Alia Swastika

During my career in art scene, I have had a number of chances to visit South Korea. Compared to other Asian countries, I could say that South Korea is like my second home, where my relationship with the artists, curators, authors, and other art practitioners of the country seems to be more intense and occasionally continued to long-term partnership. I would like to share an interesting fact that most of my colleagues in Korea are women, either serving as the top-level management of art institutions or independent practitioner like me. Despite the evident yet significant role of women in the shifting and development of South Korean art ecosystem, in fact, I also keep seeing the quite dominant influence of patriarchy in the daily life of Korean society. I could instantly recognize it due to its similarity with my own experiences and realities in Indonesia—working in a highly patriarchal environment in art scene. If I could expand the comparison, I think we even might say that what most of women art practitioners in Asia encounter is very much the same.

We might have seen how the dynamics of women’s movement and thoughts in different regions in the Global South are highly progressive while struggling for opportunities and resistance against repression, violence, and discrimination. Moreover, we should have also seen how women are actively taking part as the frontliners fighting for the society’s resilience to emergencies such as the pandemic, natural disasters, and even turbulent situation ignited by political chaos. Women’s solidarity has been part of the community and society’s endeavor to take a clear stand on resisting many kinds of industrialization and natural extraction processes, defending the earth as the source of life, and bringing forward the idea of sustainable living.

Hacking Domesticity would like to affirm the political context and direction of women’s movements initiated from such relatively small scopes, expanding our perspective on domestic realm which initially seemed narrow and limited into a complex and interrelated part of the global horizon. The domestic realm is re-defined by putting “house” in a dynamic position which is also full of tension—between the internal and the external, the personal and the social, gender binary and non-binary, the visible and the invisible. Instead of a given space, domesticity is a construct. The physical space of domesticity itself is built upon a set of social systems, including gender-based system of value.

As part of resistance against the established construct on domesticity and domestication, Hacking Domesticity maps out the issues in which many kinds of binary oppositions are challenged. The artists joining this exhibition demonstrated a continuous negotiation in our daily practices, breaking through the boundaries of the idea of domesticity—house, locality, personal space—to create a wider platform which accommodates their participation in broader public affairs. The Southeast Asian and South Korean artists altogether take part in the process of re-examining the history and the shifting meaning of “feminine” identities in the middle of the ever-changing history and global acceleration along with its complexities. By focusing on the history and crucial role of women, the exhibition unfolds a wide range of thoughts, movements, knowledge production processes, and challenges encountered by women through generations. Several works in the exhibition particularly refer to the fact that technology is one of the fields where women are empowered and able to re-shape their identities, hack the normative social conformity in our physical realities, or even reconstruct the reality into survival tactics and strategies. Thus, Hacking Domesticity might indirectly refer to the attempt of hacking the domination of technology over human, transforming it into a place where women could fight for equality together.

In the context of Southeast Asia, women’s role in public is part of the communities’ daily realities showing women’s major contribution in many different aspects of life: food, protection of environmental balance, education, value learning, and local wisdom. In traditional communities, the notion of role is something inherited through generations, forming a certain system of value and philosophy. Meanwhile in modern communities, the division of role is established through various institutions and norms, creating a stronger social pressure. The artists present how women confront such systems and norms by applying certain strategies and using tactics to overcome limits and challenges, while gradually shape and write their own versions of history.

Re-interpreting and re-writing history from a perspective which is more grounded yet close to the everyday realities and in favor of the victims are part of Ampannee Satoh (Thailand) and Agnes Christina’s (Indonesia) works. Both of them were born into a generation that witnessed and became part of the major political shifts, and particularly encountered first hand experiences of being among the defeated and marginalized. Ampannee Satoh is an artist from Pattani, Narathiwat, a region in the Southern Thailand, whose culture is actually closer to Malay culture with the majority of the people being Muslims. The inclusion of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat into Thailand’s territory has caused ongoing conflicts, mainly due to the propaganda of separatism in the said three provinces. During the contention against the Thai military regime’s violence, since 2004 until today, there has been more than 5,000 casualties.

