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Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance – Feb 25-Sep, 2011 Asia Art Museum  

by on Monday, 7 February 2011One Comment | 623 views

A European observer in Bali near the end of the nineteenth century described a ritual in which a palanquin was carried to the ocean. It was, he said, “a very fine sight”:

In front went the orchestra, gamelan, accompanied by little girls and others somewhat elder, beautifully dressed and carrying on their heads baskets of flowers and fruits, all arranged with a very good effect. Then came the men in their many coloured garments, glittering with gold, then the litter and then again men and women.

A recent photograph of a similar ritual appears above. This image reminds us that art, ritual, and performance are seamlessly interwoven within the traditional cultures of Bali and cannot be separated. When objects are removed from their contexts and placed in museum settings it is all too easy to view them only as artworks and not as essential components of the cultures of which they were a part. To some extent this is unavoidable, but in this exhibition, which features some 130 objects drawn primarily from international museum collections, we are making a special effort to highlight the interrelation and oneness of these elements within the fabric of the island’s life.

The Balinese phrase “desa, kala, patra,” which can be translated as “place, time, situation,” refers on one level to practices that differ locally from north to south, east to west, village to village. But in a larger sense the phrase suggests the necessity of context—of trying to understand how meanings of events or objects are unique to specific circumstances and differ by location and over time. When thinking about Balinese art in relation to this exhibition, We kept returning to “desa, kala, patra,” realizing that each object had been made by a specific person, in a certain place, over a defined period, for a particular patron, to serve a unique purpose. But in the relatively short time since the production of these works, knowledge of much of this context has been lost. Shown now, in a museum setting, the objects remain separated from the forces that originally gave them meaning. This is especially true of objects whose independent powers come into play in the midst of ritual or performance. The Balinese do not view a statue as a deity in its own right, but merely as a receptacle for the visitation of the divine. Through ritual acts—invitations to the gods, ornamentation of temples, presentations of offerings, and incantations of mantras—vessels become sacred objects.

Balinese ritual practices are highly sensory experiences. During a temple ceremony one can smell incense and flowers, hear the shimmering notes of one or more gamelan (tuned percussion) orchestras, feel and taste the sprinkle of holy water. “Upon the hundreds of stone altars of Bali,” wrote anthropologist Margaret Mead more than eighty years ago,

there lay not merely a fruit and a flower placed as visible offering to the many gods, but hundreds of finely wrought and elaborately conceived offerings made of palm leaf and flowers twisted, folded, stitched, embroidered, brocaded into myriad traditional forms and fancies. There were flowers made of sugar and combined into representations of the rainbow, and swords and spears cut from the snow-white fat of sacrificial pigs. The whole world was patterned, from the hillsides elaborately terraced to give the maximum rice yield, to the air which was shot through with music, the temple gates festooned with temporary palm-leaf arras over their permanent carved façade, to the crowds of people who, as they lounged, watching an opera or clustered around two fighting cocks, composed themselves into a frieze. . . . Their lives were packed in intricate and formal delights.

In her book The Life of a Balinese Temple: Artistry, Imagination, and History in a Peasant Village, Hildred Geertz writes that in a museum each work is “virtually stripped of its original context.” While it is true no museum can recreate the cultural milieu that produced these objects, all is not lost. The fact that ritual remains an integral part of day-to-day life in Bali means that many of the objects like those displayed in this exhibition are used even today in much the same manner they may have been a hundred years ago. Although practices vary by place and time, one can still see temple ceremonies or performances that match descriptions recorded by ethnologists in the 1930s. In this exhibition, the photographs and videos that enrich it, the performances that enliven it, and the catalogue that accompanies it, layers of meaning may be illuminated.

The museum’s education department has involved the Bay Area Balinese community and artists from Bali in offering demonstrations and performances of some of the ritual and performing arts of Bali during the course of the exhibition. Deborah Clearwaters, the museum’s director of education, traveled to Bali in 2008 to meet prospective museum resident artists and collect video footage. The gallery videos convey the integration of art, performance, and ritual in Balinese daily life. Live programs within the museum will feature master artists from Bali and the Bay Area Balinese community. Highlights include:

  • Opening celebration with sacred dance and music (February)
  • Symposium featuring curators and other international scholars, sponsored by the Society for Asian Art (February)
  • Premieres of two contemporary musical works: Creatures of Balinese Mythology featuring the Bay Area musical ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya (March), and Makrokosma Bali, a new multimedia musical work performed by composer Wayne Vitale and a Balinese gamelan troupe along with visual designers and space scientists (May)
  • Series of informal weekend concerts featuring a variety of Bay Area Balinese musical groups: Gamelan Anak Swarasanti, Gamelan Gender Wayang, Gamelan Kori Mas, and Gamelan Sekar Jaya
  • AsiaAlive artist residencies:
    • Balinese painting demonstration by I Made Moja (March)
    • Balinese vocal music with I Made Suryasa (April)
    • A mask dance performance by I Made Suryasa (April)
    • Gamelan music with I Made Arnawa (May)
    • Rice paste offerings, with master Jero Ni Made Renten and her husband creating colorful offerings with complex symbolism. Garrett Kam, one of the Bali catalogue contributors, will interpret and explain. (May–June)
    • Gamelan workshop for kids led by Kompiang Metri-Davies (August)
    • Making of sacred offerings led by Kompiang Metri-Davies (August)
    • Shadow puppets with I Wayan Wija (August)
    • Puppets and masks with I Made Sija (August–September)
  • Lectures sponsored by the Society for Asian Art:
    • Balinese shadow puppets by Kathy Foley (March)
    • Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias in Bali by Adriana Williams (May)
  • MATCHA (themed after-hours mixers):
    • Sacred offerings (February)
    • Makrokosma Bali (May)
    • Balinese jazz guitar (June)
    • Animal tales with shadow puppets (August)
  • Closing ceremony led by the eminent master artist I Made Sija (September)

“Bali is not harmonious, homogenous, and static,” Balinese scholar Degung Santikarma has written. “It is—and has long been—the home of many competing strands of thought and many different ways of being Balinese. It is an ever-changing mosaic, shifting its design to meet new ideas imported from outside, whether they be the Chinese-derived barong figure, or the old Chinese pis bolong coins used in offerings, or the Harley Davidsons and heavy metal that make up today’s youth culture.”

A selection from the diverse objects in the exhibition appears here. We hope they will give a sense of the ever-changing mosaic of art in the context of ritual and performance in Bali.

Natasha Reichle is associate curator of Southeast Asian art at the Asian Art Museum.

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