There are many styles of painting in Bali, all geographically identified and all very proximal to each other, at least in and around Ubud. It is likely true of the island in general. The most frequent topics are scenes from Balinese history, the Ramayana or village life. Here are samples from the permanent collection as well as a special Batuan exhibit of contemporary works in the Puri Lukisan Museum.
Jensen: What’s the relationship between grief and belonging to a place?
Prechtel: In the Guatemalan village where I lived, you don’t belong someplace until your people have died there and the living have wept for them there. Until a few of your generations have died on the land and been buried there, and your soul has fed on the land, you’re still a tourist, a visitor.
While I lived in this village, one of my sons, a baby, died of typhoid. When I lost a child, I mysteriously and suddenly became a true, welcomed resident of the land. It wasn’t as if I owned the land, but I was an honorable renter who’d paid with grief, artistically expressed in ritual. My child had merged with the land, so now I was related to the rocks and the trees and the air in a bodily way that I hadn’t been before. And since the other villagers were all related to these same rocks and trees and air, that made us all relatives.
Now, you might say that all your ancestors from Denmark, France, and Scotland have been put in the ground in North America, so why aren’t you welcome here? Why aren’t you related to the rocks and the trees and the air?
It’s because your ancestors who died are most likely still ghosts, still uninitiated souls who have not yet become true ancestors, because their debts were not paid with grief and beauty. Once they become true ancestors, you merge with the region, and you begin to help this world live. At that point, you’ll find that you have less need for toasters and machinery and computers — less need for everything. You’ll finally be starting to live well.
For us to get to that stage, we have to study eloquence, grief, and sacrifice. I’m not just talking about the type of sacrifice where somebody takes three days off to work in the neighborhood, although that may be part of it. I’m talking about giving to the nonhuman, as well as to the human.
The people of Bali have been here for at least 1000 years. There have been kingdoms, the usual conflicts, hardships and blood one might expect between tribes. But somehow, this culture has found expression in so many forms and styles of art. I ponder what Prechtel says, whether it is the ongoing full processing of grief that has been the womb of art, providing the nutrients for the beauty that pours out of this place.
Against that truth, measure the nature of a nation like the United States. We are immigrants with barely 250 years of our story. Are we contributing to the beauty of the land in the way Prechtel means? Are we paying the debt of grief for our ancestors in the form of beauty? We try, and we might succeed in some ways. We have also lost a great deal along the way because we have considered the earth to be a “dead thing”; we have created many ghosts which are part of an enormous well of unexpressed grief. Our relationship to the land doesn’t bear any resemblance to what one finds in a place like Bali.
American art competes with and often reflects the twisted forms of what Prechtel calls “unmetabolized” grief in the heart of American culture. We are certainly not relatives in the way Prechtel describes.
Not that Balinese culture is perfect. Far from it. The expression of relationship represented by the natural recycling of all things and people into the earth of indigenous culture has been interrupted by the introduction of plastic and other forms of energy, including fossil fuels, that cannot be recycled, or at least not in a visible timeframe.
Bali also reflects what is true most everywhere modern culture has reached, the overlay of the Story of Separation on an ancient base of Community that eventually distorts the relationship with the land. There is a vast difference in feel between a more traditional place like Ubud and an Australian beach-party town like Kuta. The story remains in some areas, where life still has the feel of the heavily populated, the busy-ness of these crowded drawings, the crowded streets of Ubud, where the mess is all out in the open, where people are fully in their own as well as in each other’s lives at all times, where myth and the nonhuman are still very much operating just below the surface, where ceremony and the evocation of the spiritual core remains an integral part of daily life.