Made Wijaya: Finding the real soul of Bali still beating strongly
Sydney-born Michael White, a.k.a. Made Wijaya, is known as one of the world’s acknowledged landscape artists. Hundreds of his tropical-garden creations have beautified many hotels and other high-end buildings in Bali, Singapore, India, Australia, Spain, Hawaii, Mexico and Morocco.
Having been submerged in the exotic Balinese culture during the first six years of his 20s, Wijaya, now 59, is thankful for the culture’s endless source of inspiration for his creations over the past 40 years. He regretted though that the massive tourism development on the island he once fell in love with had tarnished the sanctity of the island’s culture and environment.
Wijaya actively updates his websites, including strangerinparadise.com and baliluwih.blogspot.com, which include writings, photographs and short documentaries of cultural celebrations around the island. He talked with Bali Daily’s Agnes Winarti; here are excerpts of his interview.
Question: In 1973, you reached Bali by boat and were adopted by the brahmana family who named you Made Wijaya. How did this series of events happen? And how have the family influenced your intense love for Balinese culture?
Answer: I had a year off from university, I’d never travelled before. I was lucky, the first country I went to was Indonesia. I did not pick Bali. Bali picked me. We just sailed north. It awakened my love for the exotic, theatrical, mystical and magical culture. I fell in love with the culture and people and now I’m still obsessed with Indonesia, particularly Bali.
The brahmana family living in a classical culture in a traditional village, Pemecutan, intensified my fascination with the culture. In Australia, there’s very little culture. I have what’s called ‘the passion of the convert’. I went from being a spoiled middle-class boy in Australia, and suddenly I was like a servant, abdidalem or parakan. I had to learn how to be a little bit humble, which was a waste of time. I did not leave for six years. It was a complete submersion, like solitary confinement. I was young. I had the gift for languages, so I became well-known in the Balinese community as someone who can speak Balinese.
I autodidactly developed my eye for landscape designs, and architectural research. I learned everything in Bali. I have a great debt of gratitude to Bali for teaching me everything.
So, I pay in return by sharing my passion for cultural tourism. My work in the construction and design industry are really the source of funding for my real work, in recording and documenting Balinese culture. I have been documenting since 1975, almost 40 years. I’d like to think that my profession is a writer, while my hobby is landscape design.
Since the development of tourism, what has turned ugly?
When I first came to Bali, everything was beautiful. But now everything is ugly. It’s a bit sad or tragic for an architecture historian and for a landscape designer to have witnessed 40 years of degradation. So physically, it has changed for the worse, no one can deny that. There are no more views to the sea or the mountains, there’s no control of the green belts. [The administration] had tried three times, and failed three times in Ngurah Rai, Sunset Road, and IB Mantra. Those previous green belts have become industrial zones, and as a result now we have to have a flyover and underpasses.
Bali was once associated with the exotic, the mystical and the magical, but now Bali is associated with spas, shopping, night life and cheap tropical holidays. Under this stiff veneer of mass tourism, Bali is on sale. But I believe, there’s a real Bali that’s still beating strong. The real Bali is everywhere, but you don’t see it because you are too submersed in the fake Bali. For me that’s the enemy, the mindless minimalism [in architectural design]. A culture that celebrates beauty and is famous in the world as the most gorgeous and glamorous culture is now celebrating in parallel the nonsense, fake, derivative formulae.
In an article of yours, Skala Diskala, you mention the Balinese style versus the box-like Zen style in the architectural development in Bali. How contradictory are both styles?
It’s not really Zen, because the real Zen is a very strict Buddhism school in Japan that has a very good natural garden. It’s the new Asia movement which started in Singapore. This new Asia movement has no garden, just concrete and one tree. Their proportions are bad and they are not tropical buildings. They are like air-conditioned boxes, or microwave ovens. The taste in the current architecture is nose diving.
Isn’t taste subjective?
Taste is subjective. But it is also a science. There’s a science to good design and aesthetics, proportion and environmental reference. Things they say are modern and different. No it’s not. It’s ugly.
What actions have you taken to defend this island from more cultural and environmental destruction?
My writings, my documentaries and landscape creations. We are inventing trends through producing good examples of architecture. I hope I can influence young Balinese minds to be more interested in their own culture. Previously, only 2 percent of my online media readers were Balinese, now there are 98 percent, as I estimate from sender feedback.
— Photo by Lukman SB