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Pretty Viscera: Davina Stephens at Ganesha Gallery

by Susi, 21 December 2008

Sri Lankan Swell

Something profound happened at the opening reception for Davina Stephens’ exhibition entitled “This Side of Paradise” (Ganesha Gallery, Four Seasons Resort Jimbaran, 18 December).  What happened is perhaps best voiced by considering the contrasts in Davina’s most recent work. On the one hand these are images that could be, and have been, called soft, sentimental and decorative. On the other, they expose dark and visceral themes that are deeply disturbing.

They are about seeing and not seeing. About the elephant in the room. Or the bleeding elephant in the room with tusks torn out. Or perhaps it is only the ghost of an elephant in the room that we are seeing. Or not seeing.

In the room at the Ganesha Gallery we see a profoundly convivial gathering of Bali old-timers, thinkers, lovers, lotus-eaters, if you will. We are gathered with some of the warmest, most compassionate, and most creative creatures that inhabit the international social blur of Bali. Paradise dwellers, you might say.

We had Susanna Perini of Biasa, Bruce and Carolla Carpenter with their enchanting offspring Avalon and Allegra (who had just flown in from a fashion shoot in California). We had Simonetta of Quarzia wearing one of her own slitheringly soft silk creations, as was Davina, incidentally, and looking divine in it (below). And not to draft a directory here of the most chronically creative and optimistic denizens of Bali, I’ll just say the gathering was one of kindred spirits, and you’ll know who they all are. Oh, lest one forget, we had the ineffably charming Jean-Francoi Fichot, wafting a scent of India into our midst along with visions of a paradise garden block printed on his mousseline shirt.

The notion of a paradise garden was thematic in gallery curator Bruce Carpenter’s introduction of Davina. We were reminded that the word “paradise” comes from Arabic, signifying the desert oasis dream garden, dripping with flowers and fruit and fountains within its high walls. But what paradise are we in here? How high are its walls? Bruce, like all of us, has been stricken deeply, stricken almost dumb during recent months, by the dramatic twists and turns of our times, and the sense of darkness threatening, of demons unleashed, of long overlooked fatal flaws in our awareness, now cracking open and ripping worlds apart.

This moment, as eloquently evoked in Bruce’s speech, also contains the potential for transformation. We know this by the common feeling that arose during the evening at Ganesha Gallery, under the frangipani trees softly burdened by a heavy moonless sky, overlooking Jimbaran Bay, with woven palm leaf pendants garlanding the terrace where glasses of effervescence were graciousy passed by sympathetic attendants.

We suddenly felt all of us at once, compassion and care for each other, some comfort, and a simultaneous sense of rekindled love for this troubled and magical island we have had the great good fortune to inhabit for so many years. With Bali’s glimering sparks of magic now so obviously threatened, we suddenly see things as they are, with a jolt. We feel like dreamers shaken awake, still woozy, into the Real World, more aware than ever of how beautiful was the dream, and how indelible it remains even after waking. Was the dream in fact more real than waking is?

That dream is precious to us all, and it continues to exist, in truth, verifiably, and we all cherish it, and treasure its lingering scent more than we ever treasured the dream while we dreamt it. That dream is our shared Bali. And Davina knows it organically in every cell of her body. It’s not a Bali that everyone knew, or knows or will ever know. I suppose you really have to eat the lotuses.

Back to Davina’s recent work. The canvases are at first glance, pastel confections with an immediate charm, and this is the point where some people stopped, after a mere glance, and uttered the pejorative term, “decorative.” Yes, these works on superficial examination are undeniably pretty. But no, they are not merely “pretty.”

For one to overlook the darkness, the threat, the blood and viscera and complexity and conflict in these paintings is as foolish as we have all been for so long, blithely sidestepping the elephant in the room, the hidden horrors lurking behind the veil of prosperity, the viscera and blood beneath the shimmering surface of “paradise.” Of any paradise.

Spiritual Runway, by Davina Stephens

In this most recent oeuvre we see a lot of airplanes, and images of traditional “naive” Bali waifs beckoning to them or contemplating them. Bruce voiced the obvious phallic symbolism of the planes, which is undeniable. And we all chuckled. Davina has never been prudish or repressed, we all know that. Of course the airplanes are phallic, but that’s no secret, and nor did Bruce treat it as a significant revelation.

The other obvious interpretation for the airplanes is the invasion, yea the penetration, of the mechanised modern metal world into a softer and more gentle one. This interpretation is as valid as the first, of course. And just as obvious. The frisson of constant contact between the “last paradise” version of Bali and the brutally brash “outside world” is thematic on this island, almost everywhere you look or listen or think, and it has been for at least a century. Still no satisfactory stance or solution has yet arisen, so perhaps there is none. The frisson continues, but now it’s scratching deep, even ripping through the surface of our the flesh. Now look again at Davina’s recent work. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s some heavy shit going on here, no doubt about it.

