Friday, 16th of november 2012.
(handwritten on the planes from Yogyakarta to Djakarta and Kuala Lumpur )
Today we end this perfectly organized orientation trip (bravo Haco, un Tour de Force!) with a visit to the mythical Buddhist temple of Borobudur, a building which is considered by some to be one of the wonders of the world. Followed by our last call: the private museum of modern and contemporary art , OHD Museum-Magelan, developed and owned by dr. Oei Hing Djien.
We get up at 5 am, pack our bags and presents, run to the bus, sweat already, and head off at 6 towards the intriguing Buddhist complex situated about 1 hour north from our present location, Yogyakarta. Basically this ultimate journey will be our first experience of some form of countryside, perhaps even of mountains and forests, as until now we visited mostly mega-cities.
It takes the bus quite a while to leave the jam-packed urban environment, and once I see vast arrays of palm trees, my mind wanders of into the landscape, seeking a necessary break from the hustle and bustle, inherent of the 21st century mobility addiction. This journey brings me back in time, a return to my archaeology studies where Buddhist and Hindu architecture and culture occupied an important place. But this was more than 20 years ago, and in the end I choose contemporary art as my major. So the reader will hopefully forgive my fragmentary, coloured or even outdated knowledge of the sites and the related cultures.
And to top it all: I forgot to bring any literature on the subject,… pity. Anyhow, seated in the bus, I try to put the famous sites into some kind of historical context. I remember that I was struck by one question: how and why did groups of hunter gatherers, which invaded around 2000 BCE the Indonesian peninsula from the South of China, turn to Buddhism and Hinduism and erect massive structures on high plateaus somewhere hidden in the jungle. As far as I can remember we still do not know exactly when, where and why those inhabitants embraced these religions and philosophies which were clearly not endemic to the region. But we do know, that at the beginning of the first millenium AC, a number of small thriving states arose mainly on the islands we know now as Java and Sumatra and that they basically combined forms of Hindu and Buddhist culture. One of the possible explanations for the erection of Borobudur and its related temples is the Javan state of Mataram which was founded probably somewhere during the 4th or 5th century ACE.
One of the assumptions I recollect, is that it is through extensive international trade and contacts with India and China that the local inhabitants embodied these two religions. So, with the exchange of products, came ideas, beliefs, religions. In those days, forms of cultural barter were rich and widespread, apparently even the Roman Empire boasted products and goods exported from the Indonesian archipelago. Minds jump often to easy conclusions, and mine is no exception, so this last word ‘archipelago’ brought me almost self-evidently to Edouard Glissands ‘pensée archipélique’. In one of my previous entries I wrote about the trap, the danger of binary, dualistic thinking. So before I realized it, here is another one: the open Indonesian culture I encountered, is partly the result of its geographical location and demographic situation and the inherent natural fragmentation: the archipelago. And this stands in opposition to the cultural inward journey occuring in monolithic China during the Ming dynasty, which ultimately led to the decline of this once great empire. But sometimes, sometimes, empires bounce back. Anyhow, the archipelago as a metaphor, as a way of thinking and being, not only embodies forms of insularity, but stands especially for openness, diversity, exchange, fragility, creolisation. This image opposes monolithic, closed systems. But as I said before, beware of presumptions, stereotypical generalizations, superficial analysis and shallow thoughts. But I have to admit it is tempting, tempting to think the archipelago.
My thought process is suddenly cut off: the bus arrives at the first destination: the Buddhist temple of Mendut, which stands in direct relationship to Borobudur. The bus driver asks if we want to stop here.
And: yes! We go for the temple ! We all run, well I start to run, towards this magnificent example of 9th century Buddhist architecture.
Inside the structure we find three sculptures : in the middle we see an impressive version of the Buddha Vairocana who is not seated in the usual crosslegged lotus position. The sculpture is flanked on the left and right by two boddhisatvas.
Standing on the terrace surrounding the majestic central tower, I continue my thoughts: I think that if one even tries to evaluate, to assess the historical dimensions of the Borobudur monuments, we have to return to its local, Javan or Mataran context, before comparing it to, for instance related constructions in India, such as the ones in Adjanta which are much older than Borobudur, and have a close linkage to the rise of Buddhism in the 6th century BCE.
