Exploring (Trans)regional Locality with Jasdeep Sandhu

Jasdeep Sandhu founded Gajah Gallery in 1996, and the Yogya Art Lab in 2012, based on his dedication to promoting artists from the region and highlighting their international relevance. Over the years, the gallery has reinvigorated academic contributions to the category of Indonesian art and history, with landmark shows such as “Lokanat: Ground Zero, Intersections: Latin American and Southeast Asian Contemporary Art”, and “Semsar Siahaan – Points of View”, as well as supporting the production of some of the most extensive printed publications on seminal Indonesian artists and collectives.

Furthermore, Gajah Gallery has collaborated with several national institutions, holding Srihadi Soedarsono’s joint show with Chua Ek Kay at the Singapore Art Museum in 2005, and exhibitions on Yunizar and the Jendela Art Group at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum in 2007 & 2009. Jasdeep has also donated several artworks to these institutions, and as recognition of these generous contributions, was awarded the Patron of Heritage Award in 2008 by the National Heritage Board of Singapore.

In 2013, Jasdeep was appointed as co-chair of the Inaugural Asia Society Art Gala in Hong Kong, a prestigious charity event honouring three art practitioners for their significant contributions to the field of Asian contemporary art.

Gajah Gallery has mounted a number of exhibitions in locations around the world since its establishment in 1996. Do you think a concept of the ‘global’ has changed for the arts industry in recent times? Has this affected the ways in which Gajah Gallery positions itself within Southeast Asia and, more broadly, on the international stage?

Since Gajah’s founding in 1996, Southeast Asian fine art has definitely witnessed an increased visibility on the international stage, whether through art fairs, biennales, museum exhibitions or, more recently, virtual displays and social media. In 2018, Centre Pompidou in Paris – one of the leading museums in the world – exhibited the pioneering Malaysian modernist painter Latiff Mohidin. In February 2021, Pompidou will be exhibiting the works of another crucial figure in Southeast Asian modern art – Burmese painter Bagyi Aung Soe – and I’m honoured to share that around 50 artworks from the Gallery’s permanent collection will be on display. These are just two examples of how the concept of the ‘global’ is evolving in the arts industry.

Having a distinctly regional focus, the Gallery’s reaction to this exposure is to keep abreast with international standards. So far, we are very satisfied with what we have accomplished. When we participate in international art fairs, the Gallery’s artists garner as much commercial and institutional attention as artists from other parts in the world. A revealing example of this was when a Handiwirman Saputra installation in our collection, Tak Berakar, Tak Berpucuk No. 7 (No Roots, No Shoots No. 7), was featured at the central pavilion of the 2019 Venice Biennale, proving that the work truly stood apart for its curatorial and historical significance.

You have mentioned that the Yogya Art Lab (YAL) aspires to bring “local sculpture-making to an international standard”; throughout discussions of the YAL there also seems to be a recurrent push towards the ‘international’. To what extent would you say that the hierarchies between the local and trans-local are effectively navigated through the YAL’s programmatic structure?

The ‘international standard’ we speak of in describing YAL addresses the lack of foundries, laboratories and workshops dedicated to producing high quality contemporary art in Southeast Asia. During YAL’s early days, Indonesia-based artists Yunizar and Ashley Bickerton expressed their desire to explore sculptural possibilities in their work, particularly with bronze and aluminium mediums. As we aided artists in their experimentations with three-dimensional forms, we discovered that most of the local foundries in the area would not use pure bronze, affecting the quality of the patina and colours of the finished sculptures. This is the main reason why we had to move the casting process in-house, and transform YAL into a full-blown foundry.

Jason Lim and a craftsman preparing a kiln for sawdust firing at YAL, 2017. Photo courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

With YAL, we sought to provide a platform for artists where they need not feel burdened by a lack of access to quality resources, costs, and most crucially, time. We believe that when we set up a stable, conducive environment for artists to innovate and create freely, they can produce their best work. In YAL, Suzann Victor produced ethereal sculptures made of crushed glass and her iconic lens series that highlight women’s stories in Asia; Jane Lee explored pigmented concrete to create wall-based sculptural works that reframe masterpieces in art history; and Uji ‘Hahan’ Handoko created bold, polished bronze sculptures that continued his ironic critiques on the art market. The success of certain works produced at YAL is also testament to how they reach out to a broad, discerning international audience – most recently, British contemporary artist Damien Hirst collected one of Ashley Bickerton’s sleek and surreal bronze sculptures, Shark.