Ampannee Satoh’s series of Muslim women’s photographs are her own record to bring forward the women fighters in the vortex of political conflict who lost their family members and had to continue living under the traumatic shadows of violence. By capturing these women in the middle of their everyday life, Ampannee presents honest depiction of their struggle to confront the history and to continue living. The photo works also counter the politically-constructed assumption of the way they dress. In this series, Ampannee challenges to trigger a subversive dialogue among the audience on the image and stereotypes of women wearing the hijab and burqa, while at the same time put women in a central position within the social history of Pattani.

Agnes Christina has been investigating the matters of identity, history, and violence through different methods articulated in visual language with the unique characteristics of her generation. The intertwining symbols of popular culture, everyday vocabularies, and frequently omitted minor narratives are elements of the strategy she employs to divert the dark history from traumatic and desperate endings. She attempts to show some hope and potential future endeavor instead. Agnes focused her artworks on the criticism against the stereotypes that perpetuate the exclusion of Chinese-descent, particularly related to a number of incidents where this specific ethnic group was fallen victim to, including the massacre in 1940s, mass killings in 1965, and 1998’s reformation. How do today’s Chinese-descents take a “political” stand in their everyday life?

With the medium of a play script, hand embroidery, and picture in neon sign, Agnes encapsulated the problems of identity and social tensions related to that matter into several fragments of event based on memories and everyday phenomena. With strong background in theater, she turned a play script into a new visual object based on ideas and narratives and transformed it into audio work.

Etza Meisyara (Bandung) and Fitri DK (Yogyakarta) exhibited the artworks that departed from their observation of women’s position in the cycle of life and environment, especially in relation to the respect for non-human life, a new way to re-examine the definition of anthropocene. An art activist, Fitri actively engages in various movements of farmers, labors, and marginalized urban community and dedicates her works to the wide spreading of these issues. Fitri is involved in the advocacy for the rights of Kendeng Farmers, a movement in which the women are part of the frontliners fighting to save their agricultural land from industrialization in the form of the development of cement plant. For many years, Kendeng people, who are known to hold a philosophy of life called “Sedulur Sikep”—a practice of life that holds firmly to the balance of relation between human and the nature, have been rejecting the development of cement plant by employing inspirational and creative methods. The entire ideas and practices they have been performing to fight against the regime are often as powerful as a conceptual performance frequently presented in galleries. But these performances were held in the front of significant sites of power, such as the presidential palace, the national parliament building, etc. At those venues, Kendeng people prayed, sat while casting their feet in cement, and performed other symbolical actions.

Fitri DK displays three woodcarvings and presented them as a mantra, inspired by the entire philosophy of life of Kendeng people. In these pictures, women are present as the guard of the nature, one of the underlying ideas of ecofeminism.

Etza Meisyara presents the resistance from a different perspective, influenced by a different background. Growing up in an urban setting, Etza’s relation with the nature and tradition is shaped differently from of those who live in traditional rural regions. In several recent years, she had the opportunities to visit the modern societies in Europe. From the journey, Etza learned the difference between the modern (or Western) knowledge system and the local knowledge production. Coming back to Bandung, Etza reflected her observation on the traditional agricultural life of Sunda people, and found that the cosmology of nature highly influences the rituals and cultures of farmer communities, particularly in terms of the role of women in the cycle of life. Her interest in new media and sound production technology leads her to an exploration to link the narratives with the medium, by investigating into the icons and objects of tradition in today’s context.

Both Fitri and Etza are interested in mortar and pestle, looking at the objects as the signifiers of the relation between women, food, and the nature. However, the artists expanded their scope of work to different aspects. To Etza, the sound of stamping pestle into the mortar (in the celebration of harvest) is part of the celebration of life, producing music to articulate the camaraderie of farmers in creating synergy with the nature. Etza transformed the sound into a sheet music displayed as a visual element. She presents the transformation of context into a text, of the traditional into the modern, and of memory into a document. In a video, she attempted to blend her own body in the farmers’ ritual and recorded the sound in order to highlight the distance between herself and the said universe, to get to know the unfamiliar, to enter a new place where sound and icon always have certain philosophical meanings held as a shared belief.

