God is in the details of this Bali exhibition

God is in the details of this Bali exhibition
BY A WESTERN ADMIRER: Miguel Covarrubias' stylized map of Bali shows the diamond-shaped island dominated by smoking volcanoes towering over lush valleys. (Library of Congress / Asian Art Museum)

In 1930, Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias and his wife, Rose, traveled to the island of Bali in Indonesia and promptly fell in love with what they saw. They stayed nine months, soaking up the natural beauty and distinct culture. Covarrubias later wrote a classic book called "Island of Bali," which somewhat overshadowed the art he made on the trip. One of those paintings is a stylized map of Bali, showing the diamond-shaped island dominated by smoking volcanoes towering over lush valleys and hillsides terraced into rice fields. Temples dot the terrain and in the ocean dragons and mermaids swim while a cruise ship steams away.

The map — displayed in a show here at the Asian Art Museum called "Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance" — nicely sums up the seductive allure that has made the island such a byword for exotica. Not to mention a land of contrasts.

Bali is a Hindu enclave in the middle of the most populous Islamic country in the world. The island is verdant yet also densely populated, divided into hill-clinging rice fields that make for beautiful photos but backbreaking labor.

Its people are celebrated for weaving artistic and spiritual practices into daily life, but the island's history is soaked in blood, from the Dutch conquest in the early 1900s to a dirty war against suspected communists in the 1960s. Only 2,000 square miles in area, Bali boasts tens of thousands of temples. The Balinese language has no word for religion — so saturated is the culture with notions of the divine that none appears necessary.

"Their lives were packed in intricate and formal delights," anthropologist Margaret Mead observed in the 1930s. "The richness and vibrancy of the cultural traditions of the island are as evident now as they were then," notes museum director Jay Xu in the exhibition catalog. "Bali continues to inspire artists, performers, scholars, and movie stars, all drawn to a unique culture where art is an integral part of daily life."

The show, which runs through Sept. 11, is the first in the U.S. to broadly examine the art and culture of Bali. More than 130 objects — including sculpture, musical instruments and textiles — are on display. "What makes Bali really interesting is the intersection between indigenous beliefs and Hinduism," says curator Natasha Reichle, who worked on the show for five years. "These objects don't usually get put into museums. You go to a ceremony and see them in use."

The museum has scheduled 60 musical, puppetry and dance performances over the next several months to bring alive the cultural context many of these objects were designed for. "What's really fun is that the exhibit has such a wide range of media," Reichle says. "It's a really rich environment in the galleries, trying to show the breadth of the culture and how these objects connect to one another."

Bali has long been a melting pot of influences. Indian traders introduced Hinduism, which gave new names to the old gods of the indigenous animists. The show's opening section highlights the role of agricultural deities and ancestors in Balinese society. Palm leaves, for example, are folded into doll-like figures representing the goddess of rice and fertility Dewi Sri, to whom daily offerings are made by farmers.

Rice is the island's dietary staple, and the tools used to harvest it display a remarkable commingling of the utilitarian and the artistic. Consider, for instance, two beautiful knives on display. One is an elegantly tapered stick with a floral pattern bisected by an iron blade, the other a wooden carving of a rooster with the blade almost hidden below.

Chinese merchants left behind piles of coins with a hole in the center, which the Balinese have tied together with string to create sculptures of deities. Some coin images are enhanced with faces and hands carved from wood while others are stylishly dressed in cotton and silk and sheathed in gold leaf.

To the Balinese, gods are not distant and aloof but honored guests who are invited to inhabit deity statues when they visit Earth. Deity objects are not static museum pieces but honored participants in rituals and processions. Some are carried in ornate gilded wood palanquins, such as one fantastically decorated example in the show that was chosen for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, where Holland's pavilion of Balinese art was a sensation.

The second section of the show traces the development of court culture and the intricate rituals that governed religious life. One of the more spectacular rites was cremation, which for the wealthy involved erecting a grand, roofed platform to host a sarcophagus for burning — an example of which is on display. Nearby is a finely drawn ritual bark cloth meant for burning with the body, which has somehow survived and offers a rare glimpse of an artistic creation designed to go up in smoke.

A painted wooden panel depicts a widow and her servants throwing themselves into a fire to join her dead husband — a practice that persisted into the early 20th century and was one of the justifications for the Dutch overthrowing the island's ruling families.

The Balinese royal penchant for ritual was taken to extremes when numerous rulers and their courts marched straight into the gunfire of the Dutch and the survivors killed themselves rather than surrender. The Dutch then looted and burned many of the royal palaces, the plunder being shipped off to museums in Holland.

In fact, the vast majority of items in the show have come from two Dutch museums, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden; UCLA's Fowler has also lent a number of works.

Shadow puppetry (or wayang kulit) is one of the great Balinese art forms. Although the puppets — flat figures made from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks — are seen only in shadows cast behind a screen, they are still beautifully painted and fully realized works of art. Accompanied by a chiming gamelan orchestra, the puppets act out scenes from Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata. The performances can last an entire night.

The final section of the exhibit examines the effect of foreign visitors on Balinese art in the pre-WWII period. There's a large selection of Covarrubias drawings depicting the towering cylindrical offerings that Balinese women carried on their heads; offerings included mixtures such as flowers and rice and incense and cooked chickens.

As Noel Coward wrote in a hotel register in the 1930s: "It appears that each Balinese native / From the Womb to the tomb is creative / And although the results are quite clever / There is too much artistic endeavor."