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Nothing to lose by Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva 2013

Alienation and Vagueness by Hendro Wiyanto 2012

Melati Suryodarmo by Adeline Ooi 2008

Melati's Promising Challenges by Emanuela Nobile Mino 2006

Imagine that Every Woman is a Country by Johanna Householder 2006

Bilder fallen by Boris Nieslony 2006

Alienation and Vagueness

by Hendro Wiyanto

“Haven’t we had experienced “various deaths” in our past? And doesn’t death as the end of an occasion open up a new life in the new period?” [1]


I found this passage at the end of Melati Suryodarmo’s review on Robert Wilson’s “the life and death of Marina Abramovic” at the Royal Theatre Carrè Amsterdam (June 23rd, 2012). Melati highly respects Marina not only as her former professor but mostly Marina as an artist. Professor Marina taught at the Hochschule für bildende Künste, Braunschweig, Germany where Melati studied performance art and sculpture for several years (1994 – 2001; 2001-2002). Her constant intensity in learning performance art under the guidance of the professor has proved what the art historian Roselee Goldberg’s said that the term performance art is increasingly used to refer to works by artists with “bonafide art-school diplomas.” [2]

In her review, Melati wrote that through The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, Abramovic contributed a very important fragment: a plan of her own funeral one-day-in-the-future. Death certainly comes, but not right away. Abramovic said, “It is important for me to control my life, even my funeral as a ritual of my death, whose time I can never guess.”

“Death certainly comes, but not right away.” This phrase reminds us on Heidegger’s famous words. The sentence at the beginning clearly conveys the certainty that we all will die (Being-towards-death). True enough, but it is how we commonly consider our death with ambiguity. Nevertheless, Heidegger argued that our common understanding to acknowledge the certainty of death is an ambiguous manner. Indeed, they aim to weaken that certainty of death. Death is covered up and thus the drama of our mortal inevitability seems less grave. This way, we may evade the “everydayness”, taking away the authenticity of death’s certainty. [3]

The drama of our being thrown into the world is given a distinctive term by Heidegger, Dasein. However, for the most part, the everydayness of Dasein tends to obscure the outmost possibility of the ‘Being’ itself—which is non-relational and not to be bypassed”. What is a possibility that is non-relational and not to be bypassed? Heidegger called it a condition of Being-towards-the-End (Sein-zum-ende). It is the authentic Being, that must be experienced alone, not by “the others”, he said.

There is a certainty in everydayness, but such condition is known as “an inappropriate certainty”, because the authentic is kept shrouded, covered up and veiled by everydayness. We often encounter death around us, but the encounter is not related to Being-towards-the-end. The fact of death as witnessed by everydayness, everywhere, is “only” an empirical thing, not the absoluteness of death. "Everydayness" according to this philosopher, is not radical enough to make everything transparent. [4]

Through Melati’s review of Marina’s performance, a consciousness about death inadvertently connects the two performance artists, the teacher and the student. For a long time, Abramovic has imagined, even devised, her own death that lies in the future. Meanwhile, Melati believes in the “various deaths” of the past.

The Red Veil and Everydayness

What did Melati mean by “various deaths” in the past as mentioned above? For Melati, death itself unveils life, that is death as “end of event”. Death seems to happen numerous times in our lives. Certainly, in Heideggerian terminology, this sort of death can be explained not as the end of Dasein, but as the death of everyday Being. Dasein is fundamentally characterized by the “not-yet” in life. When a fruit “not-yet” ripe shall gain its ripeness one day, will the death of Dasein means experiencing fulfillment? The end of life is called “perishing”. However, Dasein is not merely dying or perishing. Dasein can experience its own death, as other living things. However, Heidegger argued that Dasein does not experience it in an everydayness, in an ontic isolation, but co-determined by its primordial kind of being.[5]

Just like Heideggerian everydayness seeks to cover the certainty of our death as Being-towards-the-end, the red veils in Melati’s photographs covers something inflicting mysteriousness or secretive situations. Do the secrets beneath these veils become signs of something absolute? Is the drama of death’s certainty so terrible that it must be covered up? These red fabrics are not translucent, we are only able to guess what is behind these veils.

Behind each veil is the artist’s own body. Does she veil her own body to deny an absolute certainty, such as denying the ambiguity of everydayness? What sort of certainty does she wish to deny? Why must the body be veiled that it becomes something that no longer deserves being called “body”, even she calls it “Alienation of the Stone”?

The “Alienation of the Stone” photo series (2012) brings us to an ambiguous situation of everydayness. Melati knows she had parted with her own past. Although the past is something absolute because it won't return, a parting with it is not as absolute as death. Now, within the ambiguity of everydayness, it's not the past itself that we encounter, it is the traces that can still be found everywhere. Apparently,  these signify how Dasein does not merely be fulfilled, emptied, or perished. Places such as Sasonomulyo, the Kraton Surakarta, Kampung Kemlayan, Untoroloyo Cemetery are places in Solo, her birthplace--inseparable from her past, shaping and witnessing her everydayness and her growth.