In an interview with Ocula back in 2015, you mentioned encouraging organisers of Bazaar Art Jakarta (now Art Jakarta) to take a firmer stance towards supporting “fine art”. The Yogya Art Lab seems also to straddle the realms of the artisanal and the ‘white cube’. How would you describe the YAL’s contemporary relationship with Indonesian craft and local expertise in traditional sculpture?

Craft, be it in Indonesia or anywhere else in the world, is a highly respected trade, yet oftentimes overlooked. In Southeast Asia, contemporary artists have recently been reclaiming the trade, questioning and blurring the boundaries between craft and fine art. For example, Bali-based Ashley Bickerton has not only found inspiration in the crafts of Indonesia, but also absorbed them into his work, seamlessly integrating traditional crafts into rich, complex and provocative works of art.

Patrick Kipper conducting training at YAL with local craftsmen and foundry director James Page, 2015. Photo courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

At the YAL, most of the artisans and technicians are graduates of the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI) Yogyakarta [The Indonesian Institute of the Arts Yogyakarta], one of Indonesia’s foremost contemporary art schools. Thus, these artisans are not only highly trained in their traditional craft, but they also have an incredible aptitude for producing quality works of contemporary art. We strive to enrich their already strong expertise in traditional crafts, while simultaneously expanding their contemporary perspective and enabling them to embrace new techniques, such as 3D-modelling and printing. In 2015, we invited the internationally renowned, Colorado-based patina expert Patrick Kipper to train the team on highly specialised bronze processes, allowing the team to broaden the capacities of the foundry, and consequently, match the innovative, creative visions of the artists in residence.

Gajah Gallery’s current exhibition “Navigating Entropy: Artists-in-Residence” opened just recently. Could you tell us more about the significance of this exhibition, and how ‘entropy’ figures as a framework for the showcase?

The exhibition is a watershed show for us in terms of how far we have come in YAL; not only does the show trace our accomplishments over the past eight years, it points towards a very strong potential for the future in terms of producing invaluable works in the region that continuously meet international standards, both commercially and institutionally.

Exhibition installation view of “Navigating Entropy”, 2020. Photo courtesy of Gajah Gallery.

The works produced by our artists in residence were incredibly diverse. Thus, we had to find a common thread to frame their works that simultaneously did not constrict or limit their meanings. ‘Entropy’ served as the perfect entry point to connect the works together, as it offers an insight not so much into the finished product, but the process behind their creations at YAL. As they navigated new territories in their residencies – both literally immersing in the new ‘territory’ of Yogyakarta and figuratively facing the daunting process of taking bold steps in their art practice – the artists, in varying degrees, allowed a sense of ‘entropy’ and chaos to enter their artistic processes. Whether they were expanding from two-dimensional to three-dimensional forms, or from a solitary to a more collaborative practice for the first time, it was in taking that leap into entropy, I would argue, that enabled them to move beyond orthodoxies and conventions in their oeuvres, and in turn produce inventive works that went beyond their expectations.

What are some projects or ideas Gajah Gallery is working on at the moment? What can audiences expect in the months to come?

Next year marks a major milestone in the history of Gajah Gallery as we will be celebrating our 25th anniversary! Expect a year of festivities as we kick-off January 2021 with a landmark solo exhibition of Ashley Bickerton, followed by a collaboration with the Centre Pompidou on the aforementioned Aung Soe show. We will then be launching a publication on Jogja-based Yunizar, which looks back on his works and practice over the last two decades. And of course, we are planning something big for our 25th anniversary celebratory show, gathering over twenty artists we have worked with since the Gallery’s inception.

Later on in the year, we are also looking forward to publishing a seminal book on contemporary Indonesian art, and launching a major exhibition featuring three women artists from Singapore and their monumental works created at YAL.