I love Bali: ‘Moce’ — Balinese art of overly ornate
Is the world’s most gorgeous culture becoming its most grotesque?
Has the stampede toward modernism driven classicism into reverse drive?
Is natural, beautiful Bali being buried under a tsunami of bad taste and environmental vandalism? Is Balinese art and culture becoming an art shop culture?
“Look, Honey, someone blew up the art shop,” one critic commented about Bali’s Garuda Wisnu Kencana Hindu Cultural Park.
Many art historians and anthropologists are blaming tourism for the loss of the lovely, but a more detailed look reveals that the slide toward the gaudy — what the Balinese call moce (or kitsch taste) — has been going on since the Soeharto era, when the nation’s taste slumped and thousands of handsome Dutch colonial bungalows were given international school, neo-fascist facelifts. During the 1970s, the celebration of theme park culture — such as Mrs. Soeharto’s Taman Mini Indonesia Indah in Jakarta — seemed to take over from the concerns for real culture. Cultured modernists, such as theatrical impresario Guruh Soekarnoputra and batik maestro Iwan Tirta, struggled for want of government support, as did museums and other cultural institutions.
It is hard for the Balinese government to now start lamenting the lack of interest in the classical by the tourism sector, when successive national governments have done little to promote cultural conservation. It is the village communities who have taken the conservation of ceremonies and classical Balinese Hindu lifestyle seriously — there has been a marked village-based renaissance in the past 20 years, with more and more youngsters involved in temple affairs.
This surge in interest in ceremonial activity has also, paradoxically, ushered in an era of architectural revisionism, all too evident as one drives around the island today.
The island’s classical architecture is fast disappearing — red-brick temples of exquisite beauty are regularly replaced by formulaic “masterpieces” fashioned out of black andesite stone, often with gold-painted trim that seems to emulate cheesy Chinese temples. This follows a nationwide trend in restless restoration that has seen the demise of 10,000 elegant Moorish mosques in Java and Lombok as well.
The Balinese have always been trendoid — fashion waves can be traced in classical Balinese architecture over the past 1,000 years — but only in the past 10 years has that taste spiraled down, following the example of successive national trends for souped-up celebrity culture and commercial mall taste.
Ugly fashion trends, which have entered the Balinese mainstream today, include grotesque gate decorations, tacky dance costumes, cheesy municipal street decorations and even overly theatrical priestly attire (the new “glam-bram” trend in high priests’ fashion).
Polos (plain), once worshipped in Balinese culture with an almost Amish zeal, has now been replaced by a love for the loud.
Today’s must-have architectural accessory is an overly ornate door in the Javanese Kudus style, which is applied, like a postage stamp, to the facade of suburban bungalows.
Are the Balinese just following national trends?
In Java, the cradle of classical Hindu culture and traditional arts, the national dress, the sarung-kebaya, has all but disappeared from the street, replaced by more Islam-appropriate attire. With the demise of the sarung-kebaya, appreciation of traditional batik is now confined to the palace courts. Even the sexy sinden singers on Indonesian television’s most popular program — the outrageously ribald Opera Van Java — have, over the past year, deserted the slender sarung-kebaya for upholstered costumes that are a travesty of traditional dress, all in the name of fashion (in this case, courtier Raden Sirait’s “warrior woman” fashion).
Balinese beauty warriors, famous throughout history for their restraint and elegance, have adopted these trends and turned them into capitol crimes against fashion with particular Hindu-Balinese zeal. Denpasar weddings are now horror shows of excessive makeup and appliqué; brides can barely move for the beads and baubles, the grooms look like circus performers.
Of course in the middle of this plague of bad taste there is a lot of Balinese high style: the beautiful classic kites of Sanur beach flying majestically over the McVillas of Mertasari modernism, for example; and the grand old temple guardians at the temple festivals still being celebrated with great verve across the land.
“Jazz up the Barong Dance,” screamed a government tourism agency recently — “to make it more attractive”.
Miss World and world leaders may now be taken to see the cabaret Bali style shows in Nusa Dua instead of the real thing (deemed too shocking and too Hindu), but please leave something of the classical to inspire future generations.
Australian-born writer and designer Made Wijaya is a cultural observer and author of many books on Balinese architecture and culture.