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Find Bali in San Fransisco

SAN FRANCISCO — On a recent nothing-special weekday afternoon, I walked into the Asian Art Museum here and found a Balinese gamelan concert in progress: clanging gongs, pulsing drums, jazzy flutes, the whole real heavenly thing, with musicians settled cross-legged on a fabric-draped platform and a rapt crowd of museumgoers, many quite young, on benches, folding chairs and the floor.

Asian Art Museum
The rice goddess Dewi Sri, made of palm leaves during the early to mid 20th century, is in this show at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. More Photos »

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‘Bali: Art, Ritual Performance’

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Jim Wilson/The New York Times
A carved mask is among the objects in the “Bali” show. More Photos »
Events like this one — free, at odd hours, with an improvisational feel — have been popping up regularly at the museum during the tenure of its present director, Jay Xu, who arrived in 2008 and has managed to keep the place on track during a recent financial crisis.

Several years ago the museum borrowed a big chunk of money to renovate its premises in a repurposed downtown library. But in the post-2008 economy its loan payments became impossible to meet, and rumors of possible bankruptcy circulated. The city stepped in to help. Catastrophe was averted. The doors have stayed open. And a week or so ago that amazing music — like the sound of a thousand clocks chiming — filled the air.

The concert was inspired by “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance,” the museum’s vivid current special exhibition, which is as stimulating to look at as it is to think about. Among others things, it offers a plausible model for how to do a historical loan show that a) uses unfamiliar and affordable materials (many of the objects are from Dutch ethnographic museums); b) finesses the vexed issue of authenticity by seamlessly linking a high-art past with the tourist-art present; and c) gives us exoticism but tempers it with realism.

Bali itself strikes a similar balance. Despite its paradisiacal reputation, it’s a modest place: just one small island, less than 100 miles across, among the hundreds of islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago. Yet it packs within its narrow bounds a deep, dramatic history.

The island’s volcanic soil is ideal for certain kinds of farming. Rice grown in terraced, semiaquatic paddies is the staple crop, and indigenous religious beliefs seem always to have centered on water and vegetation. Designs suggesting eddying waves or interlocked spores cover a bronze drum top from the first or second century A.D. And rice-goddess images woven from palm leaves are still kept in shrines in agricultural villages. The show has three examples of these made between 1920 and 1950: doll-like but regal figures with boxy shoulders, pinched waists and Turandot headgear.

Other belief systems have been gradually layered over, or spliced into, nature worship. Reverence for deified ancestors is common, as is devotion to a pantheon of divinities derived from South Asian Hinduism, a religion once pervasive in Indonesia but found there now only in Bali.

This interweaving of spiritual commitments has produced a fabric of ritual practices so enveloping and intricate as to give religious gloss to practically everything on view, from rice paddles to dance masks to gold containers for betel leaf, a mild stimulant chewed like tobacco that is regularly offered to party guests and gods alike. By now we’re accustomed to the notion, or should be, that art created for ritual use, as much Balinese art is, loses a vital part of its meaning in an institutional setting. The organizer of the show, Natasha Reichle, the museum’s associate curator of Southeast Asian art, acknowledges the problem posed by context, and addresses it reasonably, through wall labels, field photographs and documentary videos.

This is all good, though at least a few items seem not to need supplementary assistance. They would give off sparks no matter where they were. One small 19th-century ivory sculpture of a crouching winged lion, from a temple offering box, is a nugget of pure, coiled energy, pulling and holding the eye like a magnet.

Certain carved-wood and painted temple images operate on a reverse, repulsive dynamic. They seem to do what they can to scare us away. That is what’s happening in a depiction of the demon Ravana, arch-villain of the “Ramayana,” who sits, snarling and bloody-mouthed, on the back of an equally rabid-looking bird.

“Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” remains through Sept. 11 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco; (415) 581-3500,

News Source: New York Times (by Jim Wilson)

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Farah Fitriani - who has posted 398 posts on Good News From Indonesia.

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