Bali :: small island, great art

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Monday March 7, 2011
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Bali, a Southeast Asian mecca for Western tourists seeking the promise of paradise, a tropical tan and the sort of spiritual awakening glamorized by the pop culture phenomenon Eat, Pray, Love, gets a thorough and rather fine art-historical treatment in Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance.

The new exhibition, on view at the Asian Art Museum, should do nothing to diminish the American romance with this faraway isle; instead, the show will only add to its mystique while offering a grounding in the legacy of artistry and aesthetic beauty that informs Balinese daily life and nearly every ceremonial object here, from primitive representations of the rice goddess (the staff of life) made out of palm fronds or graceful carved-wood sculptures in her image embedded with copper alloy coins, to a pair of elaborate gilded chairs with a lion's head on each armrest, precious gold vessels produced by court artisans and ivory sculptures believed to be vehicles for the gods descending from their mountain aeries. The oldest piece in the show, and one of the most enigmatic, is the top layer of a primitive bronze drum that has turned green with the passage of time; concentric rings, like those etched into an ancient sequoia stump, relay its history.

Over two-thirds of the exhibition's 130 artworks, which date mostly from 1700 to the 1930s, are spoils of war collected by the Dutch, following their conquest of Bali in the early 20th century; the prizes of military campaigns were shipped back to Europe and preserved in museums in the Netherlands, which may explain their pristine condition.

The wide array of objects on display includes paintings, furnishings, archival photographs, decorative pieces, musical instruments like the metallophone that has bronze bars and bamboo resonators, a tray holding bamboo tubes for cricket-fighting (a Balinese national pastime that's not quite as popular as cockfighting), and shadow puppets symbolizing a constellation of figures like the goddess of death and destruction, a demon warrior, a ruler of snakes and a feisty chicken, who are all players in a vivid storytelling tradition.

The first in-depth, major show of its kind in the U.S., Bali examines the confluence of ritual practice with the thriving performing and visual arts that emanate from this relatively tiny island (it's only 90 miles across), one of a network of thousands of such land masses in the Indian Ocean that comprise the republic of Indonesia.

With over 20,000 temples to sustain, there are numerous ceremonies, each requiring artifacts and costumes such as the "legong" dancer's delicate, gilted rawhide headdress, crowned with protruding leaves of gold paper, mica shards and mirror fragments that move and sway, catching the light as a performer glides through space. The headdresses are believed to induce a trance in those who wear them on the 10th full moon of the lunar calendar.

In the midst of the most populous Islamic country in the world, Bali has somehow remained a Hindu oasis, though its Hinduism is inextricably linked with a tradition of animism and ancestor worship. In contrast to the tranquility of the landscape, the collective Balinese psyche is a densely populated, tumultuous place filled with wrathful, red-faced, fire-breathing, bulging-eyed deities, whom one wouldn't want to encounter in a dark alley or a rice paddy.

Battles royale between good and evil erupt in ritual dances where seemingly gigantic performers don brightly painted, startling animal-creature masks of extraordinary size. They face off in ancient scenarios, engaging in ritual catharsis that could be construed as a form of culturally sanctioned anger management. Decorated with shanks of unruly hair, enormous teeth and a generally menacing appearance, these creature masks of boars, lions, tigers, horned monkeys, elephants, magical birds and mythical beasts are the highlight of the show.

At a height of nearly nine feet when worn in full regalia, the "Barong Landung," giant puppets usually carried on the shoulders of a single male performer, tower over spectators and are regarded as village protectors whose powers repel misfortune and sickness. These figures can also consist of a couple, as in a story based on the legend of an unattractive, possibly demonic Balinese king, represented here by the ebony, buck-toothed mask of Jero Gede, who married a demur Chinese wife, Jero Luh, a white-faced character with a sweetly serene expression.

In a welcome departure from the hype and jumble of Shanghai, last year's big spring/summer extravaganza, the Asian, back on track and in high gear with this exquisite exhibition, shows its usual admirable restraint, culling prime examples of select works and allowing them room to breathe, while offering narrative and background information in easy-to-read, illuminating text in the galleries. In addition, video clips of temple festivals and celebrations of the life cycle, shot in Bali by curator Natasha Reichle, provide context to the objects on display. A full complement of concerts and dance performances will play out in the museum's public spaces during the course of the show.

Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance at the Asian Art Museum, Feb. 25-Sept. 11. Info: (415) 581-3500 or