What Bugalows Can Tell

In October 2019 I was invited to travel to Indonesia to take part in the second edition of the 900mdpl biennale in the village of Kaliurang. I stayed in the village for over a month and conducted extensive spatial research into the colonial bungalows of Kaliurang together with Brigita Murti and members of the local community. With the generous support of the Marinus Plantema Foundation and publisher Onomatopee, the results of this research have been translated into a beautiful publication.

The 900mdpl biennale is an event that takes place every two year in the village of Kaliurang (Yogyakarta region, Indonesia), which is situated on the slope of the Merapi volcano at an altitude of approximately 900m. In October 2019 I was invited to take part in the second edition, titled Hantu-Hantu Seribu Percakapan [Ghosts of a thousand conversations]. Kaliurang has an interesting and eventful history. Built as a health and holiday resort for the Dutch colonial middle class in the 1920’s, today, the beautiful, natural environment and the generally cooler climate of Kaliurang still attracts local tourists and groups of students for weekend retreats and social activities. Although the village appears in every aspect calm and friendly, it coexists with the persistent geological reality of looming natural violence. Officially declared a disaster area, the activity of Mount Merapi is continuously monitored from the observatory in the centre of the village. For the local inhabitants, ‘standby’, the moment at which the hazard code reaches a point of concern, is an everyday modus. In every intersection of the village, I discovered, you can find signs saying “Jalur Evakuasi” [evacuation route] with an arrow pointing to the direction in which you should flee in case of a sudden eruption. Gunung Merapi [literally ‘Fire Mountain’ in Indonesian and Javanese] is said to be the most active volcano in Indonesia. It erupts on average every 5 to 10 years and is feared for its deadly pyroclastic clouds that leaves behind a lifeless and surreal landscape coloured in the same grey shades as its peak.

Anticipating the potential loss of communal memory and knowledge by future volcanic outbreaks curators Mira Asriningtyas and Dito Yuwono, who both live in the village, decided to organize the 900mdpl biennale as a site-specific art project, offering space and possibilities for research-based art practices while assisting in preservation and transmission of transgenerational memory. The biennale’s primary aim therefore is to create a visual archive of Kaliurang by collecting myths, local wisdoms, stories, and alternative histories of the site. After arriving, I soon learned about Kaliurang’s particular histories and its spatial entanglement with the colonial past as a Dutch holiday retreat. As an artist and architectural historian, the many colonial bungalows that are still present in the village immediately caught my attention and interest. It fascinated me that this colonial history up until today determined the village’s spatial purpose as a touristic retreat. Together with architect Brigita Murti I decided to investigate this. We located, mapped and photographed all the colonial bungalows, talked to local people and did literature and archival research. Through our conversations with people, we came to understand the broader notions of different legacies of the past, both in local traditions and colonial heritage, and saw how they were increasingly intertwined with conflicts around growing tourism and gentrification processes, pressuring the quality and continuity of local ways of life.

When Mira and Dito brought me in contact with a spiritual advisor I first came to know about Javanese mythology. In Javanese mythology Kaliurang is known as one of the main portals to the kingdom of Mount Merapi, which is why many deities and protector spirits as well as bad-natured ghosts appear in the village. I was intrigued by it because in contrast with the academic approach towards history, in which I was schooled, and of which literature, documents, archives, etc. are the main sources, the mythologies and storytelling I encountered in Kaliurang finds its sources all around. These stories and appearances are not so much sought after, they exist in the form of personal and local memories and cannot be traced back to a document or archive, or anything that is considered ‘proof’ in a Western academic context. Yet it is in these stories that actual encounters take place between the Dutch and local experiences, something that is completely absent in colonial archives. I learned that ghosts and spirits inhabit trees and stones, or reside in the bungalows where they embody the stories of the past and remind the local people of certain events, shaping the collective conscience of the community. Some of the bungalows have been abandoned because they are considered haunted, while in others both Japanese and Dutch ghosts claim their historical presence. Today the colonial past still haunts the present as its spatial, colonial structures —its layout and architecture— have remained virtually intact and its underlaying spatial segregational design principles continue to have an effect on everyday life. Many of the housekeepers and caretakers that worked for the Dutch bungalow owners during colonial times, for example, maintained their jobs after independence, albeit with a new ‘master’ and/or homeowner. Some have kept these jobs in the family for two or three generations.

Brought together in a publication, the different essays by Mira, Brigita and myself aim to critically understand the spatial consequences and transformative effects of colonial history, globalisation and heritage formation on a local scale. The body of research presented looks specifically at the colonial bungalows —what can they tell?—, and the stories around them, questioning how they were used in the past, what their function is in the present and what they can represent in the future. In doing so, the book seeks to take into account the colonial history of the village, while at the same time bringing to the fore the voices, stories and local wisdoms often eclipsed by more prominent forms of Western knowledge production. What Bungalows Can Tell, owes much to the vibrant interactions and fruitful collaborations with members of the local community of Kaliurang, and tries to contribute to the biennale’s aim by opening up different perspectives and readings of the village and bringing them together in order to highlight alternative associations and meanings, both of past and present understandings.

Mira Asriningtyas, Paoletta Holst, Brigita Murti, What Bungalows Can Tell, ID/EN, p. 172, ISBN 978-9-49314-850-5, Onomatopee Z0025, 2021