The Essential Works of Melati Suryodarmo
By Brynn Gordon
Melati Suryodarmo has been one of Indonesia’s most significant performance artists over the last 30 years, and her work stands at the intersection of European irreverence and Asian artistic tradition, drawing from Japanese Butoh dance, contemporary performance art, and Indonesian spiritual culture. Suryodarmo converts her experiences of the emotional, spiritual, and political worlds around her into physical movements, pushing her physical endurance in performances and transforming mundane objects into deeply symbolic props.
Born in 1969 to traditional Indonesian dance practitioners and shaped by Marina Abramović’s tutelage in Germany, Suryodarmo investigates how external events affect individuals’ internal experiences. In her words: “The world that inspires me to move my thoughts is the world inside me. The body becomes like a home which functions as a container of memories . . . I respect the freedom in our minds to perceive things coming through our individual sensory register system.”
Suryodarmo’s work was exhibited in 2020–2021 at the Museum MACAN in Jakarta in the solo survey “Why Let the Chicken Run?”, where she revived a range of past performances, including Why Let the Chicken Run (2001), I Am A Ghost In My Own Home (2012), and The Black Ball (2005). She has also been featured in the 2020 Bangkok Art Biennale, the Venice Biennale in 2003, and the Venice Biennale for Dance in 2007, while running her performing arts collective Studio Plesungan since 2012. Suryodarmo’s works, which oscillate somewhere between the poetically beautiful, bewildering, and poignant, constantly refer to exertion and sensation as the core of all experience, whether political, emotional, or personal, as shown in her “essential works” below.
Der Sekundentraum (1998)
Moving to Germany in 1994 to study, Suryodarmo was away from her home and culture for the first time, out of place as a foreigner and the only pregnant student in her class. This was a formative period in Suryodarmo’s career, where she met her mentor, Butoh practitioner Anzu Furukawa, who exposed her to the capacity of the human body as a tool of reflection and expression, and artist-teacher Marina Abramović, who stressed that ordinary materials could make extraordinary artistic statements.
With these influences, Suryodarmo reflected on her experience as a newcomer to Germany in her first solo performance: surrounded by 300 items of clothing she had obsessively collected from local flea markets, she repeated a process of folding, organizing, and disheveling them up, taking the clothes on and off over 24 hours until her body became “fat and stuck” between the layers. Her hoarding of clothing and mechanical process of dressing signifies the physical effort of adapting to a new culture and forming one’s idea of self. The “German” clothes represent a system Suryodarmo has created to fit in, but also one that she disrupts again and again as her identity is formed and reformed constantly.
Exergie – Butter Dance (2000)
Under Abramović, Braunschweig students adhered to a strict material budget of 10 euros per performance, inspiring Suryodarmo’s practice of using mundane objects as props, partly due to necessity and the innovation improvisation demands. From this came Exergie – Butter Dance (2000), involving the construction of a performance platform from butter, which Suryodarmo chose for its affordability and her association with her intercontinental relocation (having seldom encountered it in Indonesia). In this work, Suryodarmo performed traditional Indonesian dance in high heels to Makassar drums, struggling to maintain poise as the butter melted, resulting in frequent slips, falls, and recoveries.
Garnering 2 million views on YouTube, Butter Dance encapsulates the moment conscious bodily control collides with unpredictable circumstances when one slips on butter. However, despite the importance of falling in this performance, Suryodarmo doesn't present her dance as futile. Instead, “The aim of making this work is to get up. You can fail, but you do it anyway.” She presents the relationship between the struggle of the body and moments of perseverance as one of resilience and exuberance rather than painful futility—be it due to butter, gravity, or other factors—the dancer goes on after every fall.
Deformed Ethic of a Relationship 1.0/2.0 (2005)
Deformed Ethic of a Relationship (2005) is Suryodarmo’s experimental works in collaboration with German artist Oliver Blomeier. She developed an ambitious multimedia performance delving into the contradictions that pervade relationships. Informed by her degenerating relationship with her abusive spouse, Deformed Ethic . . . 1.0 presents the turbulent delights and destructive ends of out-of-sync lovers. Suryodarmo writes messages across a mattress and Blomeier’s body in a desperate bid for connection, contrasted by the pair’s quiet unity in the adjacent video. This lack of “synchron[icity]” prompted a violent end when Blomeier wields an electric jigsaw, symbolizing a final severance. In contrast, Deformed Ethic . . . 2.0 exudes a sense of melancholy. While intimate and disconnected motifs persist, their intensity disperses after a phone call that connects them across the globe—the vast expanse of 7,250 miles—in between Italy and Bali, where Blomeier and Suryodarmo, respectively, were performing. Suryodarmo sent a video letter from Bali to Trento, and the video letter was opened and played back at the Galleria Civica Trento, emphasizing the total separation of the pair. Creating a narrative of the transformation of volatility into the distance, Suryodarmo displays her power in making the experimental and personal feel familiar to her viewers.
