Friday, July 24, 2009

Brunch Crunch

I thought that I'd have a fun filled saunter down to the world's latest Ground Zero site last weekend. It's all been such a shame seeing as the country had seemed to be in its best shape for over a decade after weathering the global bust amazingly well and peacefully re-electing a president. Tasteless gags about Man. City supporters being responsible aside, the fact that the Islamo-fascists have absolutely no general support in the country only goes to highlight the fact that it only takes one or two shiny eyed, brainwashed loons to cause such tragedies.

One of the very first Jakarta columns that I ever wrote was filed from a holiday that I was taking back home in London. After being in Indonesia for the Bali bombs, the 7/7 tube bombings occurred during my trip (actually I hope there’s no connection and that terrorists haven’t secretly been pursuing me around the world all these years). Anyway, at that time, even the paranoid Big Brother surveillance camera society that the UK has become couldn't prevent the attacks and so perhaps we shouldn't be too critical of Jakarta's security. As the IRA said after trying to blow up the British cabinet in Brighton in 1984, the security forces have to be lucky all the time whereas they only have to be lucky once. Fundamentalist terror is a world problem now and I think everybody accepts that.

On the other hand though, I've become convinced that the various security gates that I pass through in Jakarta have been set to go off when they don't detect something rather than when they do, so often have I been waved through after sounding the alarm.
"On your way Mr."
"Er... but your machine just went beep didn't it?"
"No, that's okay Sir."
"But I may have packed my shoes with Semtex like shoe bomber Richard Reid. I may have prosthetic metal buttocks filled with TNT. Aren't you even going to slap on a pair of rubber gloves and..."

Security has been stepped up a few notches again in the wake of the latest bombings of course. On the Sunday after the attacks, one hotel security guard frisked me so thoroughly that I thought we’d end up checking into a room together. Thankfully he didn’t find the old hip flask though…

Down at the Ritz/Marriott Ground Zero last Monday, it was all go. TV crews filmed reports and scores of policemen lined the Mega Kuningan circle. Plenty of local sightseers were also present, some took pictures of the blown out windows of the Ritz Carlton's Airlangga restaurant, a place where I'm sure more than a few of you have pigged out before. Others left floral tributes saying things like, "You don't scare us, you only make us stronger". As I surveyed the scene, a smiling local grabbed me for the obligatory, "Hello Mr." grinning photograph set against the backdrop of the shattered windows, which I explained to the poor fellow was a bit weird of him.

Further round the far side of the Ritz, an American Fox News reporter with the regulation big hair and retina singeing lip gloss was speaking earnestly into her microphone, endlessly retaking her minute long report: "The question remains as to why the bombers chose a restaurant where American businessmen were having a meeting." Hmmm, perhaps she'd been living in a cave for the past decade.

Regrettably, alongside the victims of course, two toothsome Sunday brunches have been taken off the Jakarta menu for the time being. Perhaps that was one of the bombers' intentions. The recalcitrant stain of terror that lingers on the fabric of the modern world is essentially Puritan in character and decadence in all its forms, be it sexual or even gastronomical, is its enemy. As HL Mencken once said, "Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time."

The ball is clearly in SBY's court now. With his strengthened mandate he shouldn't be so inscrutably coy about dismantling the unconstitutional sharia-ization that has besieged various Indonesian provinces. Such religious favouritism only breeds intolerance and the kind of obdurate mindset that makes it easier for prime bombing suspect and public enemy number one, Noordin "Head Voices" Top, to recruit and brainwash more suicide murderers.

The sun set over Mega Kuningan and I headed home. Switching on the computer, I found various ‘Tweets’ and ‘Status Updates’ condemning the bombers to hell. Fundamentalist or moderate, a belief in hell is the hallmark of those of faith that most baffles me. The contradictions inherent in the concept of eternal hellfire are hard to resolve, from the sign above Dante's hell that says, "This place was created by eternal love," to Thomas Aquinas saying that among the chief pleasures of heaven will be the opportunity to watch and enjoy the torments of the damned in hell (and in the meantime we live in faith and humility). Is this really what spiritual enlightenment is about?

