Thu, 13 Apr 2000

Art ventures into the mainstream in urban Bali

By Degung Santikarma

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): The famous saying that in Bali everyone is an artist may no longer be true. Many young Balinese now dream of becoming punk rock stars rather than painters, waitresses rather than weavers or corporate executives instead of carvers.

What is true in contemporary Bali is that packed into a scant 5,000 square kilometers there are more galleries than probably anywhere else on earth. Indeed, just to utter the word "gallery" in Bali is to overload the imagination with a stereotypical set of associations.

There is the sophisticated expatriate connoisseur, the modern- day Walter Spies or Rudolf Bonnet who invites the Art Council bureaucrat and the barefoot critic to discuss postmodernism and public relations at his elegantly appointed home in the hills.

There are the tourists whose art experience is packaged for them like a guided excursion to a mall, where everything is on sale and no transaction escapes being taxed by the 10 percent commission.

There are the New Agers seeking to experience an exportable piece of authentic Balinese artistry, and the cultured travelers prowling the meditative, climate-controlled tranquility of the five-star hotel boutiques for something of investment quality. And then, of course, there is suburban Ubud, perhaps the most gallerized village in the world, with an aesthetic experience beckoning prospective buyers from every corner.

In recent months, however, a new image of the gallery has emerged to challenge the stereotypes. Wedged between warehouses and traditional warung (food stalls), and surrounded by the constant groan of traffic from the streets of urban Denpasar, places like Jezz Gallery and Bali Mangsi Gallery are demonstrating a conviction that Balinese art does not need to depend on a tourist market to flourish.

Far from the quaint lanes of Ubud, the hushed hotel boutiques of Nusa Dua or the art shops with parking for a dozen tour buses, these venues are offering not just art for sale, but new images of Balinese identity and creativity.

Although their numbers are still few, these new urban galleries are representative of a more widespread ambivalence on the part of many middle-class Balinese about the role of traditional culture in modern life.

To appreciate the importance of the contemporary urban gallery, one needs first to understand something of the history of art in Bali, especially its relationship to the West in the form of tourism.

Tourism, one could argue, was responsible for inventing Balinese art. In traditional Bali, there were painters and sculptors and creators of objects of beauty and power, but there were no "artists".

Those who made things -- whether they were delicately shaded drawings or religious offerings or shoes -- were called tukang, or workers. "Art" was not an activity set apart from everyday life, but one way of serving one's community and one's gods.

The major impact of Westerners like Spies and Bonnet was not merely in that they provided the Balinese with pens and paper and encouraged them to draw, or taught them new techniques of seeing and painting, but in the cultural concepts of "art" they brought to Bali.

By buying Balinese works, these early expatriates demonstrated that painting could be a product, something with a commercial value separate from its use in ritual and everyday life. By organizing Balinese into artists' groups, they imported the idea that artists were a special class of people, distinct from the rest of society, who needed their own space to thrive.

The emergence of the modern urban gallery is, in many ways, a response to these kinds of cross-cultural encounters and the fantasies and frustrations that they evoke. By making art into a profession, and the exhibition and sale of it into a specialized and high-status vocation, middle-class Balinese are creating aesthetic and commercial spaces virtually indistinguishable from the galleries of New York, Paris or Rome.

Despite the numbers of Balinese artists and gallery owners sporting the same Rolex watches, driving the same BMWs and speaking the same language of "art for the people" and "empowering creativity" as their foreign counterparts, something much more complex is at work in the modern Balinese gallery than a simple mimicry of Western ways.

By opening urban galleries catering to wealthy Indonesians rather than tourists, and by exhibiting not the typical tourist images of bare-breasted maidens, colorful ceremonies and romanticized village life, but the works of a new breed of Balinese artists grapples with modern themes and styles, contemporary gallery owners are taking an anticolonial, anticonservative stance.