I Love You (2007)
Similarly, I Love You (2007) further explores human relationships. Before studying performance art, Suryodarmo finished her bachelor’s degree in international relations, inspiring her to approach human interaction with analysis and objectivity, as seen in I Love You, exploring love itself. During her performance, which can last between three to six hours, Suryodarmo balances a plane of glass on her back as she walks across a moody, red-painted space. While doing this, she repeats the title of the performance. Through this verbal repetition, she creates a transparent and honest visual metaphor for the experience of love. The physical exertion required to keep the fragile glass from collapsing illustrates the weight and responsibility often accompanying the phrase I love you. In this way, her whispered declarations of love throughout the performance are a mantra for the crushing vulnerability and constant exertion of “love,” as the sensation demands. “Love” is often treated as if it is defined by a unanimous “collective identification” when, in reality, it is subjective. Suryodarmo takes an alienated look at how love is constructed by culture and experience, placing a familiar phrase in a new context which will seem incongruous to some and natural to others depending on their experience with love.
I’m A Ghost in My Own House (2012)
Suryodarmo focused on interpreting the personal, political, and universal through her body over the next decade, typified by her I’m A Ghost in My Own House (2012), a grueling 12-hour performance. Suryodarmo crushes hundreds of kilograms of charcoal into dust with a rolling pin as a study of “home.” She destroys the “potential” of the charcoal in a reflection on how “life’s magic can fade away,” feeding into her recurring motif of charcoal as the symbolic end to the parallel life cycles of both humans and trees. However, Suryodarmo balances prostration with strength. The concept of one’s “house” is a source of pain rather than comfort, as in the feeling of isolation that can happen in a marriage; the destruction of a home itself, or thoughts, relationships, and the environment are represented by crushing charcoal. Like many of Suryodarmo’s performances, this work may be physically and emotionally taxing but it also symbolizes the release of emotional tension through physical exertion. It follows a tradition of Indonesian shaman she observed as a child; in trance-like meditation, they could eat lightbulbs or whip themselves to a higher plane. In the pain of processing life’s “charcoal” lies the liberation of the indomitable human spirit. In the end, Suryodarmo stands alone and covered in soot, ghostly but still there.
24901 Miles (2015)
In 24901 Miles (2015), the motif of unremitting, Suryodarmo reprises repetitive activity both formally and thematically. Suryodarmo wears plain, gray clothes and moves around an earth-filled gallery space with a shovel, digging, moving dirt from one area to another, and dragging a large mattress which she periodically sits on. On the surface, this appears to be a Sisyphean exercise in pointlessness, but with every shovel and movement of dirt, Suryodarmo’s interactions with her environment take on a deeper meaning. The work’s title 24901, the circumference of the equator in miles, evokes the Earth’s rotation and the “pragmatic, psychological, and generational” cycles of human life. Here, Suryodarmo subtly celebrates the act of creating a space within this circle and the complex relationships and exertions that exist within it, which, on a grand scale, may seem as Sisyphean as moving dirt from one place to another.
Passionate Pilgrim Extended (2010–23)
The Passionate Pilgrim represents one of Suryodarmo’s most explicitly political performances, inspired by the filmmakers Jorge Leon and Simone Aughterlony’s documentary Vous Etes Servis, which collected testimony from Indonesia’s domestic workers about the abusive, illegal, and dangerous elements of their jobs. Based on this research and Suryodarmo’s conversations with the domestic workers, she created a five-hour performance systematically manipulating 100 make-up mirrors and strands of pearls around the space to express the struggle and perseverance of domestic workers in danger to maintain their dignity and identity.
This year at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, she reenacted the performance in Passionate Pilgrim Extended, a two-hour version of the 2010 work in collaboration with the UK organization The Voice of Domestic Workers (VODW), where she and 14 migrant workers from VODW will move around the same 100 mirrors in contemplation of their individuality, their reflection and their perception by the audience.
Brynn Gordon was an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.
Melati Suryodarmo’s solo exhibition “Passionate Pilgrim Extended” was on view at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, from May 17 to September 3, 2023.