Notes for the Nandur Srawung Exhibition #7/2020


In the midst of a shifting history, both due to natural factors (in the form of a corona virus outbreak which is testing the continuity of civilization and the human species) and structural (economic, military, population, natural resources) between powers and regions, art exhibitions departing from the spirit of agriculture in the ritual of planting rice in Java (wiwitan) can be the first step to finding alternative perspectives related to commons life in times of crisis and the future. Agriculture is one of the pillars of civilization in which, as stated by Ibn Khaldun and Thomas Malthus, agricultural production based on arithmetic ratios needs to be sufficient for a growing human population based on an exponential ratio. Apart from being related to food, agriculture in tropical countries is related to biological wealth, knowledge of biodiversity, cultivation techniques and its various benefits. This knowledge is often stored in artistic products such as decorative items, temple reliefs, texts and mantras, prayers and songs in various cultural groups in the archipelago. With such a wealth, we have the “differentiating capital” to take advantage of the historical changes that are happening. This essay will explain in simple terms the intrinsic aspects of the wiwitan ritual, its relation to classical history and contemporary dynamics, and its relevance to innovation in various fields, including art.

I

It is commonly known among Javanese people, especially in the areas of Jogja and Kedu, that wiwitan is a ritual performed during the rice planting period. In this ritual, people bring a number of food and produce as an expression of gratitude to the Divine so that communication and negotiation with spiritual entities occurs in prayer and materiality as confirmation of requests – offerings. Apart from God, there is also gratitude speech for Dewi Sri as ingkang mbaurekso (guardian of a region, field or rice field): soil fertility is associated with the fertility of a sacred woman’s uterus; wealth (yields of rice fields and fields) is associated with the metaphor of kinship (mother, wife) as the origin of life; men who have sperm carry the seeds in rituals in the fields, and the planting of seeds is associated with copulation, until one day the rice will become pregnant. In this practice, economic production is equated with child production: the bond between a farmer and his wealth – the grain of rice produced – is like the relationship between parents and offspring.

Thus, in this simple and unpretentious ritual, there are layers of meaning that are dense and mutually explain each other; economic production, intercourse, kinship, spiritual / magical are in one line of meaning. If we agree that agriculture was the initial form of plant domestication – as livestock is the domestication of animals – then the Javanese did it in the form of copulation and kinship with spiritual and mystical entities as guarantor of their commitment, resulting in fusion between nature (fields), culture (ritual) and spiritual (God, Goddess) in the symbolic totality of the ritual. Wiwitan, therefore, is like a short poem which is strict, dense and coherent: not a single word is distorted or vain without meaning.

In the process of love and kinship knitting in that field, with offerings as the dowry and God along with Goddess as the witnesses and guardians, there is an interesting and clever dynamic which is full of drama. In a syncretic society, Dewi Sri is believed to be a messenger of the angel Jibril who was ordered to go to Java to avoid famine. This piece of narrative contains an important meaning, namely the incorporation of different spiritual teachings as a micro portrait of the cosmopolitan attitudes of Javanese society, as well as their efforts to avoid moral and ideological friction that could threaten the integrity of the order. This is because deviations, opposites, and threats to the integrity are not allowed in the strict and coherent practice of symbolic association. So, instead of being out of meaning or disturbing, it would be better to be part of the ritual — although, basically the Javanese peasants did not need such a powerful sacred entity to simply guard their meager fields. However, if there is a religious doctrine with the concept of God that is so powerful, they will gladly involve it in agricultural worship. In this way, the entity that was originally different and threatening becomes reinforcement in the ritual and adds to their confidence in the abundance of the harvest in the coming season.

However, if there is a religious doctrine with the concept of God that is so powerful, they will gladly involve it in agricultural worship. In this way, the entity that was originally different and threatening becomes reinforcement in the ritual and adds to their confidence in the abundance of the harvest in the coming season.

In the wiwitan ritual, the organizers will invite a number of relatives, neighbors, colleagues or field workers, resulting in social strengthening as well as political affirmation from the owner of the field to other parties. In this socio-political function, the wiwitan ritual process becomes a more dramatic, stressful and risky practice, in which everything that happens to the field (crops, pests, calamities) will be linked to the ritual and behavior of the owner of the field. If the growth is good and the yield is abundant, relatives and neighbors will associate it with the generosity and sincerity of the land owner. On the other hand, the relatives and neighbors will associate it with stories about offerings that are considered insufficient or other unsatisfactory behavior. Thus, the more extensive the field owned and the higher the social status, the greater the social and economic risk borne by a person. Moreover, if it chooses not to do so, it will suffer even greater consequences; in agricultural societies who have lived together for a long period of time, rituals are essential for maintaining togetherness until the next harvest, when the peasants desperately need the solidarity of their relatives and neighbors to help him harvest rice.