Well, I seem to have strayed into my familiar infidel territory but that's what having to make my own brunch will drive me to. I'll see you in hell…erm…I mean Hero.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sherman Tank

Recently I was lucky/unlucky enough (delete as your own prejudices dictate) to attend an exhibition of modern paintings, installations and objets d'art at the National Gallery. The exhibition, entitled Latitudes in Transit, showcased the work of up and coming Indonesian and Mexican female artists.

In the pre-recession economic good times, as elsewhere in the world, Indonesia's art scene became, over the last decade, the domain of wealthy dilettantes and businessmen collectors. Riches awaited artists who could hype their weird and wacky efforts to levels not seen since nouveau riche former enfant terrible (lots of French today) Damien Hirst first started slicing up farmyard livestock and flogging the pieces for millions of dollars a pop.

The art market in Indonesia has become so commoditized and overlaid with late capital's reductive media hyped numbers game that it can be hard to get a handle on what a given artist is actually trying to say beyond, "Make me rich." Jakarta's deracinated population is generally not very arty and, unlike the rest of the country, seem to share only a culture of common materiality.

The modern visual arts may indeed be in a parlous condition but things weren't much different previously in Indonesia. Suharto's New Order weeded out those involved in the arts deemed subversive and dangerous (such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer) leaving local art as a pretty but ultimately banal and toothless exercise in tourist sponsored heritage culture, shorn of sweat, dirt, vitality and any broader social significance.

Wandering around modern art galleries always gives me the willies however. I mean, I can appreciate the skill needed to compose a nice tune or to be able to dab a bit of paint into a realistic portrayal of a scene, but the conceptual stuff always finds me seriously conflicted and ambivalent. Is it genius or rubbish? Surely I could have done that? Or could I? Or does that even matter?

I remember visiting an exhibition of modern art with a friend back home in London during my teenage years. At one point we came across a piece simply called Blankets by somebody called Barry Flanagan. The 'installation' as I believe these things are called in the parlance, consisted of a pile of blankets... and that was it. A puckish commentary on the nanny state or a load of rubbish? Whatever, we had great fun imagining Mr Flanagan sending a postcard to the Arts Council from the Bahamas. "Dear Arts Council, thank you for the £20,000, wish you were here, love Barry."

Later in the same exhibition we found ourselves musing on what appeared to be another installation piece, a metal abstract shape with wheels on the bottom containing familiar household products. Alas our pretentious critiques were brought back down to earth when one of the cleaners entered stage left and wheeled her trolley, the artwork in question, away to do some polishing elsewhere in the gallery.

Back to Latitudes in Transit though and the rubbish/genius dichotomy. I felt, as I wandered around, as if I had a little devil and angel on each shoulder like in the cartoons, each trying to persuade me of their point of view. My fictional angel was called Agus Sudharmono, Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at Airlangga University in Yogyakarta and the demonic character hovering over my other shoulder was simply called Bambang, a part-time bakso salesman from North Jakarta.

On to the first piece then, My Pink Engagement by Tiarma Sirait. Over to Pak Agus first: "Yes, to me this image of a bride in a pink dress with her back turned to us works on several levels, the bride’s loose and uncut hair is simultaneously a symbol of promiscuity and virginity. The use of textiles in this piece satirizes the hyperbole of the fashion world and the way that it emasculates the female subject."

Right on. And Bambang? Your thoughts? "Lord Allah Almighty! This is like a birthday card but backwards. You have to be an artist to do this stuff? I could have done that in a couple of hours. My eight-year-old son has done better stuff in his school art class."

Okay we'll try another one, To Breed or Not to Breed by Lie Fhung. Agus? "These mannequins dangling from thin wires at first look suicidal. However the lifelike foetus in the mother's womb is essentially an affirmation. Overall, the surreal contrast reflects a woman's feelings of being torn between wanting a baby and also wanting to retain her freedom."

And Bambang? "Jesus H. Akbar! Do they let kids see this? That's not right, I've a good mind to write a very stiff letter to the newspaper, probably on cardboard or something."

And that was just the start. I left the gallery as confused and conflicted as ever. Is it a sign of progress that Indonesian artists are now as witheringly pretentious as those on the international scene or is this a genuine aesthetic movement that will inspire an intellectual revolution in the masses? Is avant-garde, as John Lennon once noted, merely the French word for bullshit? Well, I may not know about art but I know what I like.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Touch Me I'm Sikh

Religion has rather depressingly proved to be a contentious issue in this year's presidential election, and for all the wrong reasons. Candidates' wives have been criticized for flagrantly displaying their leonine locks (RIP Farrah Fawcett). Possibly the reason these ladies don't wear headscarves is linked to the reason that their husbands don't have four wives apiece, but I wouldn't want to speculate too wildly on this.

