“The best things cannot be told, the second best are misunderstood. After that comes civilized conversation; after that, mass indoctrination; after that, intercultural exchange.” – Joseph Campbell
On the 62nd anniversary of Indonesian independence, I sat, hungry and a little impatient to see the work, listening to a series of speakers introducing an exhibit of Modern Indonesian Masters. The oddest name on the roster, ex ante, was the former Balinese Chief of Police and current head of the narcotics department of the Indonesian police, Made Mangku Pastika. I expected a moral lecture on how art is a way to develop character and fight drugs, or something similar. I did not expect Mr. Mangku Pastika to completely change the way I viewed art in Indonesia.
The essence of his speech was that there are three levels of humanity: at the lowest level are those people who understand only logic, good and bad, right and wrong; at the middle level are artists who create meaning; and at the highest level are artists whose work reaches into the spiritual dimension.
This was disorienting: the act of placing spiritual art at the highest level is the sort of rhetorical flourish that would be possible from any art lover in the West – though an art-loving policeman would already be unusual – but no western cop would ever describe people who “only” understood right and wrong at the bottom of anything. This was no flourish.
There is a two-thousand-year-old story by Ashvagosha about Buddha’s life that describes how Buddha searched for the point where the world didn’t spin like a wheel but stayed steady as the centrepoint of an axle. He found this (psychological) omphalos on the eastern side of a Bodhi tree. There, he was attacked by Mara, the lord of illusion. Mara first sent what both Freud and Jung would much later identify as the two primary motivations of all human behaviour – pleasure and fear. When neither of these worked, Mara ordered Buddha, with the voice of authority, to return to the law and order of society and religion. The Buddha, who had dissolved in his mind the concept of self, ignored Mara. He had moved past the created world, past all dualities, to moksa, the release from delusion. The earth shook with delight, and all the deities and demons and creatures of the world, including Mara, came to celebrate.
And here was the former Chief of Police recognizing, in a way that was so natural as to be almost careless, that pleasure, fear, and obedience (or in Hindu terms, the trivarga of kama, artha and dharma) are all obstacles to this fourth and final goal. The true line of all great work, the only proper space for the creating self, are between these three and moksa. Several of the Balinese speakers who followed echoes this theme.
Cafés in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, art schools across the West, places that artists congregate, are full of conversations about what is art, the role of art, and so on. Each artist will give you a different answer. Was it possible that here there was a consensus? I wondered whether I’d just been given a key to understanding a fundamental distinction between eastern and western art.
It depends on the definition of here. Of western and eastern. In discussing gender, French feminist Luce Irigaray once wrote that all “binary oppositions are formulated through the exclusion of a field of disruptive possibilities” and Kant showed long ago how “categories often exert a tyranny over our perceptions and judgements.”
Which brings us to the primordial androgyne. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (700 B.C.) describes how the universe was nothing but the Self, which was exactly the size of a man and woman embracing. It divided itself into a master and a mistress, copulated, produced humans, changed to a bull and a cow, copulated again, produced cattle, and followed this pattern with every type of animal down to ants. He then realized that “I, actually, am creation; for I have poured all this forth.” Creation was a fragmentation of God, and any one of God’s creatures who recognizes that he is in fact God will return to the state of Godhood. There is no fall from grace, no struggle between good and evil, no personal responsibility to God as “other,” and no individual deviation from the eternal order: only a recognition, a psychological return. The illusion of a separate deity remains only so long as one maintains the illusion of the ego, which in turn is identified with the delusions of pleasure and fear, and restrained for the good of society by dharma. But quench the ego through yoga (from the Sanskrit yuj, “to unite”) and you recognize (re-cognize) the universe – that is the freedom of moksa.
