Thu, 10 Jul 2003

Balinese artist Budiana honored in Tokyo

Jean Couteau, Contributor, Denpasar, Bali

If, in this month of July, you happen to take the train in Tokyo, Yokohama or Nara, or from any other station in Japan, you may see on walls dark posters with fanged monsters that do not look Japanese, but unmistakably Balinese.

Don't be surprised: Ketut Budiana, Bali's most creative "post- traditional" artist, is guest of honor at Tokyo Station Gallery, where he is holding a retrospective exhibition from June 14 until July 21, 2003, sponsored by the East Japan Railway Culture Foundation.

One of the cultural events of the Japanese summer, this non- commercial exhibition has received wide coverage on Japanese TV and in the press, including Asahi Shimbun, among others. A beautiful catalog has been published for the occasion.

One is never acknowledged as a prophet in one's own land, goes the adage. A low-profile artist, Budiana, 53, is indeed little known in the Indonesian art world beyond a small circle of local and foreign initiates. This probably owes much to the Balinese character of his painting.

Balinese art may be glorified with respect to dance, but its fine arts, except when exotic or "modern", receive little acceptance at the national level. Few people are ready to make the effort to accept the peculiarities of Balinese esthetics: dense occupation of the canvas, darkness, minimum use of color. And when this Balinese esthetics comprises, as in Budiana's works, a world of ghoulish figures symbolizing the cosmic forces of Hindu tradition, it is really asking too much.

Budiana may arguably be one the most "inspired" of all Balinese contemporary artists, but he suffers from the paradoxical belittlement of his culture on the national stage: "produce Paradise or modernity -- or else". He produces neither.

Looking at Budiana's paintings is indeed entering a nightmarish world of gnarled demons, gargoyles and unworldly landscapes that take the form of our deepest fears before swirling away into absolute nothingness or, on the contrary, into the blindness of total light.

In the words of the Japanese curator, Itoh Toshibaru, his works "are celebrations of visually disparate and ceaselessly undulating elements -- motions, waves, vibrations and complex intersections of lines that are engaging and repelling one another ... Notions of strength, rapidity, height and lightness accumulate in the mind's eye as a spectacular relational drama ... unraveled in phantasmagorias of hallucinogenic color and form." Owing to these qualities, Budiana's works carry a universal feel of cosmic power that goes well beyond the idiosyncrasies of local Balinese culture.

The universal feel of Budiana's works is rooted in Hindu- Balinese tradition, though. The son of a village architect (undagi), Budiana is the traditional artist par excellence. One day, he will be making a set of sculpture for a temple, another, direct the preparation of a cremation -- the making of the bull, the construction of the cremation tower, and then perform a dance in a temple.

He is also one of the last wanderer-cum-teacher artists: he has been called to Java and Lombok for the making of temple sculptures, and people often come to him to enquire how things should be from a classical point of view. Budiana can thus be seen as the ultimate guru-artist-worshiper whose actions eventually merge into a service to the community and the Divine.

With regard to art, Budiana doesn't simply transmit Balinese cultural memory. He rejuvenates it. His works do not have the stereotyping, both formal and thematic, so common in Balinese art. While he still uses the wash technique with Chinese ink, he achieves his own chiaroscuro effects using a paper with blotting proprieties that he makes himself from a mix of leaves and recycled paper.

As for the characters shown in his works, although they derive from the wayang, it is in a very free way. He doesn't simply narrate stories of heroes and gods from a mythical past. He instead borrows mythological figures to be the players of great philosophical Hindu themes that he interprets in his own ways: the cosmic balance of male and female, right and left, gods and demons, the relationship between the cosmic self (buana alit) and the universe (buana agung); the thirst for oneness, the never ending transformation of the world and the unity of creation and destruction.

The artist gives these themes a psychological twist. His paintings brings to the surface the deepest of Man's dreams and nightmares, the thirst for purity and the attractions of profanity, the very point in which the individual gropes for encounter with and eventual disappearance into his/her own mystery.

Budiana's spiritual, cosmic-related endeavor, is best explained in the artist's own words: "Nothing is inherently good or evil," he says, "but rather all entities and forces move between positive and negative states. What appears negative in one context is positive in another. The dissolution of the physical body in the grave fills us with horror. Yet, with deeper insight, (this process) allows dead matter to become the basis for a new life."

Explaining the misty, outlandish atmosphere of most of his works, he further elaborates: "The ritual process of returning to a more positive, pure state is symbolized in the mystical marriage of fire and water. When fire is met by water, the two neutralize each other, and give rise to a new, more refined entity: vapor. This can be achieved by the self through meditation. Vapor symbolizes the spiritual aspect of the person, which is freed to unify with its pure source.

"When achieved in the inner concentration of a holy person, the union of fire and water produces tirta amerta, the elixir of life. This water symbolizes a new, purified or more spiritual phase of life."

This awareness of the artist toward his own creative spiritual process, and his ability to uncover from the deeper, subconscious depths of his imagination the haunted shapes that give life and meaning to the lasting teachings of his culture, makes Budiana the most rooted, yet arguably the most universal of contemporary Balinese artists.

Yet, he still awaits recognition in Indonesia. In a national art world dominated by modernist discourse, and where "other modernities" are therefore theoretically acceptable, it is a mystery why Budiana hasn't gained such recognition.

Blindness? Lack of exoticism? Too much of it? Too difficult, businesswise? Whatever the case, Budiana is one of the most important "fantastic" artists of our days, and as a soul mate of Bosch, Fussli, Odilon Redon and others. It is hoped that the "different brand of beauty" shown in his art will soon gain acceptance in the country of his birth.

It will be a sign of maturity for the Indonesian art world.