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  • Studies in Southeast Asian Art: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. O'Connor
  • Robert L. Brown
Studies in Southeast Asian Art: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. O'Connor. Nora A. Taylor. Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2000. 243 pp, $28.00. ISBN 0-87727-728-1

Stanley J. O'Connor retired as professor of Southeast Asian art history at Cornell University in 1995. This volume contains articles by eleven of his former graduate students published in his honor. It is clear from these studies that Prof. O'Connor had a profound influence on these students, both in how they approach the study of material culture as well as personally, as it comes across how much the students like and respect him as a person. The intent in his teaching that so affects them in their own research interests is his desire to make the art come alive by relating it to the peoples and cultures who made it. Art is lived by the people.

The essays begin with a bibliographical sketch by Oliver Wolters. Prof. Wolters (who unfortunately died this last year) was an eminent historian of Southeast Asia and colleague of O'Connor's at Cornell. Again, one is struck by the care and affection that Wolters had for "Stan," who "has been no ordinary teacher and friend."

In part, perhaps, the desire to find art that can be spoken for by the people who made it has led O'Connor's students to work on modern material, to study things that are part of everyday life, or at least modern life, and for which we thus have the written and oral evidence to treat it as part of people's lives.

As the editor, Nora A. Taylor, writes in her Introduction:

Where previous art historical treatments of Southeast Asia have tended to concentrate on religious monuments and statuary, this volume should stand out for the virtual absence of any reference to stone structures and large temple complexes. O'Connor's students were encouraged to search in new places for "art." This emphasis has made the field of Southeast Asian art more diverse and, at the same time, changed it so that it no longer seems frozen or ossified. . . .

( p. 12)

We in the field may find it a bit of a shock to realize that what we have been doing is frozen and ossified. Taylor's whiff of hubris throughout her Introduction regarding how innovative her and her fellow students' work is, should not stand in the [End Page 145] way of how admirable the attempt is to find new areas of art historical exploration.

I can only briefly introduce the eleven essays here, using their order in the book. Kaja McGowan explores modern Balinese notions of landscape, particularly how naturally found tiny stones called manik retain the pre-Indic megalithic believes in a geography of power. McGowan, often writing in eloquent prose, shows caring sensitivity to her informants' opinions. Jan Mra¢zek views Indonesian wayang puppets and performance through the eyes of the puppeteer, arguing that the puppets must be seen as instruments rather than static museum objects (that is, as art historical objects). It seems to me, however, that the puppeteer brings such highly elite and refined knowledge, judgements of a true connoisseur, that an extremely narrow and scholarly view of the object is created rather than any popular understanding. In other words, such a view of the puppets is no more experiential for most people than is viewing the puppets in glass cases.

Two scholars focus on ceramics. Hilda Soemantri, a ceramic artist as well as art historian, traces the development of ceramic art in modern Indonesia, and Barbara Harrison classifies and interprets various ceramics, Chinese and Southeast Asian, found particularly in Borneo. Astri Wright writes about a contemporary female Indonesian painter, Lucia Hartini, tracing the development in her paintings. It is a story of art as well as personal biography, Haritini's paintings being interpreted primarily through interviews with the artist, connecting paintings of a particular time with the artist's life and experiences of that period. The artist and her work end "liberated, defiant, and strong," an empowered woman...


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