Melati Suryodarmo: Inside the heart and mind of Indonesia’s Renowned Performance Artist

Author: Denise Tsui 2020-03-09

On the occasion of seminal Indonesian contemporary performance artist Melati Suryodarmo’s first museum solo, CoBo Social Managing Editor Denise Tsui spoke with the artist about her approach to performance art, starting from the ground up and staying true to oneself.

Melati Suryodarmo is a renowned performance artist and a prominent figure of the Indonesian art circuit. Having trained for years under the highly acclaimed Marina Abramović, she reflects the teachings of The Abramovic Method—developed and coined by the Serbian artist as a methodology for performance art that “is an exploration of being present in both time and space.” One only need see Suryodarmo in action to understand this approach. The 50-year-old artist’s performance pieces are physically demanding, conceptually driven, meticulously researched and often tirelessly long in duration. Take Exergie ­– Butter Dance (2000) as an example; one of her most memorable works sees the artist literally dancing on blocks of butter for some 20 minutes. As the butter melts, the intensity of her physical struggle increases—she slips and falls, and gets back up again—and with each act, we are drawn deeper into her psychology. In a statement about this work, she wrote, “I was seduced to enter the specific moment… like [just] before I fall down. This [is] a moment where all my consciousness controls my body, but at the same time the risk [is] unpredictable.”

Suryodarmo is part of a rare breed of performance artists; one that I believe reflects performance art in its purest form. Performance art should be seen neither as just a choreographed sequence, nor simply an improvised act. Too often, performance art is misunderstood and taken for granted, even by the artist. The most captivating and successful of performance art is only achieved when the artist becomes the work—and this is precisely what Suryodarmo does. This is also the philosophy by which she teaches eager students and participants.

“It’s just interesting to give a workshop to the performers who are doing the delegated performances, because most of them perform for longer than one hour, and many of them are very interested, very keen to try and very much giving their energy to focus on the performances. Because it’s not about playing a role, it’s about becoming the work,” said the artist.

Exhibiting performance art has always been one of those slippery areas because it permeates time and space with only a fleeting existence. Presentation of archival documents tends to be the main method by which we study and consume performance art in its aftermath.

Now, in her first ever museum solo exhibition, “Why Let The Chicken Run” at Museum MACAN in Jakarta, visitors not only get a chance to delve into Suryodarmo’s process and influences of the past two decades but also to experience 12 selected performances over the course of 13 weeks including Exergie – Butter Dance and Why Let The Chicken Run (2001), the namesake of the exhibition which sees the artist chase a black rooster around the gallery space, symbolizing the relentless pursuits of life.

Charcoal, a favourite medium of the artist is the energy force of Suryodarmo’s 12-hour performance I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2012), the artist stands in the middle of a pool of charcoal, grinding and crushing blocks of charcoal on a table. Mesmerizing to watch and hauntingly beautiful, the performance is a test of physical endurance and psychological perseverance. As the grinded charcoal turns to dust and soot, this powerful material loses its life force and energy, reflecting the ephemerality of our own lives.

Speaking via phone before the exhibition opening weekend, Suryodarmo said, “As you know, I started from zero. I began my career from the underground, from the grassroots. I did not begin my career in the gallery.” While performing arts has deep roots in traditional Javanese arts and culture, conceptual performance art, as we know it, is a relatively new and foreign concept in Indonesia. Painting and sculpture were more widely accepted forms of fine arts, particularly from an economic standpoint, yet for Suryodarmo, she never considered relying on her performance art to pay her bills. With a laugh, she explained how it surprised her that people would purchase photographs of her performances. Yet, she insisted, such collectible aspects are not a central thought. “Even if I make the performance and then if there are photos that I’m not happy with, I don’t make additions of the photos. Sometimes there are no photos and no videos. Even in this exhibition, some of the videos shown are only for the archive and not for additions because I don’t think it’s good enough.”

The exhibition at Museum MACAN is thus, bridging the prevailing knowledge gap and the mystic that surrounds performance art. Suryodarmo’s practice conceptually draws on research into various traditional Javanese art forms as well as Japanese dance theatre Butoh, yet the end result rarely explicitly exposes its source of tradition. But this process and method is “maybe another kind of perspective that I can offer to the contemporary art public,” she told me.


Article courtesy of CoBo Social: https://www.cobosocial.com/dossiers/melati-suryodarmo-performance-artist/

Related Artists:
Melati SURYODARMO
Related Exhibitions:
Melati Suryodarmo: Why Let the Chicken Run?