Mystery Object

Tabing temple painting depicting ‘The
Abduction of Sita’ from the Hindu epic,
‘Ramayana’. Painted probably by artist
Kak Lui (c.1860-1930) in 1930s in
Kamasan. AM Balinese Collection E74186.
Image: Howard Hughes/ Australian Museum

This brass cylinder is made distinctive by the incisions of figures that resemble reliefs from temples or medieval goblets. Roughly a meter high, the object is shaped like a lighthouse, with a conical head that detaches from the neck. The shape of a lotus bud is inscribed at the tip of this head which can also be seen as the bald face of a mountain. Without the conical head you can see this object’s round mouth and sharply drooping shoulders that fall on a rather stout body. At the bottom, two circular indentations mark the center like a target or a butthole. The images incised on every square millimeter of the object’s shiny surface vary in size from hairline scratches to dents as wide as a penny. The way the light caresses the embossed figures gives an illusion of moonlight on water or the provocative curves and swells of a High Baroque edifice. The object can be imagined as a vase, an urn, or simply a vessel which on the inside might contain anything from liquids to powder or Pringles chips. The overside also contains not things but narrative figures in intimate interlocking arrangements that trap both light and shadow. There is an unwavering elegance in the way the brass object exudes both the strength and the fragility of the figures that decorate its surface. Squint your eye long enough and you might imagine the flying monster flapping its wings and the regal-looking woman tussling and kicking and screaming but with a mysterious hint of lyrical innocence and pleasure. Beneath this scene of an abduction are waves that look like protruding tongues or spirals of hair, which emerge from a sea of fire. On the various ridges and cast shadows, the figural etchings taunt us to search for the contours of a face. So strong is our impulse to anthropomorphise the object, we conclude that the cylinder is like a man: it has a head, a body, a mouth, an inside, an outside, and depth, though missing some limbs.