Thus, the simple and unpretentious agricultural ceremony has many negotiable elements and risks at stake. Although the structure, purpose and general formations are the same, there is always a calming atmosphere for those who live it. This is because in traditional societies, in which the bond between man and nature, man and fellow human being and man and God, is carried out in layers (intercourse, kinship, economic, social, political and religious). Every different practice and outcome will have implications and even consequences for other aspects of their lives. Therefore, the Javanese peasants with such meager land were basically gutsy people because they used to risk everything even when they started planting a grain of rice.

II

In general, rituals are carried out to avoid tension during transitional periods, related to the life cycle, religious cycle, economic cycle, natural cycles, and the existence of things that are deviant or out of the ordinary. In the case of wiwitan, rituals are carried out to reduce tension during the transition period between harvest and planting in the agricultural cycle. The cycles of various aspects of life explain to one another, such as conversations between characters in play or tetabuhan in gamelan, to form a unity of story and rhythm in performing arts, namely the life that is lived. In other words, the cycle is the rhythm of time that encapsulates, controls and directs history into a common and coherent flow. So, every time there is a change or break, a ceremony will be carried out to readjust it so that it returns to the historical rhythm that has been agreed upon and determined since the origin of time and life (il ille tempore).

In the case of wiwitan, rituals are carried out to reduce tension during the transition period between harvest and planting in the agricultural cycle. The cycles of various aspects of life explain to one another, such as conversations between characters in play or tetabuhan in gamelan, to form a unity of story and rhythm in performing arts, namely the life that is lived.

The micro-portrait of traditional culture, which contains the rhythmic rotation of the formation and structure of a ritual, will intertwine with other rituals to form a great rhythm of social history and civilization that keeps repeating itself. In this regards, all the rituals that are transitional (life cycle, agriculture, trade, religion, etc.) will center on the ritual of birth (as a sign of the origin of life and the world / cosmogony) and especially death (as the end of the life system lived / cosmology). Absence (before birth and after death) is not understood as nothing but as the highest and the most ultimate being – the eternal and constant span of time in the landscape of Divine eschatology. The Javanese say, urip mong mampir ngombe — considering that the time we live in has a fixed rhythm and is only a small piece of a higher, sacred and eternal time.

It can be imagined if this archipelago was full of rituals for centuries: related to agriculture, maritime affairs and trade; birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and death; coronations of sultans, burials of brahmins and guardians, and ongoing pilgrimages. In these rituals, each person is an “artist,” in the form of a singer; musician; reciter of prayer, mantra, song, kidung; offer maker, dancer, knitter, and so on. At the same time, fields are cultivated and the sea is crossed; forests are entered and animals are hunted; fruit and flowers are marked, given names; their benefits are recorded in fibers and books as well as chanted in kidung (leaves for stomach aches, herbal medicine for youth, external wound medicine, helping to have descendants, antidotes, etc.) so that in these artistic products there are concrete, tangible benefits and powers. In Aristotle’s terminology, in which the meaning of poetry is the ability or creativity to change circumstances (making reality), these traditional works of art are works with ontological weight according to their basic meaning and function.

In these rituals, each person is an “artist,” in the form of a singer; musician; reciter of prayer, mantra, song, kidung; offer maker, dancer, knitter, and so on. At the same time, fields are cultivated and the sea is crossed; forests are entered and animals are hunted; fruit and flowers are marked, given names; their benefits are recorded in fibers and books as well as chanted in kidung (leaves for stomach aches, herbal medicine for youth, external wound medicine, helping to have descendants, antidotes, etc.)

In such a totality of cultural reality, history is not just the events that occurred concerning when, where and who did it (as in positive and modern history, especially von Ranke), but what is the meaning, appreciation, position and ties of a person with the whole value system and the cosmos (negative history, such as Plato, Hegel, Sahlins). Time structure, in this case, is not a quantitative sequence in the form of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. but qualitative sequences (wayah, mongso, tough, etc. with different and distinctive weights).

In Bergson’s philosophy, time in the history of the archipelago is a lived sequence (duree) rather than one thought out and filled with activities (time), in which everyone will interpret it as best as possible, according to their position and importance, so that they can be as close as possible to the rhythm of eternal time. The more it is in accordance with the rhythm of the eternal time which is agreed upon and established, the more harmonious the order will be, and the more in accordance with the destiny approved by the Divine. The process of appreciation is carried out mainly through ritual, in which everything is given the deepest and coherent meaning, explaining to one another, in layers and levels, to form a large world view that knits between individuals, families, villages, islands, ethnicities, kingdoms and sultanates, from time to time. Even if a person performs individual rituals, such as performing asceticism in a cave, the negotiation reference remains the same: the ruler of eternal time, Gusti Ilahi – the Mighty God.

