it was so great – that there was this connection that I didn’t expect to find. I mean, I guess because things are always in circulation, things are always just there, even if it’s happening through different times. And so, the work is also about these layers of histories and memories and what we couldn’t foresee.

Actually, I didn’t need to put all that information onto the table in the show, it was just a way to display my research. For me, it’s enough to look at Rochelle singing that song and think of all these things that were happening before, before the song became so evocative for me. Like the Chinese using the river as a way to transport dead bodies during the Communist regime, and also Mushagra, Diponegoro, Raden Saleh’s painting, and all of these narratives that were in circulation through history, through art, and through memories – that’s what I think is so rich and thought-provoking.

PK: And the great thing is that all of these stories are brought together through the song ‘Bengawan Solo’, which tells the story of the legendary Solo River in Java, the island’s longest, in a really poetic way. The river is both the song’s main narrative, flowing from mountains to the sea, but also its title. So, on the one hand the lyrics lay out this seemingly simple story, but on the other, there are all these layers of narratives that you have just described: that the song comes historical connotations of the Japanese occupation, and something you mentioned earlier, that during the Communist regime, the bodies of those murdered by the state were washed by the same river. These stories are often violent but the song is beautiful, and whether you speak the language, or you don’t, a song is always a way to reach out to people.

AR: Yes, and so much spirit…

PK: …and to trigger emotion in a way.

AR: Yes, and once the work was done and shown, it was not just about me and Rochelle anymore. Like my story might be a silly one to share with the song but Rochelle’s is really rich, and also, I like to think about those people who might say “I remember this song”, and can share their own memories as well. I like what you just said about even someone who had never heard the song before, being able to access it through the narrative. So, it means that it is not just the song that evokes emotion and opens people’s hearts and feelings...

PK: Yes, and also because the song plays in a loop throughout the work, you sit there and you start reading the story as it unfolds, but the music keeps repeating over and over. As a viewer, you add all these layers on top of the music; it’s a nice way to make the song richer for everybody. And actually, I heard the song for the first time in the film In The Mood of Love (2000) but of course I didn't know anything about it then.

AR: I have used two versions of the song in my work – the version from In the Mood for Loveand the version that speaks to my experience as a gay man, which is the original recording of ‘Bengawan Solo’. Actually, [in that film] they made it into a love song. I think the film is very poignant, every time I watch it, it always gives me tears because it’s such a symbol really, about the people who lived there peacefully, and then it becomes kind of actively related with other knowledge – a cruelty of the world and colonization and so on. The land has been there for thousands and thousands of years, and on it people live and die, live and die, live and die, and they leave traces of their memories in the land and for me it’s beautiful.

PK: Yes, I think so too, and you are opening up with this really personal story, which in a way makes you vulnerable. And this is a starting point that I appreciate a lot, explaining how you discovered that you’re gay and so on, and how you become conscious of this through the romance that this song embodies for you, which adds such an emotional layer to it.

AR: And that works because I made the work specifically for Indonesia, and because if you’re gay in a Muslim country, it is very difficult, and I had a very difficult life. To share the work as an Indonesian gay Muslim was to give those feelings space, and I wanted to show the audience that they could maybe share in this level of intimacy between myself as an artist and them as the audience, through the song.

PK: You’re making it possible to expand this song, which is from Indonesia and everybody there will have their own personal connotations of it. But through opening it up and to align it with love as well is expanding the context of the song once more.

AR: It’s not only about being gay as well, I mean love as it is for all human beings…

PK: And acceptance, in a way.

AR: Like when Rochelle talks about Gusta – “Gusta is the almighty”, and Gusta doesn’t have gender – Gusta could be anything.

PK: Especially when Rochelle talks about her father, and how when he got older his ego wasn’t in the way anymore. I found that really interesting, because one could argue that when people are strongly against something, or stuck in their ways, it’s mostly because their pride is in their way. Whereas in your work ‘Bengawan Solo’, there are two narratives woven into each other and also visually, you’re surrounded by a kind of orchestra – as a viewer you feel as if you are almost facing a community.

AR: Yeah, it’s not a movie – I mean, it works in the way that we are using this type of virtual immersion to convince people, so it’s like the narrative is going on inside someone’s head.

PK: Yes, and I’m happy we get to see it here in Frankfurt. Songs are good tools to get people’s attention.

AR: It’s really that simple, yes? Because I have been working with moving image for many years and it was always different from recreating an event as a film, because it’s about how to transform it – because I always think that nothing can replace reality, and once the moment has passed and you want to go back to it, it will already have layers that weren’t there before. But I have been thinking about how to make such a recreation into something more transparent, and so for me music is about representing reality in a different way. In one sense, music is just music, but as with this song – it was created in 1940s and already had all these historical resonances, and so all these years later it is not just about the original song itself but all the layers of the spheres that the song has passed through. I think that’s enough – Bengawan Solo has its own content and to allow this content to appear in the current contemporary moment, I think this is really important.

PK: What I also like, is when you first sit down in front of the work, in a way you just read the texts. Yes, you encounter these different musicians and the singer, but for me it was kind of like going on a story ride, you know? Because as you describe the river and what happened, it’s like this storytelling moment that transforms the viewer into a child that listens and soaks everything up and from there you go on throughout the work. And somehow the story isn’t closed, which is really nice.

AR: Yeah. That’s great. I’m planning to do a new work in Berlin next year and I hope to add some other pieces.

PK: That sounds really interesting.

AR: And you know, I wasn’t quite sure about my way of making work. I mean, as a person growing up in Thailand, in that region the majority of our knowledge is not that strong, so to speak, it’s not that constructed like in Western countries. I liked conceptual work when I was young, I found it really thoughtful, but I mean we weren’t really into nature. And also, in our culture we never separate body and soul, body and spirit. A person is never separate from God. It was almost like Joseph Beuys but it was not this constructed idea. It was just in the nature of the people who lived there. It’s both a bad thing and a good thing. The bad thing was people prayed to the tree for good luck and so many outside people said that this is so Barbarian or something, but still others have attached themselves to nature, and for them they will never separate themselves from the earth, from the trees, from the river. Deep down they believe that one day they will go back to the river, to the earth, to the trees again and I have never disregarded this. I think this is how we communicate with things and a vantage point I could appreciate. I mean, not just to treat reality as a source material to reproduce in art.

PK: That adds another dimension to the river in your work, because the river is symbolic of an eternity, but I think besides it being, you know, old-fashioned to prey to a tree, it still shows a kind of respect for nature and its power when you’re surrounded by it.

AR: There’s also one poem by an Indonesian poet, which is about a person that wants to walk across the river and he is hesitating because he sees his relative’s spirit fill up that water and he cannot step into the river because of his ancestor.

PK: There is so much additional information for your work.

AR: Because the process is so complex, all the information, research, and so on. My work that was at documenta 14 246247596248914102516 … And then there were none(2017) too – that one was super rich too, so much information – this, this, this – we have tons of information…

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