What’s Going On With The GWK Statue?

Conceived in 1989, the GWK Garuda Wisnu statue project has weathered delays, financial crises and the death of its original benefactors. Yet work has once again started on the 75 metre project which, when completed will stand taller than America’s Statue of Liberty. Richard Horstman investigates its progress.

A unique visual and symbolic icon is in the making on Bali. Upon completion it will be a world first, a 75-meter-high Garuda Wisnu statue positioned atop of an enormous pedestal, with a total height of 126 meters, and a wingspan of 64 meters.

Yet for its creator, the internationally renowned Balinese sculptor Nyoman Nuarta, the saga of this extraordinary project stretches back over 25 years. For now, it appears as an eyesore upon the landscape of Bali’s southern Pecatu Bukit peninsula. It’s story begins in 1989 with Joop Ave (1934-2014), then the Indonesian Director General of Tourism and Communications, and his vision to build a landmark as the symbol of humankind’s journey into the new millennium.

The concept of the statue, along with the Garuda Wisnu Kencana (GWK) Cultural Park was devised by the GWK Foundation, a group comprised of two ministers of the then Suharto government, including Ave, Nuarta and a few individuals and businessmen close to President Suharto.  Nuarta was then commissioned by Suharto to build a giant statue at GWK of the Hindu God Wisnu perched upon the back of his sacred cosmic vehicle, the mythical Garuda bird.

“I chose the image of Garuda and Wisnu as a symbol of courage and loyalty,” said Nuarta, who was born in Tabanan in 1951, and went on to study sculpture in Bandung, West Java. “The Balinese consider Wisnu as the preserver of life, responsible for the cosmic balance and harmony of all life. The statue represents a universal calling to all global citizens to play their part in nurturing and protecting Mother Earth.”

“Its development, however, has had to sustain the paralysing effects of a political regime change, a nationwide financial crisis, conflicts within the project’s management structures, and more.”

From the outset the idea was met with controversy; Balinese religious authorities objected that statue’s immense size would disturb the spiritual balance of the island. Originally planned to be 146 meters tall, its height was reduced by 20 meters. Upon completion it will be 30 meters taller than America’s Statue of Liberty, and its volume will be 11 times greater.

Problems began to emerge almost as soon as construction started early in 1997 with the original budget estimate of IDR400 billion ballooning out by hundreds of billions of rupiah. Then it came to an abrupt halt in July when the Indonesian economy collapsed in the Asian Financial Crisis, shadowed by the fall of the Suharto government in May 1998. More complexities followed, including problems between GWK investors.

After a 16-year delay an extra IDR450 billion in finance was committed and in August 2013 another chapter in the statue’s construction began, only to be paused early in 2015. Since last year however, its progress has been steady. Constructed at Nuarta’s Bandung workshop with the aid of 200 personnel from various academic and cultural backgrounds, the sculpture and the stainless steel framework have been cut into hundreds of components and then transported overland by 400 individual truck journeys to Bali.

Situated upon the windy Ungasan escarpment unpredictable weather is one of the obstacles to the statue’s installation. As of recently 160 out of 754 modules of its outer skin made of copper and brass sheeting — each weighing on average 800 kilograms — have been mounted.

According to the schedule the sculpture should be finished in March 2019. There has however, been a request from the government that it is finished in time for the IMF-World Bank Meeting to be held in Bali in October 2018.

“We can meet this target,” Nuarta said, “If there is assistance from the state or other parties for the procurement of expensive scaffolding equipment that is crucial in the installation.”

The saga continues.