Saturday, July 16, 2005

Adrian Vickers

Professor Adrian Vickers of the University of Woollongong is the second person I have come across who writes about Bali with evidence of a bullshit detector. He has in fact made a career out of books like Bali: A Paradise Created and this useful article about the idea of the liberation of static, moribund art by the likes of Walter Spies and Rudolph Bonnet, and about Donald Friend's time in Bali. He writes about the construction of what we think of as Balinese, and most recently, wrote a piece in the recently republished Balinese Gardens which astonished me, pointing out that Balinese gardens were traditionally very spare and open affairs. That book makes clear that many of the species that flourish in Balinese gardens today are not indigenous. He has also edited a book called Travelling to Bali; Four Hundred Years of Journeys.

This is what he said in the article linked to above about the deification of western artists in Bali, and the exaggeration of their influence (he makes an exception for Donald Friend):
"So far this sounds like another one of those narratives of expatriate glamour that diminishes places like Bali. The story of a declining artistic scene given a new lease of life by a great western artist has been retold in a number of contexts, and Andrew Sayers has documented versions of this also for nineteenth-century Aboriginal art. In the case of Bali, the German expressionist artist Walter Spies and his friend and colleague the Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet have usually been ascribed the roles of western creators of modern Balinese art in the 1930s. Their story is based on an underlying assumption that the West is creative, the rest imitates. Although some of us have been working hard to overturn that myth, at present it survives in a watered-down form, with a number of postwar artists, notably Arie Smit, also being assigned starring roles. The story has been absorbed into the valuing of expatriate art, and so in the 1990s fuelled a price boom that began from the collections of a number of upwardly mobile Balinese. These people, notably Suteja Neka, Rudana and Agung Rai, had their imitators amongst the nouveau riche of Jakarta, leading to the usual over-inflation of prices and the production of a lot of second-rate works and forgeries. In a colder light most of the expatriate artists who have lived on Bali are very second-rate, were not famous before they came to Bali and, if they did not have a romantic myth attached to their work, would never have been heard of."


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