These romantic, poetic and idealistic portraits (because they are not far from the “history of soul / spirit” as described by Plato and Hegel, as well as Eliade), are often used as a reference for modern and contemporary societies as a model of a “harmonious” life order. The basic difference is that, in this traditional cosmological order, each individual is only a tiny vibration of the rhythm of the great and sacred world history, serving fully for his part. Meanwhile, in modern and contemporary society, individuals have their own roles, needs and interests, without the deep and layered ties that Javanese peasants do in the wiwitan ritual. The negotiations are no longer with, and limited by, the sacred world order, but by the balance of power and interests between individuals and groups that are diverse, complex and difficult to measure.

Faisal Kamandobat: Guardians of Medicine and Healing Spells (Acrylic and ink on canvas, 2.5 x 2.5 m, 2020)

III

In its most recent history, mankind has experienced individuation as an implication of the increasingly specialized and profaning division of labor as an implication of the separation of moral authority (in this case spiritual-religious) from economic and political authority. As a result, there has been a centralization of man as an autonomous subject in history, who is superior to, and therefore often used as an excuse, to rule over nature according to his needs and interests — without being restricted by divine regulations anymore. This condition is further confirmed by various views in which human rationality is a universal and lasting entity, with science and technology as an ideological basis and even in certain contexts being used as an ontological footing that is parallel to the metaphysical doctrine.

This historical process has resulted in enormous advances in civilization with simultaneous exponential growth between population, economy, scientific and technological innovation. Many thinkers have responded to this condition critically; for example, Berger attributed this progress to the many victims of the pyramid of progress achieved, Benjamin explained it with the process of historical decline and Nietzsche used the domination of values that led to nihilism in morality. With their respective perspectives, they agree that the ideology of progress has had serious implications culturally, long before we currently witness its consequences on the destruction of nature and ecology as the source of our lives.

In the midst of this situation, several other critical views emerge. For example criticism observes unbalanced progress between nations and regions (resulting in hegemony and justification for domination practices between nations, ethnicities, races and groups who feel “advanced” against those who are “left behind”) as in the study of postcolonialism, as well as a more realistic critical view of the economy from the school of progress to equity. These various criticisms have opened perspectives and opportunities for nations that are considered “backward” to make leaps of progress according to their own models and capital, as the rise of Asian nations today, with the support of natural resources, labor and human creativity.

These various criticisms have opened perspectives and opportunities for nations that are considered “backward” to make leaps of progress according to their own models and capital, as the rise of Asian nations today, with the support of natural resources, labor and human creativity.

On the other hand, in response to progress and profanation, there are also more romantic and idealistic views, such as the phenomenon of the view of life returning to nature by following the teachings of Eastern philosophy and religions. To a certain extent, this tendency is carried out to an extreme by rejecting all elements of modernity. There are also people who practice this view as lifestyle — for example, performing Eastern spiritual rituals but without making a full commitment to its value system. The emergence of the New Age movement in the West a few decades ago, triggered by a careless interpretation of Gregory Bateson’s anthography, is an example of which implications can still be found in the practice of meditation tourism today.

Other responses include movements that threaten civilization as a whole, such as religious radicalism movements in Asia and the Middle East. Also, right-wing movements continue to strengthen in the West. This phenomena arise due to the paradigm of secular progress that has made history experience disorientation and injustice along with structural changes and social atomization that have made the world vulnerable to conflict. On a larger scale, this response has expanded from socio-political conflict to dissension between countries, as part of overflowing anxiety with intense and intricate competition to be at the forefront of history.

If we place the views and various socio-cultural phenomena above together, an increasingly plural flow of history will be seen. History is no longer a single stream flowing from Africa and Asia towards the West as a “beginning of progress”, but a progress that is increasingly diversified at various points of growth in the world. On the other hand, there is also a portrait of an increasingly cosmopolitan world in which East and West share civilizational “gifts” (read: influence each other) thanks to the process of migration and interbreeding of humans from different civilizations. Thus, there is Indian biryani rice in London, kebabs in Berlin and Paris, there is Javanese soto in Leiden, burgers and spaghetti in Bantul and Aristotle and Karl Marx’s books at the pesantren – Islamic boarding school. Also, in the field of innovation, the scientists from various nations share their inspiration and discoveries in the same laboratory.

