This exhibition is about two issues (referring to the social and artistic discourses in the world of contemporary art in Indonesia); first, the act of “making choices” taken by the artists as creative subject with different perception and beliefs. Meanwhile the second issue has a greater scope (existing in the realm of social and political discources) and is about how the rights of the people are often held hostage, curtailed by quasi-democratic choices made by the elites in the name of regulations.
Bali Making Choices
Wayan Kun Adnyana Curator
The existence of art in Bali had already been identified during the period of the ancient court in Bali, around 944 caka or 1022 CE, when the court of King Marakata created Batuan inscription in which the professions of citrakara (spiritual gurus with drawing mastery) and culpika (spiritual gurus with sculpting mastery) were recognized (Goris, 1954: 97). This was long before the advent of the Renaissance in Europe.
Five centuries later, the artistic professions were most widely recognized as the Kamasan school of painting, with its wayang depictions, reached the peak of its popularity during the reign of King Waturenggong in Gelgel, Klungkung. This was the golden era for art in Bali and coincided with the Renaissance period in Europe. To this day, Bali has produced many artists with different levels of achievement—from the traditional Ubud painting (considered as “modern Balinese painting” by several art historians) in the thirties, to the emergence of contemporary painters with formal academic backgrounds in art.
In short, art in Bali has evolved for almost a thousand years. It has moved from its “aristocratic” existence, sanctified by kings and endorsed and created by the spiritual gurus as homage to Hyang Widhi the Creator, to the more secular realm of agrarian life, and on to its current form as expressions of solitary, creative, and experimental journeys of the artists.
For a thousand years, choices have been made in the world of art in Bali, influenced by the elite patrons, determined by the ideology of respective communities or the personal beliefs of the artists. Every choice made provides a narrative about the respective patron on whom the creative process had been based. To avoid repeating descriptions of the past, this curatorial framework will focus on the effort to track and map the creative choices that have been made in the Balinese world of art today.
In the context of this exhibition, “Bali Making Choices” is about two issues (referring to the social and artistic discourses in the world of contemporary art in Indonesia); first, the act of “making choices” taken by the artists as creative subjects with different perceptions and beliefs. Here we inquire how the artist as creative subject is often forgotten today, when the dominant curatorial tendency often situates the artist as the “illustrator” for the curator’s ideas. The curatorial framework taken today is an antithesis of such tendency. Meanwhile, the second issue has a greater scope (existing in the realm of social and political discourses) and is about how the rights of the people tend to be forgotten as political choices are being made. The political rights of the people are often held hostage, curtailed by quasi-democratic choices made by the elites in the name of regulations. In legislative as well as presidential elections, people are simply presented with choices with nary a room for them to negotiate their wishes. I believe that by situating the artists as creative subjects again, we will be able to perceive the works on display today as representations of the personal choices that deserve to be further considered and taken as political statements.
Art as Personal Choice
To a Balinese, being engaged in art is a life choice that should not be taken lightly. Art has always been so well integrated in the Balinese life and ideas. A number of ancient Balinese inscriptions from a thousand years ago had already recorded such art terms as purbayang (a wayang performance), kaicaka (an actor in the traditional stage play), pagending (a traditional singer), partapukan (a masked actor), pamukul (a gamelan player), and culpika (sculptor) as well as citrakara (painter) (Mirsha et al., 1986: 107). The recording of these art terms clearly indicates that the world of art in Bali had been a vibrant one long before it was eventually recorded and recognized in these inscriptions.
The esteem accorded to the art professions might have to do with the rights endowed to these professionals. The citrakara painters have the right to depict the world of religion and myths. Similarly, the culpika sculptors give shape to that world through their bedogol or sculptures. The megalithic stones and stone reliefs depicting the Balinese world of myths and magic formed the basis for modre ornamental images of sacred symbols and sacrificial sculptures. These objects can be considered as proof of the sovereign right of Balinese artists of the past. They would later evolve to become the basis of the wayang styles and form the background for personal and communal artistic expressions, which exist alongside the influence of the modern art academy of today.
Not only were the art professions sanctified by the king; they were also linked with myths. Ancient lontar records—the tomes of Tantu Panggelaran, Usana Jawa, and Niti Praja—state that the gods descended from Heavens to the Earth in order to teach humans skills of life. Prior to that, humans were like animals; capable only of simply sleeping and eating what was readily available to them. Art and expertise had been unknown before. It was the gods who taught humans to have those skills: Brahma taught us the techniques of weapon-making using metals; Mahadewa taught us the techniques of the goldsmiths and silversmiths; Citra Gotra taught us jewelry-making techniques; Bhagawan Ciptaguta taught us painting; and Bhagawan Wiswakarmma taught us architecture (Sura et al., 2003: 109; Ramseyer, 2002: 60).