They are refusing to be satisfied with the role of the powerless native who is photographed and painted and described and analyzed in Western artworks and anthropology books, but who never gets to represent himself or herself.

They are claiming that "culture" is not merely the product of a distant past, the possession of a traditional elite or the domain of the postcard picturesque, but that it is alive and thriving in the complex urban present of places like Denpasar.

The collectors who frequent these new spaces are investing not only in valuable objects or a particular aesthetic style, but in ethnic pride.

By demonstrating that Balinese can author and exchange images rather than merely smile for the camera or pose for the painting, the gallery asserts that despite its developing world location, Bali is not underdeveloped in terms of taste and talent.

At the same time as these artists and gallery owners are staking a place for Bali on the world art map and celebrating their own ethnic identity, they are also claiming for themselves a universality that transcends cultural location. By forgoing traditional themes and techniques to forge new styles, modern artists are trying to create works that speak across barriers between classes or cultures or countries.

By purchasing and putting these works up for sale -- at international standard prices -- Balinese collectors and gallery owners are demonstrating their ability to understand and enter a transnational market.

By exhibiting their fluency in an international language of art criticism and asserting their place in a global community of artists, dealers and collectors, these Balinese are claiming that they, too, can be as cosmopolitan as anyone else. By restlessly pursuing the modern, these new galleries are, paradoxically, reasserting traditional values of Balinese community and identity.

This kind of ambivalent relationship to both Balinese heritage and Western influence is expressed in the works and words of Balinese artists such as Made Wianta. Last December, this controversial artist staged a colossal performance-cum-ritual spectacular, choreographing 2,000 dancers and a helicopter which dropped banners proclaiming "peace" in hundreds of different languages across Bali's beaches.

Wianta's work drew a great deal of criticism from local artists, who wondered aloud why he did not print banners reading "free all political prisoners" or land the helicopter on the local jail. Despite the criticism, Wianta insists that his work straddles shifting lines between politics and esthetics, or local concepts and concerns and globally meaningful expressions.

These tensions are neatly expressed in the title of a recent book published by Times Editions surveying his career: Made Wianta: Universal Balinese Artist. Here he claims that while he is drawn toward the symbols and concepts of his childhood, he does not want to be pigeonholed by an ethnic label. He dreams, we are told, of making Apuan, the small village of his birth, into a center for artistic conversation and creativity of the same caliber as the cities of Europe or America.

The question still remains as to whether these galleries and artistic events are succeeding in challenging the commodification of a conservative image of Balinese culture, or whether they are reproducing the very powers they purport to resist.

Certainly, from a purely economic standpoint, the modern gallery, despite its move off of the tourist track into the urban center, still remains quite distant from the everyday lives of the majority of Balinese. Indeed, by pricing works of art equivalent to several decades worth of rice for an average family, the contemporary gallery can be seen as even more alienating than the art-for-export shops whose mass-market styles are at least compatible with the typical Balinese budget.

It is not just economic differences that are evoked by the gallery. The creation and consumption of art in contemporary Bali also takes place within a social hierarchy that defines those who have "taste" from those who simply own things. "Anyone with money can own a BMW, but taste can't be bought," remarked one Balinese at a recent art show.

By using this discourse of "taste", galleries have solidified new forms of social status by educating an audience about appropriate ways of viewing and valuing art, and selecting those who will be exhibited and invited into its domain.

For even as the gallery opens its doors to the masses, it has to guard against becoming a full mass media in order to secure the value of what goes on within its walls. If art were truly accessible to everyone, there would be no room for "taste" to perform its work of drawing distinctions between high and low, good and bad, art and craft.

In this sense, the modern Balinese gallery may prove even more potent than tourism in shifting the place of art in the lives of Balinese.

It remains to be seen how these new urban galleries will address the serious challenges these issues pose. What is certain is that the modern Balinese gallery provides a space not merely for the buying and selling of art, but for pondering some of the most explosively powerful issues facing Balinese today.