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Bali, a haven for public art

Statues of varying sizes line the streets everywhere in Bali, from life-sized mythological beings on the road, to smaller creatures guarding restaurants.

This large shadow, our tour guide later said, was the Garuda Wisnu Kencana, a massive monument located at the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park in Badung. 

The monument, made of copper and brass, towers over the rest of Bali at a whopping height of 400 feet. It depicts the Hindu deity Vishnu riding the winged creature Garuda. 

A small shrine to Ganesh at the Holy Springs Temple.
The first of the Balinese statues that greeted us at Ngurah Rai Airport.

Even from Tanjung Benoa beach, approximately 17 kilometers away from Badung and across a vast body of water, we could see the monument’s silhouette clearly defined against the skyline.

Balinese culture is heavily influenced by its emphasis on religion. You can see this in the prevalence of public statues. Statues of varying sizes line the streets everywhere in Bali, from life-sized mythological beings marking roundabouts on the road, to smaller creatures guarding the entrance of the local KFC.

A farmer made of rattan at the Tegalalang Rice Terraces.

Sculptural art has played a central role in religious worship all throughout history. In the Philippines, the earliest known forms of sculpture were the anitos, or the animistic carvings of the indigenous religions practiced by the ancestral Filipinos. These were later replaced by the santos during the Spanish colonial period, which became a major medium for the propagation of Christianity throughout the country.

Busts by National Artist for Sculpture Guillermo Tolentino, found at the National Museum.

Nowadays, Philippine sculpture can be found either housed in museums and galleries or among the few public monuments scattered throughout Metro Manila. Philippine sculptural practices are largely Westernized because of the American colonial period, and thus these monuments are fashioned after the Classical manner, lacking the ornamentation of the Balinese statues. 

But all the same, monuments are different from the more general statues. A monument to a national hero in any culture would be arguably less flashy than a statue depicting a multi-limbed humanoid Hindu deity. I found myself thinking, as I observed the abundance of Balinese public art, about the lack of the same back home. Art in the Philippines has become like an exclusive event, reserved for the middle to higher tiers of society. Sure, there are yearly events like Art in the Park that forgo entrance fees and attempt to provide a more open experience of contemporary art to the public, but they still remain mostly secluded and reserved for the people with easy access to these areas.

Large statues bordering the entrance to Tanah Lot temple.

Aside of ornate statues bordering the roads, I noticed how a lot of houses nearer the more provincial areas of Bali seemed to have their own individual statuary shrines for daily worship. There were also smaller temples in each of the villages we passed, each bearing statues and architecture that exhibited as much artistic craftsmanship as the giant ones we saw along the main roads. Since these temples were blocked off from the public, it really seemed like these ancient forms, which are real impressive and pretty for tourists, are an integral part of daily Balinese life.

At the Holy Springs Temple.
Rizal Monument at Luneta Park.

Maybe it’s our centuries of colonization, or the growing metropolonization of our cities, or a case of cultural amnesia, or all of the above. When one thinks of “Philippine culture,” there isn’t as clear a visual aesthetic with Bali. Our artistic heritage predating contemporary times seems largely separate from Filipino identity now. We see this in the lack of more accessible traditional art for the public, and in how the institutions and places that do preserve these forms remain, for the most part, in the shadow of more globally-oriented endeavors.

Do we need to see a statue of Jose Rizal towering over EDSA at every bus stop? Maybe not. But perhaps an increased presence of art in the Philippine psyche must begin with our own initiative to appreciate it. Fellow Filipino travelers in Bali were all ready to take pictures of the statues and do the mandatory yoga pose (guilty as charged!). Perhaps what we can do as tourists when we return home is carry just as much enthusiasm for our native bulul or for a Tolentino, just as we had for the statues and monuments of Bali.