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Flirting with Marilyn

An Indonesian friend tipped me off that the Jakarta Biennale, staged at the TIM arts centre in Menteng, was worth checking out.

Held in the centre’s cavernous, concrete underground carpark, the event felt rather infra-dig but what it lacked in sophistication, it made up for in inclusiveness. Consistent with TIM’s philosophy, the arrangement kept costs down, allowed greater participation by poorer artists and visitors, and offered more scope for expression than a conventional gallery because artists could let their hair down and not worry about making a mess.

Two exhibits – from opposite ends of the artistic spectrum – caught my eye.

One was a product of, shall we say, the symbolic, abstract school. At first I didn’t realise it was an installation and went to walk around it thinking the pipes strapped to the concrete ceiling of the carpark had leaked their fecal contents onto the floor.

The exhibit comprised three puddles of blue coloured water lying on the drab surface of the concrete basement. As the liquid dried along its shallow edges, it changed colours from a dark wet blue that glistened and reflected shapes, including those of people passing by, to blues of various shades. Flat and powdery, the result looked to me like one of the vast inland salt lakes of central Australia that one flies over en route to Jakarta. What it was meant to say I am not sure, but it fascinated in the way the liquid colours of a lava lamp do.

The second exhibit was from the realist school, or what I took to be such. It comprised a number of large black and white photographs whose subject matter, unlike “blue puddles,” was immediately intelligible, though also provocative and charged with mystery.

Two photos, each of which elicited a hushed, almost disbelieving, wow despite myself, caught my eye.

The first showed Sukarno, modern Indonesia’s founding father, at a cocktail party chatting animatedly with three of the world’s most famous women: Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy (Onassis). Sukarno is in his element and looks excited. Smiling broadly, every inch a gentleman officer in his crisp uniform, his famous magnetic charisma on full beam, he has the complete attention of the intrigued women, each of them in her prime. The electrical current, however, flows most strongly between Sukarno and Monroe. The other two superstars are mere accessories.

The second photo took the scene just described a step further. It is an intimate close-up of the President and the goddess alone. Monroe was 29 at the time. She is wearing a neck high but skin tight dress of the kind made for her by Orry-Kelly, the famous Australian celebrated in Hollywood for his costume designs. Sukarno looks appreciative. Monroe is leaning her blonde head close to hear what he is saying.

So engrossing were the photos that I did not pay much attention to the statement pinned to the wall beside them. My initial reaction on reading it was to feel angry and let down. It announced that the series, called “Sejarah X” (History X), was a selection of photos taken by a fictional photographer named Amrizal Chaniago between 1959 and 1964. Amrizal, went the note, had graduated from his modest studio in Jakarta to become the official presidential photographer and a “witness to history.” He in turn was the creation of Agan Harahap, who is real! Agan’s specialty is historical fantasy; analogous to the historical novel, his work delights in embellishing fact.

Turning back to the photos and leaning forward to examine them more forensically, my anger (more likely embarrassment at being sucked in) was replaced by wonder at the cleverness of Agan’s work. Though montages, the multiple images Agan had cut and paste into a single image were totally seamless and convincing. They also rang true because their content fitted everybody’s perception of Sukarno, the playboy. This is genuine artistry, I decided. This is how it would have been.

The montages are from a few years apart. The first is based on a visit by Sukarno to the US around 1961 when the Kennedy administration feted him in a bid to turn around his pro-communist and anti-US tendencies. It didn’t work. He went on to the Soviet Union which turned on an even more lavish reception and awarded him the Lenin Peace Prize.

The second is based on a cocktail party hosted in Beverly Hills for Sukarno in late May 1956. Gregory Peck and Ronald Reagan were also thought to have been there but Agan has not bothered making photos of Sukarno with these stars. He has played with the fact that Sukarno was a big fan of US movies (he had a cinema installed in his presidential palace to watch them) and had made it known he wanted to meet Marilyn Monroe while he was in the US.

Though montages, the photos have taken in lots of Indonesians because they look so real and depict exactly what they would have expected of Sukarno. They continue to spark gosip selebriti. Did the CIA set up the encounter? Was Marilyn Monroe a CIA agent? Did they spend the night together? Is it true that she referred to him as a prince? That she said she had never heard of Indonesia and thought he was from India? That later, following assassination attempts on Sukarno, she offered him asylum in New York but Arthur Miller wasn’t keen?

Whatever the answers to these breathless speculations, it is universally agreed that Sukarno was an incorrigible flirt. He had nine wives. In his own words, Sukarno liked looking at beautiful women “not just out of the corner of his eye but with all his eyes,” behaviour Indonesians call mata keranjang (basket eyes, like a shopper).

Some think the trait is also a good metaphor for his politics. He flirted with the Japanese during World War II, with leadership of the third world, with democracy, with brinkmanship, with revolution, and with the communist bloc. Like his personal liaisons, they ended in failure. In 1966, he was impeached (though, it should be stressed, by a Soeharto controlled Parliament wanting to legitimise the new regime’s hold on power) for supporting the Indonesian communist party, neglecting the economy and contributing to “moral degradation” through blatant womanising.

Both personalities, however, are too big to be easily pigeon-holed.

Marilyn Monroe, branded the quintessential dumb blonde, has recently been the subject of new research based on her diaries, notebooks and poetry. She was “a frustrated thinker” with a “complex subjectivity cooped up in an over-objectified body,” writes Andy Martin. In his Prayer for Marilyn Monroe, the Nicaraguan priest-poet Ernesto Cardenal points his finger at “the studio bosses of 20th Century-Fox” for her fate.

Sukarno too remains larger than life. He is loved and revered in contemporary Indonesia. Whatever his failures, they are so many peccadilloes compared with his status as the founding father of the nation and huge persona. To his multitudes of fans, his wildest ideas, up to and including space exploration by Indonesia and setting up an alternative UN, demonstrate not megalomania but his love and ambitions for Indonesia.

A restaurant I visited near the Monas national monument said it all. One whole wall, side to side and top to bottom, was covered in a huge collage of black and white photos of Bung Karno in his many poses and roles. On another wall his image was cheek by jowl with Mao, Gandhi, Beethoven, JFK, Yasser Arafat, Marx and Mother Teresa.

Stormy With A Chance Of Fried Rice - expat living in Jakarta

Thanks to Pat Walsh for his generous contribution of this article from his fantastic book, Stormy With a Chance of Fried Rice: Twelve Months in Jakarta. Available at Gramedia, online from Gramediana or at Ganesha in Bali.