Meanwhile, precious little has been said about repealing both the Draconian anti-pornography law and the repressive Sharia laws that have been enforced in some of Indonesia's autonomous provinces and which make religious minorities feel like second-class citizens in their own country. The fate of the much persecuted Armadiyah sect, now banned by presidential decree, was also inevitably not raised during the simply super presidential debates which otherwise succeeded admirably in whipping me up into a coma.

I thought I'd explore the arcane world of minority religion for myself this week and duly headed up to the busy pedestrianized shopping area of Pasar Baru. I strolled a few hundred meters round the back of the main shopping area until I reached Jakarta's very own Sikh Temple.

I remove my shoes and socks, as is the Sikh custom, washed my feet clean of worms and parasites and headed inside. In the entrance passage, I came across a photo of India's current and first ever Sikh Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, shaking hands with President SBY. I wonder what those two said to each other. Indonesia does in fact have a well-known Sikh politician, Mr HS Dillon, who has been a member of the government for many years and whose turban is easy to spot in newspaper pictures. Mr Dillon has also, commendably, been an outspoken critic of corruption in Indonesia.

Like Indonesia, India has had its share of religious conflagrations of course, despite the best attempts of Mr. Gandhi to unite it across nationalist lines. Mr. Nehru also famously strolled along the beach at Sanur in Bali many years ago with Mr. Sukarno and was so enchanted he described the place as, "The morning of the world". Similar reactions may not have been forthcoming if he had been just down the road in Legian circa 2009 but who knows?

Inside the temple, I came across a bearded, robed Indian sitting cross-legged playing some Raga style drones on his harmonium and chanting, a classic image of subcontinental mysticism. I introduced myself and found out that his name was Napinda Singh, a Sikh guru from the Punjab, the home of Sikhism. Napinda had only been in Jakarta a mere three months. He told me that there were between 200 and 300 Sikh families in town. There are a fair number of Indians: Sikh, Hindu and Muslim, in Jakarta in fact, although traditionally Medan has housed Indonesia's largest population of Indians.

My main Indonesian/Indian connection is as a disciple of Indian food. Being from the UK, I'm always trying to source the stuff out wherever I go. I've also tried feeding Indian food to Indonesians over the years with frankly mixed results. Indonesia is a country that contains many historical echoes of India however, small though the Indian Diaspora may be here. Indonesia's traditional culture, as well as its social stratifications, reflect Indian roots and even people's names are often a strange fusion of Arabic Islam and Hindu Indian Sanskrit (Fatimah Laxmi, Mohammed Aditya, etc).

Back at the temple, my new friend Napinda continued with a little more acid rock harmonium drone before lighting some incense sticks. I was beginning to feel like John Lennon in India circa 1966. “Oh wise one, I search the truth, are you really sure we should let Ringo sing Octopus's Garden?” I don't know if the NU's latest ludicrous fundamentalist edict banning Yoga was affecting our man. Frankly, he looked as if he'd feel more at home lying down on a few thousand nails.

Napinda was a gracious host however and tried to outline the central tenets of the Sikh faith to me through his broken English. He told me that Sikhs pray at 5am and 6am and then eat. The temple is open to anyone and even provides free tea and curry to those who turn up on a Sunday morning between 8am and 11am. That's an offer good enough to convert me for life.

He went on to sagely explain that the Sikh philosophy says that if you concentrate, think, meditate and study, then you can obtain knowledge of God, of real life and of love. This knowledge, he continued, cannot be obtained through idle gossip and chit chat. This seemed to me a worthy ideal to aspire to and I consequently didn't ask the good Mr. Napinda whether he had a Facebook account.

I bid my host farewell and headed back out into the dingy boulevards of Pasar Baru. It would be nice if Indonesia could truly live up to its motto of unity in diversity and put sectarian conflict side. If we know anything about God, which I'm not sure we do, but if we know anything about the chap, it's that he loves diversity, otherwise he wouldn't have created so many millions of wildly differing types of life on the planet.

Peace be upon you all, Shalome.