In the field of modern and contemporary art there are also more diverse views. If every development was previously seen as a continuation of the history of modern art in the West, now every nation can build modernity and contemporary according to its own version – according to the level of creativity and interest of each nation. Previously, Picasso made cubism paintings related to African masks, Debussy made music from Balinese gamelan, Matisse tasted Moroccan colors, but now every artist can develop modern and contemporary works from their cultural background using various available methods and techniques as well as discuss them with the latest innovations in various disciplines.

IV

It is in this large landscape that the Wiwitan theme in the Nandur Srawung 7 exhibition finds its relevance. A theme that would sound odd if brought up a few decades ago when the ideology of progress with its modernization and secular agenda was becoming a major narrative in history, as well as the strong perspective that being a modern artist had to queue to be the successor to Van Gogh, Mondrian, Warhol, Jeff Koons, etc. Now, a Murakami becomes a contemporary artist precisely by departing from his traditional visual legacy, Cai Guo Qiang who paints with gunpowder a legacy of classical Chinese innovation, Shirin Neshat with classical Persian poetry calligraphy, and Heri Dono with twisted logic in ketoprak and Javanese puppets. With creative knowledge management, each has developed hidden knowledge (tacit knowledge) in their traditions to become conceptual knowledge (explicit knowledge) with distinctive visual works (material knowledge) as a mode of discourse for reading and processing issues, moments and discourses in various fields, regions and levels, so that it becomes a holistic view and has paradigmatic power.

A theme that would sound odd if brought up a few decades ago when the ideology of progress with its modernization and secular agenda was becoming a major narrative in history, as well as the strong perspective that being a modern artist had to queue to be the successor to Van Gogh, Mondrian, Warhol, Jeff Koons, etc. Now, a Murakami becomes a contemporary artist precisely by departing from his traditional visual legacy, Cai Guo Qiang who paints with gunpowder a legacy of classical Chinese innovation, Shirin Neshat with classical Persian poetry calligraphy, and Heri Dono with twisted logic in ketoprak and Javanese puppets.

Apart from the historical context which is increasingly plural and cosmopolitan, the theme of wiwitan finds its relevance in the midst of shifting history, both structurally and naturally or a combination of the two. Structurally, there has been a shift or at least a balance between West and East, with the emergence of China and India as new powers. At the same time, the traditional cultures of the two regions will emerge as soft-power instruments in their international and global agendas. Naturally, the emergence of the corona virus outbreak has drastically slowed the rate of progress so that (1) it accelerated the shift in civilization, (2) there has been a fundamental revaluation of the ideology of progress which is assumed to have damaged nature and caused various diseases. At the same time, various traditional knowledge finds its relevance again, to be studied and practiced according to each’s needs and level, as the term “local wisdom” that we often hear. If we are able to develop traditional knowledge into theoretical and experimental forms (not just normative and ideological), it is not impossible that it can become an alternative paradigm that opens new perspectives and innovations in various fields, including science and art.

In the midst of a crisis, the theme wiwitan also offers ideas about the need for a spirit of solidarity and cosmopolitanism. In contemporary society, relations between humans have led to a network society model that requires power in social relations. As a result, although culturally the actors involved appear to be diverse, they are politically homogeneous and closed, considering that only actors with certain powers can be involved in it. If this model occurs in contemporary art, then there has been a homogenization of artists politically, although conceptually and artistically it has become increasingly diverse (diversity is done to meet the needs in the practice of power exchange between actors or groups). Borrowing the spirit in the wiwitan ritual, the cosmopolitan dimension needs to be carried out within the framework of solidarity at all levels and in order to strengthen resilience in the midst of a crisis, so that actors who do not have sufficient power can have access to resources (symbolic or material).

In other words, instead of developing wiwitan from ritual to festival, the theme of the Nandur Srawung 7 exhibition can become a door that opens the books and spirits of our very rich classical culture into new forms and spirits. Of course, as a generation that is so far removed from the sacred world of our ancestors, we will encounter many difficulties to understand before we develop it to a scientific, experimental and material level. However, with our humility and diligence to study this matter, the ancestors will not let their children and grandchildren be thrown away from their history and wisdom. Furthermore, for the ancestors, as in the wiwitan ritual, blood ties are the main rope of other relationships: territory, society, welfare and especially the inheritance of knowledge and wisdom.


*Translated by Dewi Resminingayu

Faisal Kamandobat
Faisal Kamandobat is a visual artist, poet and researcher at Abdurrahman Wahid Center for Peace and Humanities Universitas Indonesia (AWCPH-UI), Jakarta