by Adeline Ooi
Kuala Lumpur, 2008
“Although am not living in my home country, my home is where I am, I feel at home here and there. Or, I could feel I am not at home, even when I am at home.
The home is the center, inside myself. Home is when I am in my center.”
Germany-based Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo is recognised today for her long durational performances using the body and its environment to create what she calls 'a concentrated level of intensity'. She has performed widely around the world, with recent participation in the Venice Biennale Dance Festival (2007), Videobrasil Sao Paolo (2005), “Spaces and Shadows”, Haus der
Kulturen der Welt Berlin (2005), “Wind from the East”, KIASMA Helsinki (2007),
“Manifesta 7”, Bolzano Italy (2008) as well as shows in New York, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Bali, Singapore, Sydney, Yogyakarta and Kuala Lumpur.
Born in 1969 to a family of artists, Suryodarmo studied Javanese dance from the tender age of 8 with one of Solo's dance maestros, Mr. Ngaliman. Around the same time, she also enrolled with Mr. Soenarso, where she learnt combined Tai Chi movement with Javanese gamelan.“I grew up in an absolutely unconventional and chaotic artist family…As my parents were busy with their own study, they would send me to different activities and classes to occupy my time. My parents also sent me to learn Sumarah meditation –a form of Javanese meditation; although I was too young to attend the meditation sessions, it was the best place I could go to find psychological solace during the difficult years when my mother was ill and later passed away."
From 1994-2001, she attended the Hoshschule fuer Bildende Kueste in Braunschweig, Germany where she studied under renowned Japanese Butoh choreographer Anzu Furukawa and later with acclaimed Seventies performance pioneer Marina Abramovic. Since then, she has continued her postgraduate program under the tutelage of Marina Abramovic where she has continued to develop a performance vocabulary that is as intense and challenging as her predecessors.
“Exergie –Butter Dance”, one of the most memorable performances in the artist’s impressive oeuvre, has graced numerous international performance events in Europe since its debut at “Visible Differences“ at Hebbel Theater in Berlin in 2000. Recent performances were also seen in Australia and Asia, in particular at “The Flying Circus Project” in Singapore in 2007. Wearing a black cocktail dress and red shoes, the artist walks into the space and steps on the 20 blocks of butter. Accompanied by Makassar drum beats, she starts dancing, then falling, crashing on the floor, gets up and remains continuously on the verge of standing, slipping and falling on the butter-greasy dance floor. An accompanying text reads:
There are moments
Which I never expect to happen
Which explodes when I lose my senses
Which creates emptiness when I hope for fulfilment
Accident is just one moment
Of being caught by the moment
Silence is just one moment
Happiness is just one moment
This is just one moment
Butter is significant to the artist, as it has changed her physique tremendously since relocating to Germany. Tinged with a dark sense of humour, this work expresses Suryodarmo’s acceptance and appreciation of her own body –“I know I am a big girl!” – and of the absurdities of life –“you never know where life might take you and which way you may fall, no matter what you just got to get up and soldier on.” The artist is fully aware that her repeated falls is open to a multitude of interpretations and can be deeply disturbing to the audience. As mentioned in earlier interviews, the goal of this work is not to stay on her feet, but “to seize the right moment during the fall to protect one from being hurt.” The artist’s deep understanding of dance is vital to the development of this work and numerous subsequent others. She explains, “physical training in dance has become an important vocabulary for my works. I think as a performance artist, I need this kind of physical knowledge, not only the technique of presenting the body, but also to learn about the character [of the body]. Although performance art for some is conceptual, I feel it needs the knowledge of body, in a space and time.”
