Thursday, 19 September 2013

Travel Diaries: Sydney - Bali

Quaint colonial era cottage in the Sydney University suburb of Glebe.

I am invited back to my old alma mater, the University of Sydney, to give a lecture on Majapahit Style to the Asian Art and Archaeology Society.
Much has changed on campus since I left in 1974: gays now canoodle in public on the Fisher Library lawns, madwomen dart to and fro in leggings (Run, Rhonda, Run), and the majority of students are exquisitely groomed and dressed.
The campus itself is magnificent: Australia’s oldest, it boasts handsome architecture - both colonial and modern - set in immaculate grounds.
The smoking section, Fisher Library, Sydney University.
I stayed nearby at a Quest hotel which was run by a Tongan with silver teeth. Each day I walked through St John’s College, across the university oval, down Physics Road, past the main Quadrangle, to the Fisher Library lawn to look at young flesh over green tea.
In the exquisitely designed Schaefer Library I was re-acquainted with rare books on Indonesian art that had long since disappeared from my Bali library. The air-conditioning was perfection; even the photocopy machines seemed to read my thoughts.

(Left to right) Melanie Morrison, the diarist, Marty Morrison (former first lady at the Asutralian High Commission, Jakarta).

Indonesia Fine Arts student-fashionista in the Schaefer Library, Sydney University.

Eating noodles Batak-style in Sydney.
•       •      •
One night I broke loose from my self-imposed academic exile and went to a modern Wayang performance - The Woman Who Married the Mountain, by Javanese artist Jumaadi – at a fashionable gallery in a trendy suburb and found a new generation of Indonesia-lovers. The performance was enchanting — Matisse-like cut-outs of Jumaadi’s making were projected onto a wall from an overhead projector operated by Cameron Fergeson, an Anglo-Saxon with a guitar. They will be performing at the Moscow Biennale in October, representing both Indonesia and Australia.

Segment of Indonesian artist Jumaadi’s shadow puppet “The Woman who married the Mountain” at Water’s Gallery, Sydney City on 23 August 2013.
•       •      •
Basically, Sydney is a great place to appreciate Asian art and culture these days. At the Opera House I went to a performance of iTMOi (In the Mind of Igor) by the Akram Khan Dance Company of London. Akram Khan, originally from Bangladesh, is a choreographer of genius who portrays emotions through often frantic dance movements. The movements seem drawn from a wide range of Asian dance inspirations — Tamil, Kabuki, Sufi, Bengali. The whole is harmonious and joyous without seeming contrived.
In Sydney there are many commercial art galleries specializing in Asian art for those interested. Towering over them is the famous White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale, a privately-funded free-entry art museum which specializes in modern Chinese art, with exhibitions changing every several months.

Photograph from Akram Khan’s dance company performance ‘In the Name of Igor’ at the Sydney Opera House, 28 August 2013.
•       •      •
I flew to Sydney and back from Jakarta on Qantas, which was infinitely more civilized than joining the throngs of Australian day-trippers leaving Denpasar airport nightly in drunken droves. For one thing, singlets, beaded hair, and binge-drinking are frowned upon on flights out of Jakarta.
•       •      •
Back in Bali to defend Miss World contestants from extremists, I discovered that Deep South Bali is being carved up by greedy developers, but in a nice not a nasty way. The local government is creating Hindu theme parks in the style of Spain’s Valle de Los Caidos (Franco’s Tomb) by denuding the cliffs, banging giant statues of Hindu gods into ten-metre high niches, and then sending people up in colourful hang-gliders to admire their handiwork.

Old Bukit style, Deep South Bali

New Bukit style.
There is a new beach to which domestic tourists stampede called Pandawa Beach - the Miss World contestants had a photo shoot in full black burkas here - where Russian seamen take local girls behind rocks and Jakartan he-men chain-smoke on the beach.

Municipal monuments at Pandawa Beach, Deep South Bali.
Beach clubs are all the rage in Bali now: I am designing one near Tanah Lot with a maximum security fence to keep the local culture out.
Just joking.
But it is getting harder to see the real Bali under the layers and layers of commercialization. It’s still very much there, for those interested, who seem few and far between. Spot the two Japanese tourists in this video of a giant Bali cremation held near Sanur recently — and win a free night at the Taman Bebek hotel in Sayan.

Ida Bagus Nacha, kite flyer, Pandawa Beach, Bali.

Ibu Nyoman from Kutuh Village, purveyor of young coconuts to Miss World contestants, Pandawa Beach, Bali.
•       •      •
Bali seems fairly oblivious to the Miss World pageant, and to the threat of a thousand extremists arriving to ruin the proceedings.
There is an unusual number of red Ferraris on the streets, and an unusual number of frustrated millionaire-developer Ferrari-drivers trying not to grope the Miss World contestants being ferried about  . There also seems to be an unusual number of Balinese vigilantes(LaskarBali) sharpening daggers down side streets. ‘Bring ‘em on’, they seem to be saying.
Poor Bali, still recovering from the Bali bomb disasters – and still trying to shed its image as a ‘soft target’, while being rebranded as a hard-edged tourism Mecca – does not need the bad publicity surrounding the government’s flip-flop on the Miss World pageant.
With APEC just around the corner and the new airport almost complete, the Balinese Government is going into hyperdrive on roadside enhancements. The mangroves, always an embarrassment to Denpasar’s municipal council, are being screened from view with planter-boxes and kitsch Thai-style statues. All the shops built illegally on the green belt are being screened with one-metre wide strips of green belt. Thatched huts are being forced into the tiny front gardens of hideous hyper-modern chrome shimmy-shammy budget hotels that have mushroomed in the green belts: a concession to the few remaining cultural tourism enthusiasts on the town council.
Next month I am going to Lawu-land, Central Sulawesi, via a new Susi Air flight from Makassar to Bua, to visit old Majapahit-Islam era graves and palaces, and will then drive the two-and-a-half hours west to Tanah Toraja. I thoroughly recommend this part of Indonesia for weekend jaunts out of Jakarta, now that one can fly in to Tanah Toraja on Saturdays and out from Bua, on the east coast, three times a week.