Thu, 26 Oct 2000

Neo-Iconography and artists' creative freedom

By Putu Wirata

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): Last September, residents of Lodtunduh village in Ubud protested a performance by Made Wianta, who put on a happening art piece titled Jalan (The Road).

At first, the residents were angered by the closure of the road connecting Lodtunduh village and Pengosekan village. The performance took place in the middle of the road, which is the shortest route between the two villages.

Later, a member of Bali's provincial legislative assembly from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) faction, lent fresh weight to the protest, saying the performance disrespected the symbols of the Hindu religion.

According to some people who witnessed the performance, including art critic Jean Couteau, the scenes from Jalan included symbols such as corpse-like objects with all the accompanying offerings, which were meant to portray the traffic problems in Bali -- a symbol of the messy mentality in Indonesia's sociopolitical life.

There was also a big truck carrying a huge cement mixer, meant to depict the utter confusion in an environment populated by man.

Performance artists such as Nanoq da Kansas, who organized the Bali Eksperimen Teater (Bali Theatrical Experiment) in Negara, West Bali, could not understand why there were allegations that Hinduism had been slighted in the performance of Jalan.

An expert on the Cak dance and the chairman of the Indonesian Arts Institute in Denpasar, Wayan Dibia, said there was no indication that Hinduism was insulted in Made Wianta's performance. To back his argument, he cited the scenes in the Calonarang performance that depict the bathing of a corpse, complete with all the offerings, up to the time when it is buried in the grave.

There are other examples. Nyoman Erawan -- a painter, installation artist and performance artist who uses ritual in his performances -- has performed such works as Ruwatan, Ritus Seni Nyoman Erawan (1998), Pralayamatra (1998), Kremasi Waktu (1999) and Nyurya Sewana Bumi (1999-2000). In these performances, Erawan, in the real sense of the word, uses Hindu rites, complete with offerings, groups of singers chanting sacred songs and priests leading the rites. As the priest conducts the rites in one corner, Nyoman Erawan's contemporary creativity proceeds unhampered in the other.

So why did the residents of Lodtunduh village lodge a protest against Made Wianta's performance on Jalan. I failed to see any example of Hinduism being slighted during Made Wianta's performance.

However, other artists may find themselves in Wianta's position if, in their "creative freedom", they unconsciously cause discomfort to others, who obviously enjoy the right to live in peace and comfort.

In his performance in Lodtunduh, Made Wianta was a newcomer while the road connecting Lodtunduh and Pengosekan villages, which was used as the venue for the performance, lies within the territory (wewengkon in the local language) shared by the two villages.

As this is the shortest route between the villages and because they were the "hosts", the community would never accept the closure of the road because it was done without their consent and caused trouble to them.

The reason why some residents considered Made Wianta's performance an act of "slighting" religion is that crystallization in the Balinese community has escalated, a result of events in the New Order era.

The New Order regime courted large investments for Bali, a phenomenon that caused a change in the use of the Balinese sociocultural spatial layout because of the rapid increase in migrants, among other reasons.

This rapid change was a shock to the middle-class and the political and sociocultural elite in Bali, as suddenly they found themselves, a minority in the territorial and cultural constellation of Indonesia, a small and worried minority group.

Therefore, to strengthen their existence and self-confidence, they hold on fast to the traditional values inherited by their predecessors, and then spell out these values in very popular discourses in Bali: cultural tourism, cultural purification and conservation, customary villages, a safe and unique Bali; an all- beautiful and all-noble portrayal of one's self, which on the other hand will only deepen one's worries, consternation and suspicion.

One form of this consternation manifests itself in anger and protest when the symbols of Balinese culture and the Hindu religion are used by people in nonritual contexts, such as in Made Wianta's performance of Jalan. Another example which may be referred to is the video clip of the rock group Saigon Kick, which showed a group of Pura Uluwatu, an occasion bringing about unusually strong protests.

Then there was a golf ball given as a canang mesesari (offering) in an advertisement for Nirwana Bali Resort Tanah Lot, an incident which has led to a case being brought to the court of law.

Whether these examples disparage the symbols of Hinduism needs to be proven legally, a process which will be very complicated because to find out whether something is disparaged or not, there is an "evil intention" which needs to be proven.

However, from the point of view of the people, what matters is their emotions, which are certainly highly subjective. Also included in the definition of "emotion" is a cognitive perception, something determined by how a social and cultural group undergoes the process of change.

If we trace the history of Bali, during the reign of King Udayana in the 10th century, disputing sects were syncretized into Tri Murti and known as Siwa Sidhanta, or today what is known as Hinduism. In culture, there is a process of assimilation among various cultural elements, so Balinese art and culture has been formed through influence from China, Islam, Europe and so forth. Therefore, it is a construct that forms a culture undergoing reform.

During the New Order period -- when exactly is not known -- when the discourse on cultural diversity only echoed emptily, while the ruler was undertaking unification on a large scale, culture resulting from syncretism and assimilation began to be questioned by the contemporary generation.

More than just queries, there are now claims that these symbols "belong to Hinduism" or "belong to Bali", and when people or groups considered non-Hindu or non-Balinese use these symbols, they will be accused of disparaging religion. This is the face of the cultural crystallization and resistance now taking place in Bali.

It will manifest itself if triggered by conflict -- as was the case involving Made Wianta and the residents of Lodtunduh or the golf ball canang mesesari -- but it will remain hidden if the utilization of Balinese and Hindu icons remain within the framework of the traditionalists.

Nyoman Erawan's art rites are a good example in this respect. So Made Wianta has become a problem because he is considered to have used Hindu symbols within a "modernist universal" frame. Canang mesesari of a golf ball has been reported to the police and the video of Saigon Kick has been protested because they are considered to have been created by people who are "noncontextual".

Taking into account the phenomena, events and creativity of fine arts or performance arts receiving a negative reaction from a group of Balinese people, we may say that it is now time to reflect upon what the Balinese people and community will be like in the future.

The Indonesian Hindu Association (PHDI) -- the council for Hindus in Indonesia -- is therefore encouraged to issue a bhisama (a sort of religious guidance) on what is sacred and cannot be used in a non-Hindu context, and what is sacred but can be used in that context.

The guidance will also give information about who will be allowed to make use of these sacred objects and for what purposes, and so forth.

This is indeed a complicated job, especially if the past is taken into account, when the symbols of the Balinese Hindus were used to esthetically complement the architecture of hotels, for example; or the future, when the democratic civil society now being fostered will require creative freedom. On the one hand, the pendulum swings toward primordialism and narrowing cultural crystallization, with traditional conservatives acting as the guardians. On the other side, the pendulum swings the other way, trying to break through the traditional-modern boundary in the name of creative freedom. At this juncture, PDHI Bali is assigned quite a heavy task!