Culture / Art

Performance artists from Indonesia: Learning more about inner beauty with Melati Suryodarmo and her art

Suryodarmo’s stunning body of work includes ‘Butter Dance’, where the artist fell again and again while dancing on butter

Feb 19, 2017 | By Carla Bianpoen
'I am Your Otherness', Melati Suryodarmo.

‘I am Your Otherness’, Melati Suryodarmo.

Melati Suryodarmo is Indonesia’s long-durational performance artist par excellence. The artist was born in a small village of Surakarta, Solo, in Central Java. Her father, who came from a family of diamond and batik traders, became a well-respected teacher of Amerta, a form of meditative dance. Her mother, a traditional dancer who had her own teacher, initiated Melati into the genre. From an early age, Melati was immersed in a world of various forms of art and culture and diverse ways of meditation, including samara, which is a local form of meditation that develops sensitivity and acceptance through deep relaxation of body, feelings and mind. This helped her cope when her mother got sick and died of cancer.

Becoming an artist had not been in her early list of desires. She discovered her crush for theatre and film in Bandung where she pursued studies of international relations at the Universitas Padjadjaran. When she moved to Germany in 1994 with her husband, a chance encounter with renowned Japanese Butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa on a lone walk in the park proved to be life changing. She encouraged Melati to trust her body and to deal with it through dance. “She also encouraged me to do research in creating art, carefully choreograph it, and manage the production from basic means,” says Melati.

Furukawa, a professor of performance art at the department of visual arts at Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig, Germany, persuaded her to follow her class at the university. It was the beginning of Melati’s engagement with performance art and her interest in her body as the source and store room of life.

Since the late 1990s, Melati has taken part in exhibitions all over the world, including the Venice Biennale, Manifesta, the Incheon Biennale in Korea, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, amongst others. It is however only in the last decade that she regularly performed in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Singapore.

Melati’s earlier performances directly related to her personal life. They eventually expanded to explore cultural, social and political concerns, which she articulates through her psychological and physical body. She achieves this by integrating elements of physical presence with visual art to talk about identity, energy, politics and relationships between the body and the environments surrounding it.

The artist performed her famous ‘Butter Dance’ or ‘Exergie’ at the Goethe Institut Jakarta in 2006, following its debut in 2000 in Europe. In ‘Exergie’, Melati offers a contemplation on the ups and downs of her life that took her from her country to the centre of Europe and how she persevered despite the culture shock. Accompanied by atonal music from Makassan drums, Melati wears a tight black dress and red stiletto heels, and slowly steps on 20 bars of butter placed on the floor. Dancing on the butter appears to be increasingly difficult as the butter melts. Breaking her balance, she falls several times. The scene soon changes from something comical for the audience to one of near unbearable tension, with the audience missing a heartbeat every time she falls. But time and again she manages to stand up, remaining unhurt. Later, Melati reveals that the most important thing here, as in life, is to keep one’s awareness sharp and catch the right moment during the fall to protect oneself from getting hurt. The artist writes: “accident is just one moment/ silence is just one moment/ happiness is just one moment/ this is just one moment/ of being caught by the moment”.

Two years later in Jakarta, at the SIGI gallery opening in 2008, her performance ‘I Love You’ was equally heart-breaking. She was again dressed in a tight black dress, wearing high heels. During nearly three hours, intense, poised, and indomitable, she held a heavy glass plate weighing 40kg which she shuffled, pushed, shifted and held on to. As if in a ritual, she moved slowly and constantly, crawling and pushing her limits in poetic grandeur, mostly whispering and at times hissing the words “I Love You”. The piece was again performed in 2011 in Istanbul.

It seems that her works increasingly highlight the human psyche. One such example was the staunch 13-hour performance of ‘I Am A Ghost In My Own House’, which was first staged at Bandung Lawangwangi Gallery, then at Singapore Art Museum (SAM), relating to the shifting notion of the house as a home. In this duration performance piece, Melati crushes and grinds hundreds of kilogrammes of charcoal briquettes into powder and dust. For the artist, charcoal represents life in a comparison to the passage from tree to wood, to charcoal and its energy that can both strengthen and destroy.

