August 1995 - March 31 1996
Museum für Völkerkunde und Schweizerisches Museum für Volkskunde, Basel, Switzerland

Farewell to Paradise? New Views from Bali.

This exhibition was arranged to commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Independence of the Republic of Indonesia. From August 1995 to March 31 1996, contemporary painting from Bali and masterpieces of traditional Balinese art will be on view.
By U. Ramseyer

The exhibition "Farewell to Paradise ? New views from Bali" concentrates on four Balinese artists who have shared the formative artistic experience of having spent time in Basel, to gain a taste of its "Art", in its many museums and its wide variety of cultural events, as guests of the International Exchange Programme Basel (IAAB, Christoph Merian Foundation) and the Museum of Ethnology (1991 and 1993). And they saw this as a good reason to entitle their subsequent joint exhibition at the Art Centre (Taman Budaya) in Denpasar Benang Merah Bali-Basel, 'Red Thread Bali-Basel'.

The 'Basel Group' of the Sanggar Dewata Indonesia artists' association views its relationship with Basel and with a steadily growing number of artists from our region as a decisive step towards conveying the Balinese identity and Balinese sensibilities by universally comprehensible means of expression. The 'Red Thread Bali-Basel' provides an opportunity for the group, recently joined by I Nyoman Erawan, a respected figure on the Asian Pacific art scene, to discuss and explore artistic notions and perceptions shared and disparate through cultural dialogue. Because the artists come to Basel, there is opportunity for intercultural dialogue to promote mutual understanding. As a forum of different cultures, the Museum of Ethnology seeks to provide a framework for cultural encounter, a context in which to question and come to grips with what is alien - the Other - but also with oneself. There is room here for dissimilarity, but also for transition, for links that do not gloss over differences.

But this exhibition is also about problems of identity. Balinese society as represented in these pictures is not the paradise that Western romantics, artists, scholars, and travel specialists have made it. It is a society that has opened the gates to the tide of outside influences and is now increasingly plagued by uncertainty: what does the future hold in store? What is happening to its roots? Perhaps these identity problems interest us because we are increasingly questioning our own identity and are ourselves beset by feelings of doubt: who and what are we? What do we want to be? Might thinking about contempora- ry Balinese art help us to learn something about ourselves? Stranger things have happened.

Tradition versus Modernity?

Life in Bali has become life in two different worlds. As contemporary artists, our guests move effortlessly between them, and both are equally important in shaping their consciousness and their creative work. The one is the traditional world, in whose social and religious institutions all Balinese are firmly rooted. It is the context in which they participate in communal work to create religious art. The boldest pieces produced for major temple festivals or death and soul purification rituals often assume the form and meaning of cosmic installations. In the modern world, on the other hand, these selfsame artists function as independent personalities, creating works of great individuality. With both worlds ever palpable, contemporary, and omnipresent in their art, their oeuvre should be viewed and understood as part of an artistic tradition and at expression of traditional and modern experiences of a living culture, in other words of local traditions and the global, modern world.

The pictures before us make use of universally comprehensible techniques, materials, shapes, and colours to convey Balinese ideas about the creation of images. And these ideas diverge markedly from the artistic traditions of the West, which have shaped both artists and the public. Any attempt to classify the paintings in this exhibition according to the genealogy of Western modernism or postmodernism is dangerous, for it reduces modern Asian art to a derivative, secondary phenomena devoid of authenticity. Wayan Sika, Madé Djirna, Madé Budhiana, and Nyoman Erawan have not broken with their tradition. But, in their quest for a new identity in an ever-changing world, they make use of new artistic idioms which enable them to combine universality with the Balinese identity. The work of the Bali-Basel group reveals a willingness to accept artistic genres and styles born of European and American modernism. But it is as strongly shaped by local modifications of these influences and by creative developments originating in the endogenous cultural energies and aesthetic activities arising from a different tradition und thus from different modes of thinking and seeing.

Do the pieces on exhibition display features that might somehow be viewed as typical of Bali? Perhaps an answer can be found by comparing them with works characteristic of the Balinese artistic tradition, works endowed with the mystically nourished "magic" aura that has typified good Balinese art at all times. It is at this point that the exhibition constitutes a challenge and a risk: it asks how Balinese tradition recognizes and defines artistic aura (taksu), and invites four contemporary artists to reflect on the subject. Supplementary pieces on show, chosen from Basel's Bali collection, may serve to make visible the red thread that renders this art Balinese. Perhaps this approach will bring us that much closer to an assessment, demonstrating how an exhibition can lead to new insights on the part of artists and visitors alike.
Mysticism, magic, and the vital spirit.

Many Indonesian artists regard their spiritual-mystical experience and cultural stock of traditional symbols as the most important sources of subject matter and style for their pictures, objects, or installations. The artists exhibiting here typify this position: myths and invisible cosmic forces form an inexhaustible reservoir of ideas and concepts which - mystically experienced - materialize in pictorial works and are expressed in titles such as Ancient Energy, Meditasi, Spirit, Energy Baru, After Cremation, or Kundalini. Virtually all conversations with Balinese artists circle around mysticism and magic, the vital spirit, and the dynamic forces at work spiritually or emotionally invisible and intangible by the artist's hand.

The simultaneous existence of the visible (sekala) and the invisible (niskala), which is so central to Balinese belief and religious practices, determines perceptions of life in this world and the next. When a human being enters this world at birth, his alter ego, the placenta (ari-ari), dies. Once the infant's father has given his alter ego a ritual burial, it lives on in the next world, ultimately coming to the gates of the hereafter to fetch the mortal soul after its death. The visible and the invisible are also omnipresent in daily life. Spirit beings and cosmic forces active in the realm of the invisible take on sekala form to become perceptible in this world: at rituals they appear as symbols, colours, holy water, or masked figures. They manifest themselves in the tripartite structure of temple complexes, shrines, and cremation towers. And they are the invisible material and inner reality behind visible, outward reality that stir an artist and reveal themselves in his pictures.

This is what makes Wayan Sika, Madé Djirna, Noyoman Erawan, and Madé Budhiana Balinese, even if they employ universally comprehensible means of expression: their pictures give visible form to an inner, invisible reality which, while perhaps remaining inaccessible to some of us, can be experienced intuitively and emotionally as a powerful aura. The charismatic force and dynamic power of an object of art, be it a mask, a statue, a relief, or a traditional or modern painting, are as much a criterion of artistic quality in Bali as the mastery of artistic means and techniques, form and composition.

In this respect Balinese pictures are never abstract in our sense. They exist at the level of inner realities, the niskala, before they are ever given visual form. Artists like Djirna, Erawan and Sika are 'realists of the invisible', not 'abstract artists'. Their pictures are messages or projections from within. Budhiana, on the other hand, appears at first glance to have his sights on the visible world. And he is the only member of the group who goes out into nature to draw and paint. But his works too, are filled with an inner energy that can be traced back to a mystical and spiritual experience of nature.

Museum für Völkerkunde und Schweizerisches Museum für Völkskunde
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Dr Urs. Ramseyer is the curator of the Museum für Völkerkunde und Schweizerisches Museum für Volkskunde in Basel.