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Selasa, 07 Juni 2011

Bali : Island Art, and All That Comes With It

Bali, a dot among the 17,500 islands of the Indonesian archipelago, has become the top tourist destination in Asia. All but unknown to outsiders before the 1930s, this fish-shaped island—95 miles from nose to tail, 69 miles from belly to back—now plays host to 2.5 million visitors a year who provide most of the revenue for its four million inhabitants.
[bali2] Asian Art Museum/Connoisseurs' Council/Estate of K. Hart Smith
The demon-king Rawana on his mount, Wilmana.

Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance

Asian Art Museum
Through Sept. 11
Visitors come for the tropical climate, wide white beaches and spectacular sunsets, the opportunities for surfing and diving, the spine of volcanic mountains (which send soil and water down deep gulleys to picturesque trays of green rice paddies), the new resorts and souvenir shops, the thousands of temples, and the artistic legacy of its religious and ritual past.
This legacy includes colorful processions in which descended deities are borne aloft under high parasols and bending palms; native dances and dance-dramas in elaborate costumes and masks, to the clang-bong-ring of a gamelan; and intricate woodcarving, metalwork and hand-woven fabrics.
San Francisco's Asian Art Museum subtitles its current exhibition "art, ritual, performance." The three are in many ways indistinguishable, the product of a unique form of Hinduism that incorporates older animistic and ancestor-worship practices, as well as borrowings from places like Java and China. Separate gods and goddesses must be appealed to and thanked by offerings and ceremonies, sacred images, symbols and syllables for birth and infancy, marriage and death, rice harvests, house-building, ordination, teeth-filing, good health, good sex, etc. There are also demons and monsters to be propitiated.
Temple ceremonies are built around these events, as well as water rites, the carrying of god-inhabited images in procession and the making of wide platters or high towers of offerings to the gods. Major funeral processions inevitably end with the ritual burning not only of the deceased, inside an animal-shaped sarcophagus, but also of the elaborate wooden structures erected over it. After the ceremonies, temple offerings are either eaten or thrown out before they rot.
One problem in displaying Balinese rituals and artifacts in a museum is that so many of them are time-based or ephemeral. Balinese dancing and acting depends on real people performing in real time—as does the trance-inducing sound of a gamelan, which can go on for hours. The museum can display the dancers' costumes and headdresses, large carved and painted masks, immobile shadow puppets, the elaborately carved and gilded drums, bells and mellophones of a gamelan. But something important is lost.
The Asian Art Museum has done its best to bring life to its exhibition by importing more than 25 dancers, musicians and artisans from Bali, and enlisting local practitioners and experts. There will be more than 60 live performances and demonstrations during the run of the show.
Video monitors in the galleries, meanwhile, will display scenes of a boar barong dance, a cremation ceremony, street processions, shadow puppetry, bare-chested men chanting around a fire. In one remarkable interactive video by Martin Percy, you can watch (in the museum or online) a number of different things going on during a festival last August at a three-temple village complex.
Seventy-one of the 130 items in the exhibition come from Dutch museums, the rest from other Western collections. The nine small kingdoms into which Bali was divided were dissolved between 1882 and 1908 by the Dutch, who destroyed in the process several royal palaces. Their inhabitants either sacrificed themselves or were shot. The more valuable contents were shipped to the Netherlands, sold off, or swept up by later Western visitors. Many of the treasures that remain in Bali are kept locked up in temple precincts except for ceremonial occasions, and never leave the island.
Woodwork and fabrics tend to rot in a tropical climate; most of the items here date from 1850 to 1950, including intricately patterned symbolic cloth hangings hand-woven of silk and metal threads. The two best woodcarvings come from the collection of the Asian Art Museum itself: a pair of brilliantly carved and painted statues of two legendary Hindu adversaries atop their gigantic winged mounts. Wisnu (aka Vishnu), the most admired Balinese deity, rides the mighty Garuda. The demon-king Rawana bares his fangs and pops his eyes astride his horrific mount Wilmana.
The show's signature image is of a marvelously carved, unpainted 40-inch-high palanquin—a partly open sedan-chair on carrying poles—designed to bear aloft a divinely inhabited figure in processions. There is also a richly painted palanquin with long carrying poles to bear a living royal personage, whose feet were not supposed to be seen in public touching the ground.
Whole pieces of wooden buildings were salvaged from the Dutch demolitions, or subsequently commissioned by the new colonial masters. These include a pair of 12-foot-high doors, liberated from a palace burned down in 1908, and the entry porch to a temple—all carved with impressive intricacy—as well as a replica of a cremation pavilion. Most impressive of these architectural pieces is a carved and painted lintel representing a pair of intertwined winged lions, pop-eyed and red-skinned, savaging a deer and bearing aloft the royal Dutch crown. Two elaborately carved and gilded thrones here were saved from the royal court of justice at Klungkung when the palace itself was destroyed.
Natasha Reichle, who curated the exhibition, and Deborah Clearwaters, who organized the public programs, deserve high praise for this re-creation of a complex culture. Now to see whether the Bali they present can survive the tourist hordes.
Mr. Littlejohn writes for the Journal on West Coast events.

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