Friday, July 03, 2009

All the Fun of the Fair

Last weekend, I embarked on an epic journey across town in order to take in the traditional Jakarta fair which runs every summer. Fairs and carnivals have historically been the time during which the normal social order is anarchically inverted and the great unwashed masses sublimate their social tensions in a riot of music and japery.

In keeping with the subversive spirit of this great tradition, Jakarta Fair offers the city's citizens respite from the intellectual impoverishment of their mall centered lives by giving them... more shopping. That's pretty much all you get at Jakarta Fair aside from a stream of spandex clad Dangdut bimbettes caterwauling at a volume high enough to make the cellulite in their thighs oscillate.

This is where we are though, the shopping terminus of history, where the ultimate life goal is to die the sexiest 110-year-old on the block, doing three hours a day on Stairmaster in a huge mansion in L.A. whilst frantically surfing the net for porn and polishing a vast fleet of sports cars. At least people getting blown up in Iraq have some kind of life story narrative to tell beyond endlessly traversing the tedious, closed Moebius strip of consumer narcissism but don't get me started. Suffice to say that if the self is indeed, in 2009, under siege, then Jakarta Fair's battlements are looking decidedly ragged.

However, if all needs are economic needs, as late capitalism predicates, then I thought that I may as well fill my cup to overflowing down at the JF. The place was positively heaving with Sunday punters as I entered with my wallet bulging. As I strolled around the stalls, the consumer hegemony started to lull me into docility and I even saw a few things worth picking up, aside from the lovely young ladies manning the various stalls of course. Here's my Which guide roundup of the top (and bottom) products making a splash this year (coughs, clears throat).

The Light Bulb Changing Stick

This handy gizmo consists of a long broom handle with some plastic grabbing spokes on the end. Simply push the spokes around the light bulb on your high ceiling and unscrew. Guaranteed to prevent one from falling off the perch as it were (a la Michael Jackson). It's a boon!

The Air-Conditioner Water Heating Unit

This is basically a water tank that hooks up to the external unit of your AC and taps the wasted heat. Commendably green, but would you actually get enough hot water for a nice shower before hell freezes over?

The Aquamaster Water Purification System

After running the gauntlet of electric massage machines that looked like something from Kafka's In the Penal Colony, I came across something called a reverse osmosis drinking water system that was being demonstrated by an enthusiastic chap wolfing down water that had previously been the colour of a muddy swamp. Rather him than me and the real proof of this filtration system's efficacy would surely have involved me checking the condition of his underpants several hours later. Suffice to say that I didn't see him being wheeled out on a stretcher when I left.

The Blood Glucose Test Meter

What with the offspring of the city's well-to-do increasingly looking as if they've been blown up with air hoses, perhaps this little device could prove useful. Those on the Baskin-Robbins diet can pop one of these little gizmos in their pockets and monitor the moment when the cumulative effect of a metric ton of doughnuts pushes them into a hypoglycemic coma.

The Electric Shock Mobile Phone

Obviously you’re more likely to zap yourself with one of these babies than any criminal types. I was thinking though that some kind of Blackberry version of this could be used by psychiatrists as aversion therapy for finger twitching patients who’ve gone too far and crossed over totally into techno-autism land.

Xamthone Mangosteen Skin Juice

This bottle of snake oil hokum promises to do everything from actually repairing your DNA (in fact the human body can already do that) to easing the symptoms of chronic diseases. At Rp.225,000 per small bottle though you could buy several kilos of real Mangosteens, put the skins in a blender and still have change left over for the busway home. Marketing fail.

Magic Power Antiseptic Wet Tissue for Sensitive Area (for Men Only)

Now this one really caught my eye. Billed, "The sweetest thing in a tissue," (they obviously haven't been in my bedroom) the girls dispensing this innovative new product took time out to explain the whole "Magic Power" deal to me. Basically a moist towelette soaked in aftershave, one simply wipes the said item over the family jewels before that intimate moment for some terrific vibes. According to the packet, the Magic Power Wipe will provide you with moisturizer, aromatherapy, longer satisfaction, maximum protection and lubricant sensation gel. According to the leaflets there are no side-effects although I reckon that a nasty dose of something could possibly be one if you believe that soaking your genitals in aftershave is going to afford you, "Maximum protection". I purchased a gross of the things and headed for the door. Hopefully I'll be back next week.