Temple doors, c.1700–1800. Tejakula, Buleleng, North Bali. Painted and gilded wood, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
In two streaked and faded panels, the painted figures, possibly Rama and Sita from the Hindu epic Ramayana, float like ghostly apparitions. The wooden carving, too, shows signs of age, worn smooth in places. Time, sunlight, and weather have done their work.
But even in pristine condition, these Balinese temple doors, which date from 1700–1800, would have had a fragile and evanescent look. Framed in floral tracery, with images of fire above the figures’ heads, the doors are crowned by a porous lintel screen of leaves and blossoms. The spaces above the side panels are open, with a pair of feathery winged lions perched on the window ledges. Another pair of more conventional lions stands guard, benignly, at the base.
The entire piece, on view in the transporting exhibition “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, seems light and fanciful, almost vaporous, a vivid dream that might dissolve and vanish at any moment. As such, these hauntingly ephemeral doorways could hardly be a more fitting entry for the show, a prismatic display of carving and textiles, masks and musical instruments, painting and video, and costumes and photographs. Like the Balinese themselves, who cherish the free and fluid passage from everyday life to the sacred, the visible realm (sekala) to the unseen (niskala), the visitor encounters the interwoven beliefs and values, aspirations and absorbing love of natural beauty, the transitory and the indelible that mark the distinctive culture of this fabled Indonesian island.