18th January 2011

Balinese art is something special. It is endemic, bursting from even the most mundane building. Roof corners swirl upwards in precise, ordered, curvaceous beauty; prayer shrines are elaborately and lovingly carved; and doorways and their doors are adorned so exquisitely that they look like portals into another exotic realm. For centuries the Balinese have honed their artistic and technical skills, picking from the cream of the visiting western artists for influential styles and marrying them with their own distinctly Balinese Hindu art. Painting, architecture, woodcarving, stone carving, batik textiles, you name it, these inherently creative people have perfected it. No where is this more obvious than in the Ubud area of Bali. The lash mountainous region is a hotbed of artistic action. Here you can window shop until everything starts to look the same, purchase any of the fore mentioned art products and have them shipped home at great cost so they can be a piece of Bali in your home to look absurd in their decontextualisation (I do hope our sea-mailed Balinese masks make it home in one piece).

Having watched South East Asian Hindu dance before I was desperate to witness an Indonesian performance. I warned Chris, ‘it will be mostly clangs and body twitches’, he dutifully complies with all those wonderfully feigned enthusiastic noises that mean our married life is destined for greatness. We make our way to the Ubud Palace, purchase our tickets and seat ourselves, along with the gorge of Australian tourists who had obviously fallen prey to the ticket hawkers and had no idea about what they were letting themselves in for and a handful of dread-locked couples with dirty white toddlers called Rainbow or something just as revolting. Given that a single story when performed in the traditional manner can last an average of 5 hours or so, we were watching a show solely choreographed for tourists. Three types of dance back-to-back in 2 hours. The clanging begins. The XXL chap next to me shifts uncomfortably in his plastic garden furniture chair. Uh oh. I realised that this poor bugger had been dragged along by his wife, her sister and their three daughters to watch, what they thought would be, an elegant and exotic Asian ballet. The cacophony of bangs continued, the narrator screaming the script into a microphone in Indonesian and occasionally breaking into full throttle metal-esque ‘aaaaaarrrrrhhhhhhhhhhhh’. The tiny precise dancers shook their hands, bent their wrists and flickered their eyes with minute muscular control to convey dramatic events. And then came the demon. Two men encased inside a monstrous mask and hay structure pounded around the stage and frolicked with another man in a monkey mask that looked suspiciously like it had been made from aged real monkey. The poor hippie ankle-biters shrieked and bawled at the sight of the costumes. Rainbow and Dishwater will have nightmares for quite some time I fear. The man next to me shuffled, coughed and inspected his watch. Chris got the giggles at the gamelan players who fell into a head-bobbing slumber the minute they were not required. Then, as if controlled by some gamelan puppet, they lurched into action when needed, their hand moving across their instrument before they had even fully opened their eyes.

Dancer - Ubud

Dancer - Ubud

The gaudy demon mask that brought the underage members of the audience to tears are an art form in themselves. They are carved out of wood and intricately painted with specific designs for each character. We were lucky enough to have a private woodcarving lesson with the son of Bali’s famous theatrical mask carver. For three hours we hacked and chiseled and scraped our way through a single block of wood until a crude mask emerged out of the rough edges and frayed surface. Chris, as usual, proved to have hidden talents much to the glee of our teacher. I, however, took literally an age to hack off strips of wood. As it turns out, I am a weakling. My arms are predominantly the hanging gardens of flabylon wherein there are no hidden biceps (as I had hoped) to assist me with the chisel action. I wasn’t too bad when it came to the detailed stuff which required less muscle and more fine-motor skills but the other work required much assistance from our giggling, slightly camp instructor who would look at me with sympathetic paternal eyes, say ‘come on lady’, take my mask and achieve in 30 seconds what I’d spent 30mins trying to.
I had the opportunity to massacre yet another Balinese art form the next day when we attended a silversmithing course. Chris excelled at fashioning his piece of jewellery. Cretin. I, however, squealed as I attempted to hammer metal and tentatively winced when using the automated sanding spinner thing until I flinched, let go of my ring and watched it ping around the room like a ricocheting bullet.

In all, it was a learning experience. Well, I learnt never to attend a course with Chris if I’m feeling remotely competitive (it’s disheartening) and not to close my eyes when using scary machinery.

Carving masks in Bali