The androgyne shared by Islam, Christianity and Judaism is different: God pulls a rib from Adam to create Eve. Man is made in the image of God, he’s known the breath of God, but he is not God, he is not one with the universe – Man is separate, cut off, the best he can do is develop a relationship with God; and the fall, the tasting of the fruit of knowledge, is a historical event that launches a cosmic struggle between good and evil, with Man carrying a burden of free will and individual responsibility to choose sides and fight for the restoration. “Fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression and there prevail justice and faith.” (Koran 2:193) Satan will never celebrate a man’s ascension to Heaven the way Mara, in the end, celebrated Buddha’s enlightenment. This view of good in conflict with evil started with the Persian prophet Zoroaster and was adopted by the three religions “of the book” - based not on yoga but on religion (from the Latin re-ligio, “to re-bind” a linking back to God through a covenant or Koran that exists in external space-time.) The conflict between good and evil, together with the separateness of God that started with the Semitic tribes around 2,500 B.C., lead to the doctrine of free will by which each human develops his relationship with God. The secular corollary is an uncompulsive personal relationship to empirical reality, an assumption of personal responsibility linked with the power to change one’s destiny, and a development of the ego so that it separates from the id ¾ not a quenching of the ego, but its maturation. This separation and individuation is the foundation for an existential view of reality.
In this mythological narrative, the branching of separation vs. eternity is the fundamental dividing line between East and West. The geographic lay of the line, however, doesn’t fit with the dominant post-colonial identity dialogue, where Indonesia is East. It doesn’t fit with writers like Edward Said who situated Arab culture against the West. It doesn’t fit with either historical or current geopolitical movements. And in the case of Indonesia, it doesn’t even fit with a clean contiguous cartography.
Within the sphere of art, for example, Rifky Effendy’s Indonesian Contemporary Art and the Development of Art Infrastructure: Influences, Appropriations and Tensions (July 2004) aptly lists various nationalist critiques of westernized artists, starting with Soedjojono’s critique of the Mooi Indie painters, followed by a description of the mutual influence of East and West during the past forty years. Effendy’s article treats Indonesian art as eastern, with the possible exception of Bali, where artists “decided to give ample room to cultural dialogue in their work. Cross-influence between the cultures of European visitors and local artists produced imaginative artistic forms full of surprises.”
But the mythological paradigm, meticulously and beautifully laid out in Joseph Campbell’s 3000-page Masks of God series, is far more fundamental to an artist’s relationship with the world in which he is situated, and thus to his self and his art. It is an almost ontological difference, next to which differences of politics and dogma seem minor, or at least temporary. Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholars might disagree on specifics, but it is the disagreement of brothers who, whether they get along or not, speak the same metaphysical language, who branched off from each other much higher up the tree of human time. Similarly, those on the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Taoist branch share a space that only ramifies near its end, in relatively close variations.
At its core, of course, it is only one tree with shared roots; and humanity is far more complex than a tree metaphor. Until six hundred years ago — relatively recent in mythological time – Java and the other islands of Indonesia shared Bali’s eternity. And the drastic deracination of Chinese art by the Cultural Revolution and globalization show that even thousands of years of tradition cannot stand toe-to-toe with Man’s adaptability. But to the extent that the mythological framework holds – and after viewing the Modern Indonesian Masters exhibit, after re-reading Indonesian Contemporary Art Now and Modern Indonesian Art through this binary opposition, I believe that it mostly does – then it also leads to a conclusion that is directly opposite Effendy’s implication that Bali is more westernized than the rest of Indonesia. The more fundamental influences work in the opposite direction.
Ugo Untoro’s Swimmer — a bikini-wearing wayang puppet stretching, preparing to jump into the swimming pool — is a masterpiece of western existential philosophy that recognizes and, filled with both humour and nostalgia, turns its back on a distant eastern past. It is a conscious, learned and funny depiction of individuation, a Heideggerian “being in the world,” a phenomenological call. In Marc Bollansee’s words, “she does not submit to the moral rules of the wayang world anymore.”