While crushing and grinding the charcoal, Melati lets go of everything that has been bothering her peace of mind, including the clashing cultures and daily obstacles she has experienced. The audience gets to feel her alienation, sadness, tiredness and uncertainty, as the performance grinds them down along with the charcoal. It is a process of liberation, and of catharsis. This was particularly felt at SAM when she continued grinding as dusk set in, and the performance took on a surrealistic quality: a haunting figure, dramatically set against the white balcony at dusk. The artist’s indomitable inner power was palpable.

The artist’s performance at the Singapore Biennale 2016, ‘Behind the Light’, brings home the memory of masks in traditional dance. At the same time, it reminds us that we all wear masks in our daily engagements and encounters, switching masks as the situations and people we face change. Responding to the Biennale’s theme of mirrors, Melati shows us how we all desire to look good, as evident in the selfies we like to take against backgrounds of importance or together with friends. At the same time, there is a staggering reality behind the mirror, making us aware that our real selves are not as smooth as we might want.

Melati uses a double-sided mirror; one side reflects the faces of the audience when the light is on, but switches when the light is off to show Melati in a small room performing her ‘ritual’. At the vernissage, she did so twice during three hours, repetitively bowing to the piece of paper on a red covered desk. The bow, she said later, was also an Eastern gesture of reverence to the public. After stamping her face on the paper, she held it, sometimes holding it in front of her face, covering it, and at other times tilting her face dramatically upwards.

Myths and traditional culture mix to become a powerful source of inspiration for works that fascinate and evoke a spirit that may come over as alien, surreal and yet are firmly related to contemporary culture. “The world that inspires me to move my thoughts is the world inside me. The body becomes like a home which functions as container of memories, living organism. The system inside the psychological body that changes all the time has enriched my idea to develop new structures of attitude and thoughts,” expresses Melati, “I try to perceive my surroundings as the fact of the real presence of now, but considering the path of its history. I try to understand the language that are not spoken, and opens the door of perceptions. I respect the freedom in our minds to perceive things coming through our individual sensory register system.”

The artist’s conceptual frame comes to mind again when observing her latest works. ‘Transaction of Hollows’ was performed in Denmark in October 2016. Invoked by desolation at the state of politics and society, Melati lets go of her frustration by shooting hundreds of arrows without a specific target in a small closed venue. In four four-hourly performances, she shot a total of 800 arrows. Repetition and monotony helped to let thoughts rest and indulge in a state of nothingness.

In the same month at the Berlin KunstForum, Melati performed a ‘witch dance’ as part of a project by Lilith Studio to explore the term ‘witch’ in pioneer choreographer-dancer Mary Wigman’s ‘Hexentanz’ of 1926. Melati’s ‘Your Otherness – I’ve Never Been So East’ denotes Melati’s quest to dissect and understand the term, whose meaning has changed over time and in different cultures. Using signs and elements from her own culture like the mask and dance movements, she basically and symbolically states in fact that there is hardly any barrier to separate cultures.

With an ever expanding network across countries, the bases and scope for Melati’s art explorations and experimentations are also widening, though the body remains the ‘home’ from which she ventures. The significance of such transformative performance artworks is gaining momentum in society, and Melati is trying to share her experience, knowledge and network with the younger generation in Indonesia and beyond. To this end, she works with cross-cultural artists and cross-national art institutions at Padepokan Lemah Putih Solo Indonesia, where she has been organising an annual Performance Art Laboratory Project since 2007.

As Melati proceeds on her path of redefining the inner world by including the wider world, she spreads the spirit of hope around her and in the world, and this may be the all-important significance of her art.

This article was first published in Art Republik.