Auto Italia presents Garden Amidst the Flame, a newly commissioned moving image work and the first UK solo exhibition by Indonesian artist Natasha Tontey.
Garden Amidst the Flame (27 minutes, HD film, 2022) continues Tontey’s ongoing research into the ancient knowledge, technologies and cosmology of the Minahasa, an Indigenous nation in the North Sulawesi province of Indonesia. In this most recent work, the artist emphasises core Minahasa cultural beliefs in the all-encompassing equilibrium between the human and non-human. Drawing on her experience of karai, a ceremony that grants Minahasan warriors an armour of invincibility, the artist seeks to establish a queering approach towards gender, youth and ecology.
Garden Amidst the Flame is a coming-of-age story following the fantasies of a group of young Minahasan girls. The film begins with Virsay, the protagonist of the story, shaving her eyebrows. Her younger sister, Mikha, warns Virsay that by doing so, she may gain the ability to see ghosts. Mikha’s advice proves to be true. Carried away to a realm of nowhere, Virsay meets a cast of Minahasan behemoths, including the rooster, ayam jago, and the coelacanth, raja laut. These encounters serve as entry points into the worldview of the Minahasa, an animistic society informed by a non-anthropocentric gift economy based on volunteerism, kinship and mutual aid with nature.
The film’s protagonists are members of the Wulan Lengkoan, a dance troupe of school girls in Sonder, North Sulawesi, who practise kabasaran, an ancient martial art and war dance traditionally performed only by Minahasan men. In the film, Virsay drifts between realities until she encounters the head of a slaughtered rooster in the forest. Symbolically used as a tool for measuring the strength of an individual’s character within ritual, the encounter transforms Visray into a warrior in kabasaran attire and she ceremonially receives karai.
Garden Amidst the Flame attempts to resituate expected roles of gender and masculinity within Minahsan society, in the rapidly changing social and economic context of Indonesia. The playful interactions between the members of the child gang, and their engagement with the ancestral culture, take place in many contexts, including during a traditional tinutuan meal, and on a journey to an ancestral burial ground with waruga sarcophagi. Meanwhile, shots in the protagonist’s bedroom reveal posters of Western celebrities and Indonesian Minahasan cultural figures, using consumer iconography to weave a semi-fictional tale exploring the Wulan Lengkoan’s ideas of power and economy in an increasingly globalised Minahasa.
The film has been produced during an eighteen-month collaboration between Tontey and a small group of members in the Wulan Lengkoan. The project offers a viewpoint into the translation of generational knowledge and layering of time in a moment of societal change. This shift is emphasised by the coelacanth, who reappears throughout the film smoking an enchanted pipe whilst weaving a tale about a journey through a human navel to meet the ancestors, and posing questions about building stories in the absence of history.
Garden Amidst the Flame is commissioned and produced by Auto Italia, London in partnership with La Becque, Tour-de-Peilz; Stroom Den Haag, The Hague and Shedhalle, Zurich; with additional support from the Governance of North Sulawesi, Bank SulutGo, and the Department of Tourism and Culture of North Sulawesi.
The exhibition has been made possible by Headline Exhibition Supporters Cockayne – Grants for the Arts and The London Community Foundation, and with support from British Council Indonesia and Goethe-Institut London.
Natasha Tontey (b. 1989, Jakarta, Indonesia) is a multidisciplinary artist and designer. Her recent exhibitions include Arko Art Council Korea, Seoul, Korea (2022), Asian Art Biennale 2021, Taichung, Taiwan; Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin (2021); transmediale, Berlin (2021); Performance Space 2021, Singapore; Other Futures, Amsterdam (2021); Singapore International Film Festival (2021), Kyoto Experiment 2021; Asian Film Archive, Singapore (2021); Next Wave Festival, Melbourne (2016). In 2020, she received the HASH Award from the ZKM, Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe and Akademie Schloss-Solitude. Tontey is a fellow for Human Machine of the Junge Akademie at Akademie der Künste Berlin 2021-2023.