After this ultra brief halt at Mendut, we continue our journey and at last reach Borobudur. The largest Buddhist temple in the world, so it says. As was to be expected, even at this early hour, we are not the only visitors.We can only imagine what the situation will be later during the day,…. Surrounding the ticket boot are hundreds or is it thousands of vendors, hawkers and shopkeepers, still unpacking or preparing for the arrival of the swarms of tourist locusts. I have the feeling that we will not be able to ascend towards nirvana amidst this staged consumption craze. Its nearly impossible in modern times to preserve this kind of places of pilgrimage, from people like us. After a necessary moment of Buddhist cross dressing at the ticket office, we sprint towards the looming structure.
The massive complex, based on a Buddhist circle or Mandala is situated on a hill, amidst a lush park and towering mountains. The structure consists of no less than 9 platforms and hundreds of clock-shaped stupa’s protecting a similar amount of distinctive buddha sculptures. Starting from the East the pilgrim could ascend the temple through the three levels of the building, embodying the three stages of Buddhist enlightment. But not today.
I was particularly struck by the difference between the diamond shaped motives of the stupas on the lower two circular platforms, and the square or cubic shaped orifices of the stupas on the last ring, which seemed to prepare the pilgrim for the end and fullfillment of his journey. The temple is adorned with thousands of exquisitely sculpted panels recounting the life of Buddha and the daily life of the local culture, but sorry Kathleen, thats all I remember.
What keeps on puzzling me, is how this immense structure was actually constructed, almost out of the blue. But that’s proper to archaeology: here they deal only with the facts on and under the ground, and as long as we do not find proof of older buildings, part of the mystery will remain. Remember the Anazasi, Nazca, Petra and the Nabataeans or why not sunken Atlantis? Before we know it, we are in the middle of Charroux or Von Däniken and talks about extra-terrestrial cosmonauts. So to keep it simple, Borobudur didnot suddenly appear, but remains an impressive testimony of the grandeur, craftsmanship and international connections of a wealthy and booming local culture.
After this short, but memorable visit, we head towards our final destination: the OHD Museum-Magelan. No presentations I hope, just a voyage into the mind and heart of a well-known collector. Arriving at the Museum-Magelan, owned by dr. Oei Hing Djien, I am struck again by the size and quality of the buildings and its collections. Though I still recall a number of stories and rumours which are related to some of the works in the collection, I have to read more about that subject. Dr.Djien greets us at the entrance of the art complex, while a camera crew shoots a documentary of the collector. This documentary made by Patricia Chen-Law, is part of an interesting series of interviews with some of the major Asian collectors. An endeavour I am certainly interested in !
Dr. Djien embarks the group on a guided tour of a small part of his huge collection. I saw some impressive examples of work by Soedibio, Sudjojono and many more, which confirm again the fact that modernism was never a western let alone European phenomenon. But I think that most of us, and I am certainly one of them, are nearing total exchaustion,… Are we ready for three flights in a row today, or for some even more?
So its back to the hotel in Yogyakarta and off again to the first airport of the day at Yogyakarta. Alas, our first plane at Yogy airport is stuck on the tarmac, torrential rain, low visibility, makes it impossible to take off to Djakarta. It gave me time to write these lines, but will we make it to our next destination?
Later, the plane for Kuala Lumpur: we just made it ! We arrived about 1 hour late at Djakarta Airport and ran to the second plane heading for Kuala Lumpur. I thought I suddenly landed amidst a National Lampoon Asian disaster movie: as we were late, we had to run in shifts towards the check in desk. Indonesian staff brought us, in pure Olympian 4×400 metres estafette race-style, towards the check in desk where we had to pay some sort of ‘I am being-late fee’ to take the next plane.
But we made it, and fly home after this fruitful, rich and eventful orientation trip.
I think I can speak on behalf of all the members of the group: we thank wholeheartedly all the organizers, the Mondriaan Fund in particular, who gave us the unique opportunity to be part of this trip.
But one man stands out for his professionalism, dedication and outstanding organisation: mr Haco Deridder. In the 1930’s, the Great Leader Mao Ze Dong took his army to escape the Kuomintang onto his (in)-famous Long March. Here we encountered ours: So thank you great leader for this trip.
I think most of us, including myself, had enough of my jokes, quotes and wisecracks. Copyright: I am indebted to many great names in the business, please watch Marx Brothers: A day at the races, A night at the opera, Monkey Business, etc. Thank yo!