The king’s order and the apparatus of myths work hand in hand in sanctifying those art professions. The artists as subjects, the legitimate holders of the sovereign right of art, honor their professions, carry out their work with dignity. Art runs in their veins and is inextricable from their lives. It is their ideology, their belief, their path, and rule of conduct. Art has been so inseparable from their lives that Balinese people of the past did not feel the need to define art. If there was any effort to construct the definition of art, epistemologically it would stand vis-à-vis the understanding of art that had been so well integrated in a Balinese’s life. Art-related terms that we have so far inherited—at least according to the texts I have read—are limited to art-related professions, not to the objects produced.
This is evident, for example, in how a Balinese artist-cum-peasant constructs the beautiful rice terraces; he never has the intention to make them a work of art. It is the audience who then considers them an autonomous work of art. Similarly, when he makes a pillar in the form of a sculpture, he is actually making a construction pillar that happens to take the form of the garuda bird or any other mythological animals, without intending to make an object of art. It is the audience, including the art traders, who then removes the functional role of the object, positions the object separately from its function, and perceives it as a sculpture. In fact, Balinese artists make such objects because they are inseparable from their lives (i.e. those objects have functional roles), with no intention of viewing them as forms of artistic expression (in the sense that they do it for fun).
Another reference that reveals how art is inseparable from Balinese life is the beautiful poem by Cokorda Mantuk Ring Rana, the king from the Palace of Denpasar who died during the war-to-the-death in Badung, September 20, 1906. Here he wrote about death: “…..Ande capung ngumbara ring langit, yan matinggah, ring tanah tan tanah, ring kayu boya kayune, ring batu boya batu, ring parigi boya parigi, ring apa boya apa, saru lebih saru, tingkah manone ring awak, sajatine, ada matukul ring ati, mati tan tumut pejah” (a dragonfly is flying in the sky; if it lands, the soil does not feel like soil; the wood, not wood; the stone, not stone; the bund, not bund; something is not truly anything; the vague becomes vaguer; feeling becomes one with being; something touches the heart; death does not mean demise” – Agastia, 2006: 36). This is a poem sung in the traditional gaguritan style and reveals the king’s or the poet’s belief about the essence of death (mati tan tumut pejah, or “death does not mean demise”), of death as the final stage of life. Death is nothing futile; it is the gate toward the union with God, the Perfect Creator.
Cokorda Mantuk Ring Rana led the army of the Palace of Denpasar in the fight against the Dutch and was killed in the field. It was the perfect death for a noble warrior; the proof of his loyalty in upholding the dignity of the land of his birth. He died guarding the dignity of life. He had long before prepared for it, as implied in his literary works. Here, art is perceived as the chosen spiritual path.
The time when art was totally integrated in the life of a Balinese saw a shift as tourism made its entrance to the Island of Gods. Since then, art is often viewed as that which produces beautiful objects to make money. The tradition of intellectual and spiritual discourses is slowly forgotten. Unsurprisingly, ingenious art ideas that an artist comes up with are often copied and further massively produced. It is such situations that eventually stigmatize the art in Bali as touristic art.
Apart from the negative attitudes related to art that tourism has given rise to, there have also been some positive implications, such as the increasingly greater sphere of art in Bali in which art is being introduced to the public. Similarly, art expressions and connections have become increasingly varied. Balinese artists, apart from having to deal with the “industrialization of art” and the looming specter of “touristic art”, also have to face the global art arena that presents them with opportunities for progress, facilitating their quests for growth and development as they make their choices in the multicultural society. They are learning in the realm of knowledge production that is moving increasingly faster and becoming more and more sophisticated.
In such an art world, artists must become “integrated professionals”, to use the term coined by Howard S. Becker, the sociologist who defines an “integrated professional artist” as an artist who is skillful in integrating a variety of abilities, those which are not limited to artistic skills but also include the abilities to establish a network, convince the art infrastructure about his or her merit, and is aware of the role of art apparatus (Becker, 1984: 229).
At the end of the day, it is useful to keep a moment of solitude as we try to assess the creative choices that the Balinese artists have taken so far. We will see that in the midst of the tourism currents that often dilute personal expressions, moving them in the direction of the industry, there are still artists who remain loyal to their choice of being engaged with art, making it a labor of life. Some would struggle to keep up; others, however, have succeeded in gaining recognition for the choices they have made.