Compare this to Jean Couteau’s review of Made Wianta’s Dreamland: “The message is therefore cosmic, in a Hindu and also in a universal sense. To darkness will succeed light, as the flickering fireflies announce, to impurity purity, as the exorcism of blood announces, and to death life, as the artist’s show itself should make clear. To talk here of Wianta as merely an artist is not proper; his show is indeed an attempt at being a demiurge.”
And compare both to Campbell’s words: “The dreamlike spell of [Asia's] contemplative, metaphysically oriented tradition, where light and darkness dance together in a world-crating shadow play, carries into modern times an image that is of incalculable age.”
Perhaps it is unfair to juxtapose Made Wianta, the most transcendent of Bali’s painters, with Ugo Untoro, perhaps the most existentialist of Java’s. But Wianta is also wholly international and Dreamland is far more socio-political than his paintings, which, despite their enormous range, all feel like hints of moksa, touches of God, magical insights into the undivided universe for those with eyes enough to see. And though Wianta is free-spirited, almost dismissive, about religion, whenever I talk to him I’m reminded of Buddhist lamas I’ve met, men with reputations as enlightened beings.
And Wianta is not alone in this sublime demonism, this spontaneous freedom. Nyoman Erawan’s lights and darks mixed with Balinese-Hindu icons feel like pictures of the space in between reincarnations or views of the void beyond (e.g., Pralaya Matra); similarly, Wayan Darmika’s colours are opposing cosmic forces (e.g., Pengider Bhuana); and Suklu’s ritual installations like Dance of the Cendrawasih and paintings like Clear Mind continuously reconnect his art to spirituality in a way that is far more immediate than, say, Dikdik Sayadikumullah’s painting of a church façade in Homage to Ries Mulders.
There are exceptions, of course. As the taxonomist Stephen Gould wrote, “variations are primary and essences illusory.” A couple of examples: Murni’s socio-sexual paintings and Nyoman Masriadi’s caricatures of society are far closer to the political, personal and existential art that I’ve associated here with artists whose fundamental relationship with reality was shaped by Zoroaster: the critique-by-witnessing of Dadang Christanto, the satire of artists like Heri Dono, Agung Kurniawan, Auy Arista Murti, and Entang Wiharso, the humanistic critiques, reminders and self-therapies of Agus Suwage and Budi Kustiarto, the playful allusive critiques of social perceptions of the Jendela Group, the subtle social winks of Ay Tjoe Christine, the role questioning of Astari or Arahmaiani, the freedom plays of S. Teddy D., the personal stories of Sekar Jatiningrum: art as insight into the human condition, art as artifice, art as satire, critique, humour, growth, witnessing, adventure and individuation of a nation’s worth of great artists, too many to list ¾ and apologies to those whom I just flattened into three-word categories ¾ But, with exceptions, the fundamental mythological divide seems to hold: Balinese contemporary art has a much higher tendency to depict universal truths, balance, and continuous conditions rather than moments, while art from the rest of Indonesia seems to follow a more fragmented western model: God against Nature against Man against Self against all: men and women living in the world.
The post-colonial narrative dichotomy made a lot of teleological sense in a multi-cultural country working to define its unified independent identity, but the dramatic transformations over the last ten years in Asia’s art scene generally, and in Indonesia specifically, suggest that we are in a post-post-colonial era, or at least in a transitional period – a point at which a mythological narrative may yield more insights than a political, historic, or geographic one. At the least, I hope that it is sufficiently disruptive to be interesting.
And pulling out Indonesia’s dual mythological heritage, its ability to span both main branches on humanity’s tree at a time when everything is possible, when all norms and mythologies are in flux, presents infinite opportunities of creation: the wise artists of Java have tasted of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil; those of Bali have enjoyed the fruit of eternal life. And, as Campbell says, “If man should taste of both fruits he would become, we have been told, as God himself (Genesis 3:22) – which is the boon that the meeting of East and West today is offering to us all.”
Indonesian Art and the Primordial Androgyne was originally published in C-Arts Magazine (November 2007)