Nothing to Lose
by Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva (published on PIPELINE Magazine, issue 38 Sept/Oct 2013)
Performance artist Melati Suryodarmo (b.1969, Solo, Indonesia) draws from her personal life to stage aesthetically striking, subtly sensate, influential performances grounded in the cultural, political and social context of our times and fuelled by her transcultural understandings and observations. Through her body and through a carefully designed contemporary scenography, Suryodarmo opens a space of psychological and poetical happening, often a little uncomfortable, consisting of series of actions that communicate in a poetic beat rather that through a clear narrative. Although this poetry is no escape from life, the artist says that she emphasises a reference to the authentic state of living that Heidegger calls Dasein, or “being-in-the-world”, a state of being that comes with the realisation of one’s own mortality.
Culturally, the anxiety that comes with the state of Dasein is tinted with pressure in Indonesia. Inspired by the Bahasa phrase mati sia-sia, Suryodarmo's Useless Death photographic series (2006) comes to terms with the Indonesian understanding that there are situations when one passes away without accomplishing anything for one's family, society or the nation; if someone takes their own life or doesn't do anything useful during their lifetime, their lives are labelled as not having achieved anything. Useless Death was developed based on a very personal experience of a life that felt like dying. “My situation at the time was very difficult, as I was looking to survive in Germany,” says Suryodarmo, adding that if she had to find the right words to describe such condition, she would refer to it as a psychological death: an in-between state when one has to jump from one life situation to another. “Someone who tries to commit suicide goes through this kind of death,” says Suryodarmo. “The mind decides to cut off its actual psychological condition. But one can decide to cut off this condition in a positive way, by means of letting go and initiating a change. I died several times; I have passed several deaths.” She jokingly adds that she is fine with having accomplished nothing, according to Indonesian culture.
Her most important work in relation to the concept of psychological death is her 12-hour performance I am a Ghost in my Own House (2012), in which she filled the lower part of Lawangwangi art space in Bandung with charcoal that she progressively ground on a central table with a stone, all while wearing an - initially immaculate - white dress. Although she says that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, Suryodarmo chose the term for her performance to point at death and at the particular haunting that occurs when one is attached to a place, referencing a home that is neither Indonesia nor Germany.
Suryodarmo employs clear scenographic strategies, relying on strong contrasting colours (or sounds in her videos), designed sets or landscapes, and clearly defined spaces. Her aesthetics assertively reference photography, and if she admits that historically, performance art, loudly working against conventional norms, needed no stage or costume design, nowadays the artist needs to acknowledge the complexity and chaos of our visual world.
“The challenge is to enter the performance space with a certain audible language,” she says, adding that artists who live in the present also live in a world of design and fashion - one in which performances tackling the subject of death do not require the use of tomato-sauce strategies.
“Indonesian TV shows very violent scenes; you see dead people everywhere. It shows how people kill and the cruel side of society. But in Germany, it is not ethical” to show such things, says Suryodarmo, who lives in a small German village while travelling regularly to Indonesia. “Death is a taboo subject for Europeans and for Christians; it is attached to the fear of getting old, of retiring, of how to die. On one side there is the part played by customs and traditions and how those are brought up to anticipate death, and then there is the individual space and how one carries on about death in there.”
She adds that in Germany, all stages of life are secure, while those issues are never thought about in Indonesia. “Talking about death is not tragic; I am not afraid of death at all. In 2008, I had a bad heart problem. I was ready: I thought to myself: 'This is it, Melati.' I took a blanket and lay down, waiting for the helicopter that had been called, since I live in a small village. I was ready. See, I have nothing to lose. I have nothing except life insurance so my daughter can bury me - in Germany, it is so expensive. That is also how I enter the visual art scene: I have nothing to lose.”
Another of her works that involves the subject of death is A Conversation with the Black (2011), in which she hangs on a wall, half hidden behind a black carpet that has been cut out from the floor, in a dark-purple room with a crystal chandelier. The audience can only see in the dim light the back of the artist from her waist down, her legs covered by a golden dress, beige stockings and red heels. “I hang up on the wall, almost touching the ceiling. Sometimes people think I am a puppet and touch my legs.” The performance, which people are free to interpret any way they want, references a Baroque space where the idea of heaven and the sacred, distant from the common church-going sinner, is brought out of its religiously mandated symbolism and into direct contact with humanity.
In Farewell Angel (2007), she touches on another death, the death of love - “The stillness that smells like death,” as she puts it. “You are married, but you don't feel you are loved by the person you love. You are dead.” One of the scenes is inspired by Millais' painting Ophelia.
While integrating sociopolitical and intimate issues into her performances, Suryodarmo doesn’t compromise with any particular cultural environment. “My butter dance, I do it everywhere: people react differently, but that's OK,” she says, referring to her famed performance Exergie: Butter Dance (2000), in which she executes a traditional Balinese dance on blocks of butter in a tight black dress and heels, falling progressively as the butter melts.
A Buddhist, but with no particular spiritual teachers, Suryodarmo has tried various meditation retreats in Buddhist monasteries in Germany, favouring meditation to psychotherapy as a way of working out personal issues. “Those psychological deaths represent the end of certain phases of life, the end of a situation, when one door closes and you see another one that could be opened,” she says. Recently Suryodarmo had a package destroyed by customs in Jakarta; it contained the clothes she uses to perform Der Sekundentraum (1998), her first ever solo performance. The artist points at her own realisation that it was the end of an era, because she wouldn't be able to perform the work again. “A psychological death is when you agree that a situation comes to an end; it is a way to letting it go. Consciously you accept it. That is Dasein. When you die, you are simply not there any more.
“My performances are very close to my life story, but I don't need to heal myself in front of the public. It is not about a catharsis; the process heals me but I am no longer sick when I perform.” In this respect her work is rather different from her former teacher Marina Abramovi?, who naturally is often mentioned in Suryodarmo's biography. But in the latter's case, while she draws her inspiration from life, it comes as part of a process. “Just as in life, as in marriage or sex, it is a process - a spiritual one. When I finish my process, I want to present it to the public, and the public can perceive that I am not inventing such a situation, but I am no longer going through it.”