I first went to Bali in 1974. This was not the legendary Island of the Gods extolled by artists Walter Spies, Miguel Covarrubias, Donald Friend or Henri Cartier Bresson. Potent vestiges of this recent state of grace still existed. Traditional culture was still so dense you could almost cut it with a knife. Ritual, Puja, dance, the Hindu God cosmology and animist juju existed in tandem with the new gods of globalization, tourism and cash. Already it was a paradise in transition. This was still more or less a Bali before it jumped the rails and registered itself on the global radar as a genuine fake tourist paradise. Kuta was a smallish town with a few hotels and Legian was just a village with three losmens taking accommodation.
The patterns of dystopia that mass tourism creates were clearly ramping up to critical mass. Badly sunburnt tourists tooling with the indigenous drugs. Some inadvertent psychotic attacks bought on after eating the “special” mushroom omelet at a little café in Kuta. Young female students from some of Australia’s most exclusive private church schools returning home from the cultural tour with a fraction of the class impregnated by equally horny Balinese beach boys. Tourists renting motorbikes and venturing onto the Island’s moth-eaten roads, exposed to the mix of cowboy tactics and capricious anarchy that is the Indonesian traffic code, quickly became trauma statistics of the fatal holiday.
After moving from Kuta to Legian, both my cameras were stolen from my room at the Three Brothers Losmen on consecutive nights. Anything dodgy happening to tourists was unfairly blamed on a recent influx of tourist dollar hunting Javanese. The surf at Kuta could be a nasty at times with a heavy shore break attended by ferocious rips. It monstered Eurotrash visitors with many instant drownings happening just hours after arrival at Denpasar airport. Then as now the Ozzitrash out-uglied the Euro trash by several weight divisions in their headlong rush to remove polite, sensible and reasonable from their lexicon of behavior the moment their entry visas were stamped.
This was the Bali I first saw. Beauty and sadness, an exquisitely elegant and rich culture coming to terms with a tsunami of imported vulgarity.
I first met Emmanuel Angelicas in Sydney in 1984 at art school. We were both enrolled in the same pseudo post-graduate degree course. The course was taught by lecturers from the content free zone. The content was seemingly based on a constant recycling of the litany of the Jocks of The Silver Paper Temple Cargo Cult, espousing a critical theory as conceptually bankrupt as guessing the length of a piece of string. It was at the prickly show and tell sessions that I first saw the sublime potential of Emmanuel’s work. Sweet, purist black and white square photos. The work, a representational reporting on the migrant women of Inner West Sydney. His female workers are depicted toughing it out for three dollars an hour in unregulated backyard sweat shops. They were doing piecework for a garment industry desperate to compete with cheap imported clothing made in the third world. The portraits of women sewing, over locking cutting and ironing were powerful in the way they seemed to drill down into the unrelenting monotony of this low paid drudgery. At show and tell I picked up on the immediacy of the work right away. The rest of the class held the line of fundamentalist ambiguity as valorized by our group tutor. Whilst I was voluble, effusive about the excellence of the work, they were non-committal, verging on vacant in their response.
Sensing an appalling bout of public humiliation coming my way I did my show and tell slot as briefly as was credibly possible. That didn’t seem to help. My presentation went over like a bag of shit, infuriating the surly class. The cocky head ideologue fired up right away and demanded an explanation for the “exploitative, orientalist tosh that made her feel so very uncomfortable”. She needed me to deconstruct the work as both an act of purification and an acknowledgement of the new thoroughly post-modern art discourse we were enrolled in. The rest of the class chimed in with their own howling critique of my revisionist crap, volubly citing Edward Said. They adored this intellectual snake oil salesman from Columbia University flogging his own paint by numbers apology for Palestinian patriarchal hysteria and applying it randomly to the entire history of the Occident’s engagement with the Orient.
Once they had stopped vilifying me and I had my moment of self-criticism to perform I simply became the rabbit in the headlights, locked up, frozen and mute. For an awkward period of time there was total silence. Sitting directly behind me Emmanuel cleared his throat and declared quite reasonably into the intimidating void “I like Max’s photos”. At this provocation the space cadets of the new vapid erupted: more howling, teeth gnashing etc, petulantly demanding an explanation of WHY he so liked the photos. Really they wanted him to close down like me. More uncomfortable silence ensued. Wry looks and eye rolling from the tutor. Emmanuel sat there. As I remember he was in his channeling Rocky Balboa period: black beanie jammed down to the eyebrows, black fingerless wooly gloves, flano shirt and the Bruce Springsteen sleeveless LJ. Typically of the Emmanuel I came to know and love, he slowly rose to his feet with much scraping of chair. He proclaimed, volume up quite a few notches and to no one in particular. “I DUNNNO I JUST LIKE THE PHOTOS” through it all jabbing his finger at the collective then waving his arm and following up with, somewhat louder “AND YOU CAN ALL GO AND……etc.
Emmanuel first went to Bali in 2004. I get the impression Bali was calling him, waiting for him. For years Emmanuel had been burning up, his immune system completely shot, leaving him in a constant state of pain and depersonalizing flux. It was consistently a real struggle for him to maintain an acceptable status quo, for himself, his family, his work. Through this long period his wife Ellena played a pivotal role in securing, grounding those three crucial pillars of his life for him. His first visit to Bali was cathartic in the respite it offered him both physically and spiritually. A kind of elemental handbrake where none had existed before. He loved the Balinese from the get go, they loved him right back. From 2004 he kept returning to the Island on a cyclic basis, working with the energy it freely gave to him, playing it forward into his Bali photo project. The Island Emmanuel describes is very much the Bali of Schapelle Corby, The Bali Nine, Kerobokan Prison, religious fanatic bombers and rampant, uncontrolled, Hangover Movie franchise tourism packages. Of the three million tourists who visited Bali last year eight hundred thousand were Australian. Basically the Island is so small you could drive around it in one day. Emmanuel is photographing an Island, a culture under siege. His photographs locate and scrutinize the Balinese rather than offering any commentary on the tourists. The clash of civilizations can be read in the faces of his subjects, the toll exacted, the effort made to somehow homogenize and serve a viral, imported culture with its self absorbed attention span of a six year old.
The veneer of traditional Bali is there, must be there, to serve the takeaway myth of freeze-dried exotica. Emmanuel’s Bali is stretched as thin as its slick marketing image: the island paradise waiting on the Indian Ocean for the anonymous cash cow visitor. Imported global cultures have infected the Balinese, made them hungry for the never enough, drip feed cash on offer. It has also made them the target of toxic salafist Islam, the threats, and the bombs, imported from Java, the classic dilemma of the deep racial divisions which define the Republic of Indonesia today.
In his continuing rage to see, Emmanuel’s contemporary, deep-fried Bali, is fashioned out of the case studies that have held his gaze for decades. He borrows from his work on Marrickville to form the syntax that delivers his Bali as a succinct statement of photographic production. The push-pull of pain and pleasure invested through the work. The push-pull of his personality acting upon his subjects as some sort of litmus test of availability, openness and collaboration. The forensic clarity of focus and framing. The Wee Gee meets Larry Fink lighting arrangements created by his judicious use of the Metz Flash. He is back in form with this new work, translating, interpreting and re-mixing the cultures he connects with in his own completely unique way.
MAX PAM 2013