Kirsten Strayer July 30 2019

Avatars, myths, shadows, and hieroglyphs: Screens in Southeast Asia


Antonin Artaud’s first encounter with Balinese theater-- in a 1931 show at the Exposition Coloniale--changed his fundamental understanding of the theatrical experience. For Artaud, the performance, which emphasized myths, bodily perceptions, and gestures displayed a more ‘pure’ theater unlike European theater of the day. Instead of the dialogue-heavy scripts of everyday life, Balinese theater explored sensation and myth, which Artaud thought allowed spectators to experience both visual reality and the essential elemental being (the double behind what we know). While Artaud was not an expert on Balinese theater--he was most definitely not--his story of Balinese theater speaks to an artistic experience that privileges visual reactions over psychological and visual realism

All of which can lead us to think about the artistic traditions from the Malay archipelago and how they can function today. What good, we can ask, are avatars, myths, and hieroglyphs in exploring ravages of 19th century colonialism and devastation of contemporary climate change? Would it not be better to show the world a realist picture of the desolation that is being wrought by fossil fuels? These questions return to Artaud’s idea that myth and artifice can be a way forward to the truth behind art. For him, shadows, myths and alchemy revealed truth by giving the audience a sensory experience. And, in this way, he got Balinese theater right. It can be an expression of the moment that eschews individual psychology for collective experiences. In these texts, gods come to earth in human form, people collectively fight against power, and radical truths are revealed through imagery. 

This Spotlight explores films that use the artistic legacy of the Malay region--including dance, music, painting, and puppet theater (wayang)-- to explore current political and environmental catastrophes. Through these dynamic explorations, film and other arts can play with the past and the present, with myths and reality, and with shadows and other doubles. 

The dystopian contemporary myth Amarta (Bambang “ipoenk” K.M, 2014) is a particularly compelling example of this. The story--which takes place in a fictional city--shows a young woman taking on the city’s ‘boss’--who controls the water and charges all of the citizens who used to have free access to the resources. The film integrates live action actors with paper props, theatrical settings, and animation to create a flat, planular, puppet like atmosphere, which draws from earlier forms and myths. Moreover, the film shifts to theatrical dance at one point, having the Capitalist machinery of the present literally eat the dancers. The film uses theater to attack the destructive elements of neoliberal economics. 

Amarta (Bambang “ipoenk” K.M, 2014)

Similarly, WANTOKS: a dance of resilience in Melanesia (Iara Lee, 2019) poses dance and performance as a rejection of global power and as resistance to the unrelenting onslaught of climate change. A documentary, the film weaves dance performances with an investigation into the fight for independence in West Papua. The film poses dance as a sight of resistance, a way that local citizens can fight colonization. It even visually connects the dance to radicals waving the West Papuan flag, letting the arm gestures mimic and inform each other. 

WANTOKS: a dance of resilience in Melanesia (Iara Lee, 2019)

In contrast, Flutter Echoes and Notes Concerning Nature (Amir Pohan, 2015) is visually like a documentary but is neither that nor fiction. More similar to a mythic tale, the documentary-styled film juxtaposes a sound engineer who records nature sound in her spare time with a guerilla environmental group attempting to protect the increasing deforestation in Indonesia. Both groups function as mythic heroes, searching for the essence of the topography underneath the concrete. The “flutter echoes” of the title refers to both the juxtaposition between the two protagonists and also the sound of the natural world that hums underneath the city. 

Flutter Echoes and Notes Concerning Nature (Amir Pohan, 2015)

Finally, like Amarta, Shadows: Saving the Rain Forest (Isaac Kerlow, 2014) renders the machinery of resource extraction puppet-like to bring more traditional art forms to the critique of climate imperialism. In the animated piece, the creatures, the humans, and the rainforest use the same planular style and jerky movements, evoking the puppeteer gestures of the wayang kulit Balinese performances. Through the images, one can grasp at the truth beyond words and analytical reason. For the text, understanding the depth of environmental catastrophe can come not through descriptive language, with mitigates the importance of the subject, but through visceral imagery. 

Shadows: Saving the Rain Forest (Isaac Kerlow, 2014)

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.

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