A number of long durational pieces such as “Ale Lino”—first performed at the 50th Venice Biennale 2003, and “I Love You” –performed during her first Kuala Lumpur solo exhibition earlier this year, echo “physical depth and resistance” of Javanese dance. “The slowness not only represents slowness itself but the precious depth of the feeling or rasa. In this fast-paced contemporary world, I feel I am losing touch with everything and therefore it is a great place to meet the feeling in this context.” In the 3-hour “Ale Lino” performance, the artist attempts at “the obliteration of physicality and its conventions by accessing an altered state of consciousness”. She leans into a wooden pole planted into the ground at 45-degree angle, balancing the pole on her solar plexus, the human body’s most vulnerable point, while standing on a plinth in a pair of high heels. She employs her resistance technique from Javanese dance and Butoh method to restrain and control the body as a miscalculated move to this particular point of the body may cause great pain and immediate death. For the Chinese, this area is the most forbidden point in acupuncture as it can cause immediate heart seizure, while the Hindus believe the solar plexus chakra is "the center of etheric-psychic intuition: a vague or non-specific, sensual sense of knowing; a vague sense of size, shape, and intent of being."
Meanwhile, with her hair pinned up in a neat bun, wearing a grey pant suit and high heels, she slowly caresses, moves and carries a sheet of glass measuring 2 meters in height on her back, while repeating, 'I love you' for the duration of the two-hour long performance in “I Love You”. The image she conveys is simultaneously unsettling and poignant as the potential of danger lurks in the back of the audiences’ mind –anticipating the possibility of the artist losing control or a horrible crash– while witnessing her heartbreaking attempt to communicate with an inanimate object, at times on her hands and knees, enduring the full weight of the glass on her back.
In the dramatic “My Fingers Are The Triggers” (2007), performed at “Insomnia” during La Nuit Blanche, an annual all-night cultural festival in Paris, the artist’s dress took on special significance and become the object of focus. Inspired by the psychological pressure and emotional disorder that impacts on physical resistance and personal endurance, the artist’s ten fingers are connected with black industrial rubber strings attached from the ceiling. She moves in concentrated gestures for 6 hours, trying to keep the hands low to maximize the stretch of rubber.
The dreams came to me though my eyes are open
I hear nothing but my silent self,
Thne sound I hear echoes in the cubic room
The silence I hear, grows louder
Through the soundscape, my ego becomes public
And the white empty ceiling above me
Becomes a platform of a picture
I draw with my fingers and form with air
My arms drive movement and motion
I do not command them to stop
Telling me what is going on
Until I enter the terminal of
These sleepless nights.
The challenge and appeal of Suryodarmo’s work lies in her uncompromising feminine stance, devastating wit and fearless determination. In many ways, they are autobiographical by nature, intimations about her personal life and experiences expressed through a unique language that exists within a viscous psychological space, rich with emotional depth and complexity. Meditative yet sensual, conceptual yet silently vexing, and at times absurd yet poignant, her work reflects the dual world she occupies, Indonesia and Germany, combining the vastly contrasting qualities from her binary contexts and training. “Somehow I believe my conceptual ideas is related to the hidden containers of memories or sensors in my body…I learnt to develop my personal process, especially to adapt to another culture. It helps a lot to see, accept and learn to be myself, to understand how my cultural roots will continue to influence my life and how history will always play a role in my present.”
Wearing a red dress and 11 meters of hair, cradling a raw cow’s liver In “The Promise” (2002), she plays the archetypal mother with unlimited capacity for affection and compassion. Within the Javanese culture, the liver is also associated with ‘the concealment of problems’ or the inability to express directly one’s emotions and thoughts. Meanwhile “The Useless Death” (2006), a series of performative photographs staged against the pristine winterscape, relates to Suryodarmo’s experience as a permanent stranger. “The Useless Death is a series of ‘frozen’ images, of how it feels when I walk along in my daily life. Being a foreigner, a stranger, no matter what effort I make to adapt, I am forever the stranger. It is not meant to show the dark side of it, but instead, the beauty of being a stranger …It is also about my physical engagement with nature. The result is the contrast between what and how I am, in my most comfortable appearance, wearing a red dress and fancy gold shoes… which does not fit winter, the cold, the grew white, the snow, the silence.”
In her performances, Suryodarmo engages in seemingly redundant actions - dancing on butter, communicating with various inanimate objects or animals, tugging at rubber strings -combining both her arresting physicality with the foibles of her struggle. The result is often absurd though no less heroic, as we come to see her fragility redeemed by the tenacity of her will in what Emanuela Nobile Mino calls her 'poetic of overcoming'.