THE INDONESIAN ISLAND OF BALI isn’t (yet) an art-world hotspot. “It’s like you are coming to the forest with us before all the trees are cut,” joked Esti Dewi, the wife of artist Filippo Sciascia, hinting at the promise for industry scouts. Nested in a vacant joglo (a traditional Javanese house) containing intricate folk treasures, Kayu, the Balinese branch of conceptual “art employer” Lucie Fontaine, was launching its fifth project. “Ritiro” (retreat) opened at the beginning of last month and then moved on to Java’s Gereja Ayam, or Chicken Church—the weirdest of the anti-white-cube spaces on the tour. (At Sciascia’s studio, Honold Fine Art popped up a group show sharing five of the “Ritiro” artists, making for a sort of parallel—or competing—program of sorts.)
Just prior to the vernissage, offerings were made to a priest to alleviate the torrential rains flooding the roads. It seemed to work, and timid rays of sunshine greeted artists Ashley Bickerton and Bepi Ghiotti and collector Edo Jansen. We lolled around in the wooden joglo, trying to make sense of the seemingly unrelated works by Bickerton, Sciascia, Jumaldi Alfi, Lupo Borgonovo, Marco Cassani (coincidently, Kayu’s curator), Patrizio Di Massimo, Agnieszka Kurant, and Entang Wiharso, among others. Curator Nicola Trezzi presented The Nine Talismans, a book that loosely lists cases of relinquished or blurred authorships in art. Examples included Marisa Merz’s uncredited work in Mario Merz’s installations and Piotr Uklański’s September 2003 Artforum ad featuring Alison Gingeras’s ass. We were left to embrace the relational randomness among environment, discourse, and contents, but locals were grateful for new art-world blood, and visitors were excited to explore paradisiac Bali.
The days passed as slow as island life as the first batch of international visitors withdrew and the second trickled in. Kurant and Di Massimo showed up just in time for Cassani to show them his project and pack it for Java. After a day of visiting the temples of Tanah Lot, Goa Gajah, and Gunung Kawi, and an evening of Ramayana shadow puppets in a village courtyard that thrilled Madeline Hollander—on site to assist Kurant—some of us decided to make a day-trip to Bickerton’s creepy-whimsical mansion on the island’s south end. At home, the artist-surfer generously dispensed his high-spirited sarcastic wisdom: “Pubic hair, nobody does that anymore?” He winked admiringly, eyeing Di Massimo’s perverse-naive paintings on the Italian artist’s phone. “It’s not just a rip-off of Ugo Rondinone,” he added self-deprecatingly about his own new series before explaining: “I started those in the ’80s.”
The next day it was time to fly to Java to see “more strange magic,” as Werner Herzog put it in Into the Inferno. Herzog got many things right about Java, but he was wrong to describe the Chicken Church as Roman Catholic. “It’s neither a church, nor a chicken,” Cassani said. “It’s more like a dove,” someone suggested, eyeing the bird-shaped compound. Some explanation came from its founder, Daniel Alamsjah, who I ran into in the basement between a communal Muslim prayer room and a solitary monk’s cell. “I was praying one day, when I had a calling: to build a house for all, for all the prayers of all the nations,” he said, spreading his arms in the air. “Ritiro”’s incongruous group of works enjoyed more gravitas in the new venue. This was especially true of Kurant’s The End of Signature; once a projection on the facade of the Guggenheim, it is now a fierce neon ornamenting the dove’s neck. Alamsjah seemed very happy, as were the rest of us when we sat down to sip fresh coconuts and enjoy views of the valley.
“Let’s celebrate! If you celebrate life, life celebrates you,” exclaimed the irresistible Gwen Theresa The, an aspiring collector who performed in both Bali and Java inside Di Massimo’s work What Resists Persists, a mound of crumbling cushions from which emerges a hand or a foot. The buoyant The treated us to bubbly on the terrace of the Amanjiwo Resort, with panoramic views of Borobudur’s temple. The entertainment piled up: Deddy Irianto organized a dinner at the Plataran Borobudur resort, where I ran into artist Wimo Ambala Bayang while rushing back to Jogja for a presentation by Sigit Pius Kuncoro, curator of the upcoming biennial there. After supper, collectors Emmo and Narcissi Italiaander invited our group for a nightcap tour of their beautiful house.
“Why did they make it only one day?” many asked about the brevity of the show at the Chicken Church. “Because Kayu envisioned it as a dream—it’s here, and ‘Poof!’ it disappears,” Cassani said. I preferred artist Jimmy Ong’s explanation: “It’s out of a Pasolini movie—you go to see the big ship from a paddle boat, clap your hands, and you’re back on shore.” Poof!