G-Five, Plastic Attack, 2013 (rice fields installation view); plastic bottles and metal frames; 2 meters high. Courtesy of the Artists. Photo: G-Five Art Management.
Something is in the air in Bali. As I was interviewing a long string of artists during my writing residency there, one topic that kept coming up was plastic and the environment. Several of the artists I met and interviewed brought it up specifically, while many others merely danced around the subject and spoke of the environment more vaguely.
As time went on during my month’s stay, common themes and unifying strings clearly started to emerge between various artists and their work. But plastic and its place in our environment and culture was a big theme that I truthfully didn’t see coming. I consider myself an environmentalist (beginning with my dad’s teaching the Boy Scout rule to always leave your campsite [or hiking trail] cleaner than you found it, and leading all the way to my co-founding a residence hall recycling program at my university), so it wasn’t something I was unaware of or blind to, but I simply wasn’t expecting it.
Many of the artists I met in Bali brought up the problems of plastic degradation in a plethora of ways – from painter Federico Tomasi’s aside about the rainwater run-off flooding the ocean with plastic from one-time-use packaging to Made Aswino Aji’s laments about the changing landscape of Bali with its tourist growth. Or, in Ketut Jaya Kaprus’ plans to feature an entire gallery exhibit about the dangers of plastic, while showcasing its redemptive and transformative power as art.
left | Ketut Jaya Kaprus, photo of Kaprus painting pillars made from found plastic bottles, 2014; paint on plastic bottles. Courtesy of the Artist.
right | Ketut Jaya Kaprus, installation view of plastic bottle pillars, 2014; paint on plastic bottles. Courtesy of the Artist.
I couldn’t ignore this recurring theme, but what intrigued me most was that the majority of the artists I spoke with were quick to un-identify with an environmental movement. Many artists informed me quite specifically that they were “not activists,” or god forbid, “environmentalists.”
I wasn’t sure exactly where this fear of labeling was coming from, but what I did know was that all of this art spoke loudly with its impact and aesthetics (though at times ambivalently with its message), much like its creators. I think part of the fear for these painters must be that they would lose their title as “artist” if they were simply seen as an activists – a fear I can sympathize with. For years, I have had business cards that vary between self-identifying as a “writer” or “art historian” because I don’t want one label chosen over another. But, with these artists, it seemed there was something more brewing below the surface.
So I decided to investigate some of the bigger, (non)environmental art projects I encountered in Bali.
top | G-Five, Plastic Attack, 2013 (beach installation view); plastic bottles and metal frames; 2 meters high. Courtesy of the Artists. Photo: G-Five Art Management.
bottom | G-Five, Plastic Attack, 2013 (gallery installation view); plastic bottles and metal frames; 2 meters high. Courtesy of the Artists and Tonyraka Art Gallery. Photo: G-Five Art Management.
G-Five, a group of five younger artists on the contemporary art scene in Bali, has come together to produce a number of successful group exhibitions. Individually, they are artists in their own rights with unique styles and distinctive techniques, but together they aim to tackle broad and fluid subject matter and experimental work. All from Gianyar, a region known as the artistic capital of Bali, I Wayan Upadana, Wiguna Valasara, Made Gede Putra, Kadek A. Ardika, and I Wayan Legianta formed this talented group in 2009.
In their 2013 show “Plastic Attack” at Tonyraka Art Gallery, G-Five focused on plastic as their medium, and in some respect, message. This followed a trend of their prior exhibitions wherein they had focused on using and featuring a specific medium, be it rubber, thread, wood, or resin.1 Here, they created and joined five large walls of plastic bottles. First they filmed and photographed these walls out in nature on the iconic shores of Bali and in the equally picturesque and emblematic Balinese rice fields. Then they moved this large wall structure and installed it in the front of the gallery, with backlights that made it feel more paranormal and artistic than a foreboding environmental message. Inside the space, one hallway was completely blocked off with an enormous inflatable bulbous plastic ball, made up of taped plastic and powered by a fan, timed to inflate and deflate as if it was a living, breathing creature. They also showcased installations of found dirt, layered with plastic debris and refuse from the rice paddies in Ubud. These cutout segments were made into spectacles and “ready-mades,” as they were displayed in pristine glass boxes that would more typically be reserved for a rare and valuable artifact.