As a performance artist, Melati is also aware of the absoluteness of the body role. The significance of body in performance art is that the body is the artist themselves. By embarking a performance, the artist is no longer distanced from their own bodies, unlike artists from previous generations. The works of a performance artist is the efforts and what transpires throughout the artist’s body. It is the body that is consciously seen as a site full of various conflicts, tensions, competing meanings, and interests.

Facing traces of her own past, Melati feels that the alienation of her life is akin to that of a stone. The stone-body is certainly similar to death because it has no consciousness. Thus, the alienation of a stone is a metaphor of the alienation of everydayness from the absoluteness of the past, which will never and has no need to return. To proclaim oneself as alienated, like the stone's silence in the face of its own past, is the same as declaring oneself as a “project”, a “special effect”—such is the observation of Francesca Alfano Miglietti (FAM). Eminent performance artists, such as Marina, David Hammons, Shirin Neshat, and Tracey Moffat, also demonstrate various structures of alienation they experienced. Living in two worlds, having different skin colors and race, facing down repressive social norms under certain regimes or politics of marginalization within an assimilation process; they all contribute to the structuring of something alien within the works of these artists.

Melati has also experienced this alienation, although in a different context. Within the state of alienation, the identity and the subject exist in shifting dimensions, with diverse and endless morphological possibilities. According to FAM, the alien signifies presence of borders between society and those outside of it. They are the incarnations of the difference between inclusion and exclusion, of differing elements, and of unstable elements. [6]

Perhaps we could say that these red veils, the alienation and silence of “stone” are the unstable elements that are internalized by Melati through her perspective of ambiguous everydayness. The alienation is ambiguous because it is confronted with the absoluteness of its own past. The past is certain, yet at the same time it's immortal. Through Alienation of the Stone, Melati (her body) becomes the body of a pariah, the body of a homeless person who seems to have nothing left in the face of Past’s dominion and absoluteness. “My homelessness is a statement of a psychological condition, not a social problem,” Melati said. [7] For her, “The ties to the past actually nurture a persistent sense of suffering.” [8] The body of the pariah is a body of everydayness, as Melati’s daily “abode”, pushed away by the stream of her own past.

The Illusions of a Destination

Some seven years ago, Melati experienced a turbulent crisis in her marriage. She admitted for around three years (2006-2008) she lived as though she had taken the vows of celibacy. This crisis led to a situation where she felt she no longer had a home. "Home” for Melati in this case is more than just a physical home, but a home as “a system of human social behavior”, which of course occurs between the people living in “home”. 

In the past, home and its surroundings were important to Melati. Her childhood home in Solo gave her a life with her family, also with the people from other circles. They were the people at her father’s workplace in the first Indonesian Karawitan Arts Academy (ASKI), Sasonomulyo, Solo, the inhabitants in and around Kampung Kemlayan, as well as those who lived around the cemetery. They were home for Melati.

Since 1994 she'd moved, to study, and then raising a family in Germany. When the crisis hit her household in Germany, she still resided at the house, yet she felt as though she no longer lived there. In other words, she became an alien in her own home. It was as if she drifted. She wasn't dead yet, but why did she feel like drifting away, non present like a ghost.

Melati explained her work, Destination (2012), thus:

Destination represents my thoughts on the house I left and the home I yearn for. An empty bed offers two different situations. It offers a space for the body to lie itself down again, and it also offers a space to be inhabited by a moving body. The bed becomes a temporary destination and it summarizes the body’s surrender and its solitude…”

By feeling homeless, destinations seems to be an illusion. The bed is a deception. A person becomes aware of their destination only when they know they will return. If they cannot return, what's the meaning of any destination? She had experienced an alienation from her own past; the sort of past she yearns for and painful at the same time. Now, her own home in Braunschweig, Germany, where she had lived for more than a dozen years with her husband and daughter, had alienated her, turning her into a ghost with no trace. There is a vagueness felt in this bodily experience, the body seemed to be experienced and no longer something concrete.

A tense experience between destination and the rootedness to home encouraged Melati to examine the bodies of her fellows, the women who are close to her in both her life's journey and her artistic endeavors. Those bodies have also experienced many different traces of destinations. She felt a similarity of fates in all the (women) bodies, as sites of perpetual tension between destinations and experiences of home. She molded these bodies, obscurely displaying shadows, illusions, abstractions, vagueness, diffusions, and possibly the pain of the journeys undertaken by these bodies. Here, we witness Melati's efforts to record blurred traces of destinations on her own body and the bodies of her friends—women, especially—on a number of torsos molded from leather sheets of dried dead goats (Torso, 2012). Do they stand for her deep empathy for her fellow women, whose destinations are often blurred? For Melati, it is clearly a beautiful fragility, as well as the beauty of a fragility found hidden within a body.

