- Dancing Shadows, Epic Tales: Wayang Kulit of Indonesia
Much about Javanese wayang kulit (leather shadow puppets) is normally lost in translation into the context of Western art institutions. Wayang is a unified art that includes music/song, visual design, movement/dance, and powerful storytelling. In the American or European context, owing to the specializations within our cultural institutions, the whole of wayang is seldom communicable: we usually chose one strand, be it music, the visuals, or, less routinely, the story. Our universities (for example Cal Arts, Wesleyan) present wayang, but in the context of a music department concert in which the narrative, sabatan (movement), and full theatrically charged event are adumbrated in the musical ensemble's annual concert and concert hall stages create chasms that are hard for the spectators to breach—even when invited to the other side of the screen. Museums mount visual displays—I myself have done some—with the puppets fixed in the installation and the focus directed toward the detail of the figure or its shadow. This allows us to see the individual figure, but the whole of the spectacle is lost as the object becomes isolated, losing the context of the performance.
Felicia Katz-Harris's exhibit at the Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art was one of the most successful displays of wayang kulit—and of puppetry in general—that I have seen for its overall design, which put the moving performance literally in the center. Admittedly this was a film rather than a live performance, but the effect of being in the gallery was very much like being at a wayang. In the center of the display was the puppet screen. From [End Page 394] two sides digital projections played on the screen of a performance of Mas Midiyanto (who teaches gamelan at UC-Berkeley) and his Javanese ensemble, Gamelan Murti Raras. Felicia Katz-Harris, as curator, had filmed the performance in Java. Viewers could watch the show from the back of the screen (as they did when they entered the gallery), glancing over the ornately carved kotak (puppet box) and gamelan instruments at Kyai Muncar Sir (Venerable Sparkling) watching the dalang (puppet master) dancing the figures (Figure 1). The gamelan was borrowed from Wesleyan University and was a set that came to the United States as part of the Indonesia display at the 1964 New York World's Fair.
Though there were no players, the viewer had the illusion that she heard these very instruments through a recording, and kiosks explained the instrumentation as well. Having watched the dalang's manipulation on this side of the screen, the viewer could cross around the gamelan and watch from the back of the screen, where synchronized projection showed the shadow side of the exact same performance (Figure 2).
This choice made the action on this screen the central axis of the exhibit. The arrangement of actual puppets in the ornamental rise from smaller to larger on each side of the screen's playing space focused the viewer toward the film with its dancing figures and shadows. Viewers were not locked into the single perspective of seeing that is often implicit in Western museum design and wall display, which privileges a certain view (picture frames and proscenium views are of course about controlling and focusing sightlines).
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Instead, the viewer, in a relaxed manner, could rotate around the wayang installation—free to chose her viewpoint. The multiple wayang figures hanging on walls or standing panels around this central display created alternative objects on which the viewer could focus. The setup reminded me of a wayang performance, where one can chose to watch the performance or wander to food stalls, impromptu gambling...