Reviews/Perth Festival/Visual Art

Tragedy at the heart of paradise

16 February 2021

Leyla Stevens’ exhibition ‘Dua Dunia’ brings idyllic Bali’s painful and brutal past sharply into focus, Miranda Johnson discovers.

‘Dua Dunia’, Perth Festival, Leyla Stevens ·
PS Art Space, 15 February, 2021 ·

As its title suggests, Leyla Stevens’ exhibition, “Dua Dunia” – dual worlds – deals with Bali’s contrasts: the past and the present, remembering and forgetting, loss and survival, and, more explicitly, peaceful holiday paradise and scene of political massacre.

Stevens is an Australian-Balinese artist and in this Perth Festival exhibition of film, photographs and objects she presents us with an immersive and contemplative experience. At its heart it deals with the mass graves and lasting trauma of the anti-Communist purges in Bali in the mid-60s, which were perhaps the most violent of all the mass-killings in Indonesia.

The main part of Stevens’ show is Kidung, a three-channel video work. Its central channel features footage of the Balinese-born performance artist, writer and activist Cok Sawitri singing a mournful ballad. The other two channels take the viewer to a twisted banyan tree growing at the site of a mass grave in Bali, the result of the unreconciled and unspeakable violence of the 1965-66 anti-Communist purges. Images of the twisted banyan trunks on either side create a contemplative space, immersing you fully in the works.

Cok Sawitri’s song of mourning and memory draws you in, but also leaves you aware of your presence as a viewer from outside. She never acknowledges the presence of the camera or looks directly at it, remaining absorbed in her song. The camera often focuses on her face, creating a sense of almost uncomfortable intimacy, before slowly panning out. Similarly, the images of the banyan tree also go from micro to macro, with close-up footage of the twisted trunk switching to a wider view of the expanse of its foliage, a forest of leaves.

As curator Rachel Ciesla notes in her essay about the exhibition, the banyan tree has a complex significance. It’s known as a “strangler tree” because as its seeds land on branches of other trees, they germinate, take root and slowly expand, suffocating the host tree and taking it over from the inside out. Able to live for hundreds of years, the banyan remains witness to unspeakable violence, resistance and survival over human history.

A damaging presence but also deeply revered in cultures across the world, the banyan is a fitting metaphor for the way that deeply painful histories of massacre, loss and displacement can also slowly strangle and suffocate survivors over the years.

Lastly, “Dua Dunia” is also a reminder that acknowledging loss and honouring it through survival isn’t easy, neat or linear, but an ongoing work of remembering, listening and bearing witness.

‘Dua Dunia’ is on at PS Art Space in Fremantle until Friday, 27 February, 2021.

Pictured top: In the video installation, ‘Kidung’, Cok Sawitri is shown singing a lament to the Balinese killed in political massacres in the 1960s. Photo: Leyla Stevens

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Author —
Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a curator and writer who has worked for various contemporary arts institutions, co-founded Cool Change Contemporary and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories. Miranda’s favourite aspect of the playground is getting the chance to meet as many dogs as possible.

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