Bali Not For Sale, Bali Not for Sale, 2011; bamboo and acrylic signage. Courtesy of the Artists. Photo: Bali Not For Sale.
Another art collective entitled Bali Not For Sale is comprised of three young artists from Ubud: Gede Suanda Sayur, I Wayan Sudarna Putra, Pande Putu Setiawan. In 2010, they used bamboo and acrylic paints to form large three-dimensional letters that spelled out “NOT FOR SALE” and installed these signs in the remaining rice paddies at Jl. Sriwedari, in the Junjungan rice fields of Ubud.
These installations (and digital photographs of the installations that now float around the web) call attention to the growing number of residents who have sold their families’ rice fields to developers. Many families have been doing so to accommodate a growing hospitality industry, succumbing to the demand of the ever-growing tourist population, who would like to stay overnight and retreat amongst the picturesque rice fields in Ubud. Over time, these sales and developments have damaged a long-standing farming tradition in Bali, leaving families with a massive sum of money up front from property sales, but one that does not last over time or reap a steady income, as tending to the rice fields once did. Bali Not For Sale’s message is clear and humble, carrying visible force through art installations, “Bali is better simpler. Paradise ‘soul and pride’ is not for sale!”2
Wayan Suja paints intimate portraits of people, but he separates their faces from that of the viewer with obtrusive veils of wrinkled plastic. This creates an opposing dynamic wherein the detailed and naturalistic portraiture draws viewers in and creates an intimate feeling and setting, while the plastic intercedes between the depicted sitter and the viewer, thus superseding the very subject of the painting. In many of Suja’s series such as “Plastic Rhetoric,” are the paintings about portraits or are they in fact about plastic as the titles would suggest? It seems that plastic is both the subject and non-subject of his work, as the viewer’s eye oscillates between focusing only on the plastic veil while also shifting only to the veiled face behind it.
When I asked him about why he would use plastic in this way, Suja said he is not an activist. It is not about being for or against plastic, but about saying that plastic is here and using it quite literally as a lens through which to view the world. The figure wears traditional Balinese dress and is veiled in plastic so that she challenges what it means to be 100% Balinese. Suja compared it to the same way that he painted a Coca-Cola can in Untitled 2005. It is here; plastic is here; a Western influence is here in Bali and Suja is not saying that things need to remain traditional, but he is commenting and observing an ever-changing and adaptive culture.
And perhaps this fluidity of culture is the real heart of the subject matter I had been dancing around all along. In an essay on G-Five’s show “Plastic Attack,” Wayan Seriyoga Parta writes that their dirt and trash installation shows “packaging repackaged.”3 And in my interview with Legianta and Valasara, they were quick to tell me that this show was about “art for art’s sake” and not about the environment. But to me (admittedly an American abroad bringing my own ingrained ideas in tow), it was hard to consider the exhibit without reading an environmental message. They explained that they were exploring “plastic as new media,” so that it is both a medium and experience.
In light of Suja, Bali Not For Sale, and G-Five’s art and aims, perhaps these works are actually less environmental and more about influence. Truly a message and medium repackaged. And perhaps some of this work is less of a protest and more of a proclamation of prevalence. An “I see you,” kind of acknowledgement towards the impact, union, and delicate merger of Balinese and Western culture.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.
1 “Press Release: Plastic Attack,” GFiveArt.weebly.com, last modified October 13, 2013, http://gfiveart.weebly.com/plastic-attack.html
2 “Bali Not For Sale: Biography,” Facebook: Bali Not For Sale, 2010, https://www.facebook.com/balinotforsale/info
3Wayan Seriyoga Parta “Plastic Attack,” GFiveArt.weebly.com, last modified October 13, 2013, http://gfiveart.weebly.com/plastic-attack.html