The Creative Choices of Thirty-One Balinese Artists
With this curatorial framework, thirty-one Balinese artists were selected to present their works, although more had been invited. These works will provide us with a map of the specific visual languages that the artists have chosen to use in order to talk about life through art. We can safely say that these artists represent three generations of Balinese artists: first, the generation of artists born in 1940 – 1960, receiving formal art education in the 1970s – 1980s, such as Made Wianta and Nyoman Erawan; second, the generation of artists born in the 1960s – 1970s and educated in the 1980s and 1990s such as Mangu Putra, Made Sukadana, Nyoman Sujana Kenyem, Made Supena, Putu Wirantawan, Putu Adi Gunawan, and Ketut Teja Astawa; and the third generation of artists, born in the 1970s – 1980s and received formal education in art in the 1990s/2000s such as Nyoman Adiana, Made Dalbo Suarimbawa, Nengah Sujena, Made Arya Palguna, Ketut Lekung Sugantika, Wayan Sudarna Putra, Ida Bagus Putu Purwa, Nyoman Agus Wijaya, Wayan Upadana, Wayan Legianta, Gusti Ngurah Udianata, Kadek Agus Ardika, Gede Budi Agung Kuswara, Made Wiguna Valasara, Ida Bagus Sindhu Putra, Putu Agus Suyadnya, and Putu Aan Juniarta.
Apart from their years of birth, however, it is difficult for us to differentiate between the three generations in terms of their creative characteristics. There might be dialogues between the different generations about their aesthetic concepts or underlying philosophies. Rather than straining to make such differentiation, and possibly eventually failing, this curatorial framework chooses not to talk about it. Instead, we will talk about the varied creative attitudes among the Balinese artists as shown in the works presented in this exhibition. Also considered here are the creative tracks of these artists and the ideas that they have so far conveyed.
Made Wianta, for example, has explored a range of different media: he has experimented with paintings, installations, object art, performance art, and video art. The same is true also for Erawan. The difference, however, lies in their concepts: while Wianta sees art more as events, Erawan focuses more on the concepts of chaos and cosmology.
The issue of cosmology is also apparent in the works by Wirantawan, Sumadiyasa, Supena, and Mahendra Mangku—naturally in different versions. In Wirantawan’s work we see personal symbolic images, while Sumadiyasa presents spontaneous expressions in the universal visual language, and Supena as well as Mangku tend to be intuitive in nature. These four artists, however, are similar in that they use the abstract language. Then there is the more optical view of the universe as revealed in the work by Sujana Kenyem.
Sutawijaya, IB Purwa, and Adiana have undertaken studies about the body, exploring the themes the body: the human body in its purest gestural dimension—sitting, walking, jumping, etc.—is captured not only as a visual phenomenon but also psychological.
Pande Taman, Mangu Putra, Adi Gunawan, Upadana, Agus Ardika, Dalbo Suarimbawa, Ngurah Udianata, Sujena, and Arya Palguna choose to deal with social issues. Themes of human existence, desire, and social status can be observed in their works. Here, issues of the bodies and ideas are linked with the macro-social conditions.
There are also Balinese artists who use pop culture as their subject and area of explorations, for example Valasara, Legianta, Agung Kuswara, Agus Suyadnya, and Aan Juniarta. Here, pop culture situates the Balinese person on a crossroad, in an ambiguous space that arises from the desire to maintain the purity of Bali in the midst of the consumptive-materialistic contemporary culture, as evident, for example, in the paradoxical production of the originally sacred barong (which has been reproduced in miniature forms and sold in art shops).
A number of Balinese artists such as Agus Wijaya, Lekung Sugantika, Sudarna Putra, and Sindhu Putra choose to be engaged in specific studies such as studies about animals like boars and dogs, or the study of portraiture. Agus Wijaya, for example, has explored themes of dogs, while Lekung Sugantika chooses to study boars, and Sudarna Putra and Sindhu Putra explore portraiture. Sometimes there are underlying social contexts behind them. One also needs to consider how the narrative tradition is affirmed in the works by Teja Astawa, Sukadana, and Wiradana.
The concepts presented by today’s Balinese artists are truly varied. The choices revealed in the works on display today essentially represent the different solitary journeys undertaken by these artists. While in the thirties and even on to the early nineties there had been certain schools of art that dominated the creative concepts of Balinese artists, today such dominance is disappearing. Personal choices appear prominent, with a greater degree of explorations, stronger concepts, and greater confidence. This has the implication in the disappearing art communities as there is no longer any ideal concept that the artists are communally advocating.
As the artists stand up in greater confidence to express their personal voices, a fundamental issue of life is revealed: that of diversity. Unfortunately, in our social order today, the stance of recognizing diversity often fails to materialize. Rather, personal choices are judged on a daily basis. A center of power often determines the line to be taken, while taste is often influenced by a certain class consensus. The curatorial framework of this exhibition wishes to encourage us all to celebrate the variety of personal choices, with the objective of creating a more tolerant society.
Wayan Kun Adnyana, Visual Art Curator