Balinese women beckon to airplanes in a work by Davina Stephens, exhibited at the Ganesh Gallery, Four Seasons Resort, Jimbaran, Bali.

And it’s not just about ships and cars and busses and jetliners and garbage on a collision course with an idealised island culture. We can clearly see a depiction of the power and fragility of the Feminine: Dewi Sri the fertility goddess, ripped-open canvas sewn up like a barrier, sensuous curving lines of topless Balinese nymphs, then flowers, shells, and traditional women’s coiffures morphing into splatters of blood. And we see the dynamic thrust and irresistible fascination of the Masculine: the airplanes, the vehicles, industry, machines rushing forward, metal and more. What’s going on here is complex, subtle and challenging.

And like the truth usually is, it is something that can be conveniently overlooked, say, by those who choose one of Davina’s works only because it’s pretty, and decorative, and the pastel colours go with their curtains. What a subversive and beguiling creature this divine Davina is, and one who deserves, yet never demands, our admiration.

During the course of the evening, Deidre Robertson (founder of Kaivalya, those makers of magic pouches for all your treasures and secrets), voiced an interesting observation. She noticed that the airplanes and ships and traffic in Davina’s paintings appear as ghosts, as illusions, or mere allusions, as “not seen.” Deirdre likened this to certain moments in history when great ships arrived on the shores inhabited by people who had never seen or imagined something like a ship, and they did not “see” the ships at all. As we cannot “see” the unimaginable.

I went back and looked at Davina’s paintings on the walls again, and then into the gallery back room to look at more that were not hung (Ganesha Gallery is sadly, very small). Some of the works that did not make it to the walls were even stronger statements, by the way, and you can see them now at Ganesha, or online at Davina’s site.

The ship not seen . . .

After looking again, I had to agree with Deidre’s observation. The “real” Balinese people in these images evidently do not “see” the planes and ships and impending collisions of elements. And we have not “seen” the impending collisions that were about to occur in our world, and now have begun to occur. We could not “see” the unimaginable, even when it was right in front of our faces, any more than those historic island people could “see” the foreign ships arriving. I asked Deidre, “Now, imagine what we are not ‘seeing’ at this very moment. What are the invisible airplanes about to land and disgorge something uncontrollable in our lives right now? What are the bleeding elephants in the room?”

She volunteered that our “invisible airplanes” are the UFOs around us, that we’re not “seeing,” and cited the Disclosure Project whereby governments are releasing their UFO reports to the public. Possibly. But I think we may have other invisible airplanes to learn to see, before they crash down onto our villas and hotels and golf courses and beaches. And these ones are not aircraft of any kind, identified, identifiable or otherwise.

Later that night, having completely forgotten the exhibition after a complex dinner at the Bulgari Resort, I went to bed and had an airplane crash dream. I hadn’t thought much about Davina’s paintings before the dream, and then all of the thoughts you have just read here lurched into the light. The dream was the most vivid airplane crash dream I have had yet. Without warning the plane suddenly pitched forward and down, twisting, and everyone began to panic. I consciously stayed calm and had what I can only describe as a Peter Weir “Fearless” moment. Remember that movie? With Jeff Bridges as Max the architect who cannot be killed? Go get the DVD, it’s a good one. I’m a big Peter Weir fan, by the way.

Jimbaran Bay Today

The moment we had at Ganesha Gallery was a bit like Max in the crash. Even Bruce remarked that there was a group-trancelike common bond that evening, as people bond in a shared crisis or disaster. I gazed at Davina’s “Jimbaran Bay Today”, where the waters run blood red, conjuring up memories of the suicide bombs on Jimbaran Beach a few years back. In this particular picture, the fading ghosts of Bali’s spirits, of the Bhatara-Bhatari overlay the whole picture, and dominate the sky, while the airplane is drawn stiffly and still, like a mere sketch of an irrelevant illusion. The hurly burly of the airport, the folderol of touristic frenzy, the surfing and the general busy-ness of such things happen at the centre of the picture, in a sea of blood. And the viewpoint from which the artist considers this busy and bloody business of paradise, is the Four Seasons Resort Jimbaran. It is the viewpoint from the Ganesha Gallery terrace where we toasted Davina’s latest efforts to enchant and disturb us, to liberate us from the lotus stupor that both enchants and imprisons us.

The charmed sunset linger’d low adown
In the red West: thro’ mountain clefts the dale
Was seen far inland, and the yellow down
Border’d with palm, and many a winding vale
And meadow, set with slender galingale;
A land where all things always seem’d the same!
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.

From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lotos Eaters
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