Through Torso, it seems that Melati is trying to “break out of an internal threat created by pressure by impulses that cannot be tolerated...the threat is being transformed into an external threat easier to contain.” This is a tendency in performance art that Lea Vergine defined as "a shift from the subject to object... feelings that are not recognized as the subject's are projected far away from the ego and situated elsewhere in other things or other people.” [9]

Melati's Torsosare not the real bodies. A person's body cannot live within a torso that looks like a utensil. A person is Dasein living or having a home in the world. Dasein can also mean Being-in-the world, Heidegger said. However, unlike everyday experience, Heidegger continued, Dasein is not something present-at-hand, neither it is ready-to-hand. Being-in, for Heidegger, “is the state of Dasein's Being; it is an existentiale.” Being-in cannot be imagined as the presence of physical things present-at-hand around us.  “In” also means “residing” or “dwelling”, [in places] where “'I am accustomed', 'I am familiar with', 'I look after something'”. Thus, it is insufficient to describe Dasein and the world as two entities that exist alongside (Sein bei; or side-by-side-ness). Being-in-the-world is not (The) Being-with-the-world, but Being-within-the-world.  Being-in "...has Being-in-the-world as its essential state". Dasein is a Fact, but its factuality is "facticity", where to be within-the world means Being-in-the-world, "bound up in 'destiny' with entities which it encounters within its own world". [10] Such is how a person defines her home, her world.

It seems destiny encountered the people in her own home, in Melati's crisis-wrought Being. Through poetic pictures, the cold-frigid atmosphere inside and outside the home; the vagueness and inner silence are presented through The Dusk (2010), a twenty-six-and-a-half-minute video she called "poetical moving images". In it, human bodies are merely physically present, equal to the things and utensils that are "present-at-hand", the perishables. Alienation and isolation are present in every corner of the house, transforming into ghosts. In The Dusk, chaotic relationships between humans and the disturbance of "behavioral systems" in the home are represented through the repetitive opening-and-closing of doors, without any meaningful encounters with anyone, like a vicious circle bereft of meaning.

However, experiencing destiny and destination as a quasi-ness,  an as-if or illusion for an artist never a useless feat.  Through the vagueness views of her destiny as Being-in-the-world, the artist actually find new meanings about her own body. Feeling like a stranger in her own home for Melati of course is like losing her roots as Being-in-the-world. If her own body seems to be non presence when she yearns to be amongst family, then what is home-bound destiny and destination for her? Julia Kristeva explained thus, “Those who have never lost the slightest root, seem unable to understand any word liable to temper their point of view”. [11] Melati wishes to escape from and provide meaning to this sort of crisis. She tries to survive, so that she can keep going to “enter a different spatial dimension.” She said, “There is a dualism that emerges, one part of my life exists within the family structure and its functions; the other part of it is where I have begun to walk in solitude…”

Certainly, in early 70's the performance artists attempted to break through the art mainstream, by placing and providing meaning to their own bodies. Bodies can be seen as homes as well as a destinations for performance artists. Their influence quickly spread from theater to film, from dance to drama, to music, from photography to advertising. Theater became (collective) images, and photography became "performed photography" and "all portraits are performances". Yes, for even "Rembrandt was acting when he drew himself", said Richard Avedon. [12]

Melati painted her own awareness of the ghosts, none other but her own body:

“Sometimes my body does not perform, and my existence undoubtedly vague. The vagueness of my body's presence in life's event requiring my physical involvement, becomes a prolonged pseudo link. This sort of existence continues to drift about, carried away with the next journey, and maybe it becomes connected with other event from another time."

Illusions or quasi-ness about destination become shadows looming above a bed wrought out of iron, brass, and copper in Melati's installation piece. We can witness the same vagueness in her object works in the Torso series. Human bodies turn into deceptions, something unreal, like vague destinations sinking underneath the veils of everydayness.

"This strangeness could only come from outside, for having first emerged inside", wrote Jean-Luc Nancy. 13)
 He continued:
“In me there is the intruder, and I become foreign to myself. If the rejection is very strong, I must receive treatments that will make me resist the human defense system mechanisms that produce it... But, becoming foreign to myself does not reconcile me with the intruder." [14]

Alienation is the intruder from the outside. But alienation continues to be "the other" for those experiencing it. The intruder remains an intruder. However, this alienation may still have meaning, it may even confirm one's consciousness of destiny and destination, to the direction of the artist's own purposes.