The Cambodian artist Sao Sreymao had compiled interesting stories of women’s experiences in a glamorous urban setting. Phnom Penh has been rapidly changing into one of Asia megalopolises with skyscrapers spreading across the city. How does the space give those residing within a sense of security? How could women step into the public places without losing the authority over their own bodies or without feeling tactless inside the dark labyrinth? Sao documented women’s physical experiences in giving meaning to the city and the complexity of its industrialization, as well as the matter of how the system does not set them free from the restriction of patriarchy. Women have to double the struggle to be able to achieve their dreams. Otherwise, they have to let go of the dreams for the sake of tradition and family.

Sao Sreymao investigated the way women were positioned during the course of history of Cambodia’s development as a nation. There was a time when the old tradition put women in the domestic realm, assigning them to provide food and take care of the children. Later, Cambodian women had to encounter violence and sexual assaults during the Khmer era. In post-Khmer era, women began to live a new life; they became part of the global community as the tourism sector grew rapidly, bringing out commercial sex industries and lowly workers in the city. In this period, according to Sreymao’s view, women of her generation have broken through many taboos and social constructions in order to create a more equal society in terms of gender.

Kim Jong Eun

Chang Jia and Siren Eun-young Jung, the two artists’ works have always been interpreted through multiple layers, yet for this year’s Yogyakarta Biennale’s “Hacking Domesticity” exhibition, I would like to start by sharing the struggles of female artists under historical, political and social conditions. The works of these two artists mentioned above mainly deal with issues that relate to their experiences as a female artist. The appearance of female artists in their work, autonomous or not, is a product of said era; shaped by modern and contemporary Asian history and experiences of and at the same time, plays a multifaceted role in exploring the conditions of said era. Therefore, these works provide an aesthetic and political opportunity to examine problems, when dealing with the subject of contemporary art, in a three dimensional manner.

This could further be observed by examining the works of both artists in more detail. Siren Eun Young Jung deals with Yeoseong Gukgeuk or Korean female theatre in her works “정동의 막 Act of Effect” and “유예극장 Deferral Theater”. Yeoseong Gukgeuk is a theatre performance enacted by strictly an all-women’s cast, with female actors also playing male roles. These performances are enjoyed by a wide array of audiences, but women still make up for most of it. An all-women’s theater company can not only be found in Korea, but is also present in Japan and most modern Asian history. This also could be seen as a response against traditional plays across Asia, where typically men would dress up and play the female roles. In the case of Korea, Yeoseong Gukgeuk was born in the process of abolishing colonialism and forming a modern state, becoming a great success throughout the war. Soon after, however, the militant dictatorship throughout the 1960s and 1970s imposed a traditional culture enactment policy, purposefully omitting Yeoseong Gukgeuk as a traditional cultural heritage, leading to its rapid decline. In other words, the life of Yeoseong Guggeuk performers and the arduous journey of the art itself is rooted in the complex background of middle-class modernization from the West and a traditional patriarchal society. Thus, Yeoseong Gukgeuk clearly highlights the intricacies of Asian female artists in the modern era. With the rising popularity and development of Yeoseong Gukgeuk, the steps that the artists went through further reveals the firm definition of modern gender dichotomy and its suppression at the hands of traditional patriarchy.

Most importantly, however, Siren Eun Young Jung uses the artistic performance of current young female artists, as the last heir to the Yeoseong Gukgeuk and as an actress performing a male role, as a way to summon the discourse and memories surrounding Yeoseong Gukgeuk interesting history. “정동의 막 Act of Affect” consists of single-channel videos and performances. The story unfolds with a monologue that reveals anguish and conflict about one’s art and reality. The process of performing masculinity as an actress and becoming a man on stage is achieved through constant practice and does end until she stands on stage. The audience, having witnessed this process of ‘becoming’ can further empathize with these changes in affection, and ultimately experiences immersion in which the boundaries between actors and roles disappear.