The Charcoals of Death and Life

In this exhibition, Melati also stage a long-durational performance, an extremely exhausting experiment to test her body's existence and actuality. We can situate this act as her attempt to escape from and provide meaning to a crisis. This performance will begin in the morning  until the evening of the exhibition opening ceremony. This is the piece that is also the title of the exhibition, I'm a Ghost in My Own House (2012). For twelve hours, from 9am to 9pm, she will crush and grind hundreds of kilograms of charcoal briquettes on a grinding table placed in the middle of Lawangwangi Creative Space's exhibition hall, which she transforms into a vague and magical charcoal pool. For Melati, charcoals was once a symbol for life's energy, but she had experienced herself how magic of life can fade away or even worn out.

She wrote:

“The charcoal process can represent my thoughts and psychological state, charred by a system and of course by my personal events. Charcoals in my mind also have the potential to change yet also to destroy... I choose to grind the coals, turning them into powder and dust. Grinded charcoal, will only lose its energy potential. My thoughts that have been charred by the system, if they pass through the processes of liberation, catharsis, or death, perhaps they will grow again into something new."

This is how Melati tackles crisis or the verge, between life and death, alienation and normalcy, between free thinking and binding systems. For her, the morphology of death can now be found in coals that continue to keep the magical seeds of life. Life too, in its own way, will rise through the seeds of death. Within the context of performance art, it seems that this is the kind of phenomenon which Goldberg referred to as "modern ritualism infused by healing or curative powers, for both the artist and the audience." [15] Or, in the words of Lea Vergine:  “...the hazard implicit in our precarious existence and the continuous tension that is experienced when faced with the prospects of hypotheses that may never become realizable, are all understood to be quotidian situations that lead inevitably to a state of anguish for the being-in-the-world..." [16]

We can also see dimly-lit rooms or skies seemingly bogged down by charcoal dust in some of Melati's pictures (2007-2009), presented in this exhibition. These miniature "performance spaces" are often used as records, studies and experiments, designs, ideas or visual concepts for the forms of Melati's own performances. Almost all of the pictures are left without titles, as though waiting for their destinies to be actualized in challenging public spaces, an act she calls "actioning the poetry". Several pictures in this series can also be enjoyed as single works.

In one of her pictures—most of which are seemingly saturated with black ink—Melati portrayed a couple cruising in a car on a nighttime drive. A large tree stands erect on the left hand side, silenced by the ever-present darkness. Near the tree stands a road sign, points to a destination and a name of a town, "Sumedang". On the lower right hand side, we read: "On the Way to Hypnotic Place 1989". This picture was created in 2008, as though to commemorate an event from twenty years a go. What sort of event or destination was it, that Melati called it as something hypnotic? But we might also be hypnotized by this image, hypnotized by the sort of drama that can happen to human,  as an entity that moves to continue to Being.

In Melati's works, we can feel that traces of the past, the alienation of a human body, charcoals, vague spaces, life and death are something magical. Much as "Being-in-the-world" and "Being-towards-Death" are themselves something that truly magical.


Jakarta, 24 September 2012

Hendro Wiyanto
Exhibition Curator

This text is published for Melati Suryodarmo's Solo Exhibition catalogue "I'm a Ghost in My Own House", Lawangwangi Art and Creative Space, Bandung, Indonesia, 2012


End Notes:
1. Melati Suryodarmo, Pemakaman yang Direncanakan, TEMPO, 8 July 2012, Teater, p. 72-74.
2. Roselee Goldberg, Performance Live Art Since 1960s, Thames & Hudson, 1998, London, p. 12.
3. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1973, p. 299- 300.
4. ibid, p. 299-302
5. ibid, p. 285-293
6. Francesca Alfano Miglietti (FAM), Extreme Bodies, The Use and Abuse of the Body in Art, Skira Editore S.p.A., Italy, 2003; p. 94 & 98.
7. Interview with Melati Suryodarmo, Solo, 12 August 2012.
8. Melati Suryodarmo’s statement sent to the writer, 17 September 2012.
Next are quotes from Melati Suryodarmo based on these statements:
9. Lea Vergine, The Body as Language. Body Art and Like Stories, in “Body Art and Performance, The Body as Language”,  Skira Editore S.p.A., Italy, 2000, p. 25.
10. Heidegger, op.cit., p. 79-82
11. Francesca Alfano Miglietti (FAM), Extreme Bodies, The Use and Abuse of the Body in Art, Skira Editore S.p.A., Italy, 2003; p. 98-110.
12. Goldberg, op.cit., p. 10
13. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Intruder, in Francesca Alfano Miglietti (FAM), Extreme Bodies, The Use and Abuse of the Body in Art, Skira Editore S.p.A., Italy, 2003; p. 245
14. ibid, p. 247
15. Goldberg, op.cit.,  p. 23.
16. Vergine, op.cit., p. 15