“Breaking Instruments III_Breaking Wheel” by Chang Jia is a video artwork showing 12 women going up a wheeled saddle torture device, pedaled like a one-wheeled bicycle while singing and performing chants. Breaking wheel was a symbol representing fear during the Middle Ages, due to the brutal reversal of the use of everyday objects such as wheels, as a torture device that cuts and harms the body. The artist made this instrument with the wheels of modern carriages and tanks. This instrument might be considered a torture device, but the wheels is actually equipped with bird feathers on the very top, that brushes against a women’s private parts when the wheels are pedaled. In order to move the heavy wheels, women sing labor songs and chants to energize themselves and one another while they work and pedal. The labor songs are traditional ones dating back to the Joseon Dynasty originating from Chungcheong-do, Korea, made based on the Frisian scale, which was prohibited by churches in the Middle Ages as a way to suppress pleasure. The torture device and its relation to female bodies represent the fact that women are the subject of pain and sexual pleasure through labor. The process is revealed with elegant gestures tailored to music made of beautiful marches and chants.

Among Chang Jia’s series of torture devices, “Beautiful Instruments II”, 2012 stood out, consisting of an image of the tool and a text explaining the function of the tool. The tool is, in fact, a surgical tool that was actually used in the 19th century. The artist reimagened cruel torture devices as a medical instrument, something that should have been the farthest from pain. This plausible fake torture device places the boundaries of the senses in opposite positions and dismantles various impulses and meanings. “Physical Requirements for Becoming an Artist “2nd-Enjoy Yourself in Every Condition” 2000, is an early work that raised discourses on women, bodies, and institutions like her recent works on a series of torture tools. The work exposes the artist to violent and dangerous situations as she herself performs the piece through a video installation. The subject matter of the work is the collision effect caused by responding to sadistic situations at various points, such as humans, artists, women in the institution, and women living in third world countries. Although it was directed, the physical violence against the artist’s body is real, thus there is an ambiguity between what is performance and what is reality in this work. The artist’s efforts to keep smiling in the face of increasingly intense physical violence reflects how violence occurs in institutions and structural systems.

For Chang Jia, the body becomes a deviant actor, a venue for events, and a medium for telling stories. The pleasure and discomfort of the body, which are clearly distinguished from one another, are reconstructed while at the same time it penetrates the body of the female artist. This method sets up a shocking and extreme situation, but the work is completed with a classic and elegant look and feel. The artist shakes the boundary between senses and conventional wisdom with her own formative language, revealing a sense of problem abundantly and clearly.

The senses and experiences experienced as female artists in the works of Siren Eun Young Jung and Chang Jia are connected to the body, history, society, and political positions, and at the same time destroys solid social norms and perceptions. Both artists shake the boundaries of contradictions in dichotomy or stubborn gender roles through artistic methodology. This expands our interpretation and doubts about the areas and roles that we think are fixed about women. Their work is reduced to a limited concept of ‘women’ and ‘women’s role’, revealing and proving that the boundaries of separate areas have always been unstable and variable.Their work refers to the survival of female artists who have experienced double oppression and have been restrained throughout the modern and contemporary Asian history, and clearly explains their reasons for existence in art language. Becoming an artist for women was a matter of universal value for freedom and survival amidst oppression and violence, and it starts by revealing its existence.

Despite the difficult conditions we faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition was prepared through sharing various discussions and lectures on art with women across Asia. It is memorable to see female artists and planners across Asia talk after reading a paper on the Korean movie titled “The Maid.” The reality of Korean society is that it also pushes back the pain of foreign female workers and marriage immigrants in favor of other pending issues of globalization. Even at this moment, capital, technology, social norms and customs are elaborately disparaging and reducing women’s roles and reach. As an Asian woman, the exhibition “Hacking Domesticity” was an opportunity to explore experiences and memories in modern and contemporary Asia, substantially face violence, and hack them together. Through this exhibition, we created a place to connect and check on one another. The experiences we share as Asian women and the values their art pursues are inherently linked to issues such as human rights and ecology, allowing us to imagine a wider future of coexistence.