Indonesian Melati Suryodarmo is one of the most iconic performance artists working in the international art world today. Her art is visceral. Her performances speak to both the individual and the collective. And it is deeply personal. She performs Eins und Eins, for example, in a totally empty room, with empty walls. The piece sees Suryodarmo, in a long dark dress, kneeling in the center, her face dipped into a basin filled with black liquid and she drinks some and holds it in her mouth. Suddenly, she throws herself to the ground, and spits the contents into the air. She goes back to the basin and draws another mouthful, her face and hair smeared with the dark substance, and then she points her right index finger in the air, before vomiting again violently. For a few moments, she lies flat on the floor; at other times, she is crouching or is continually in motion, moaning and crying in grief. Covered in black liquid, Suryodarmo looks like a black demon provoked to a blind frenzy, limbs wriggling and jerking in torment. Over three hours, she spews the black liquid all around, her will driving her to put every muscle into action, as if all the powers of the body are exerted to free itself from some great violence.
Through this act of aggression, Suryodarmo’s work in 2016 was intended to provoke the viewer into awareness of the power with which violence is enacted in daily life. “Every day we subject ourselves, passively, out of fear, or habit, to different degrees of violence, from human experience and the anxieties over conformity and tyranny: All that gave my practice a constant sense of disquiet,” says Suryodarmo. “The reality of the daily violence, in which we are immersed, convinces me to be aggressive, or rather, I’ve had to release everything from within the sensations of suffocation and oppression.” Yet, for the audience, Suryodarmo’s performance is also very abstract, like some grotesque modern art exhibition—all black puddled walls and floor—and a tormented soul seething with senseless anger in the middle of it all. In Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the performance of subjects in a “passionate and convulsive conception of life” would correspond “to the agitation and unrest characteristics of our epoch.” Noting that nature and human experience are often cruel, Suryodarmo performs herself in Eins und Eins in a physically exhausting and emotionally charged narrative of nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence. “If you have experienced them, then your work will be more intense; you give what you have,” says the artist. In Der Sekundentraum, her first solo performance in Hannover, Germany, in 1998, she was surrounded by piles of folded and yet-to-be-folded clothes. Then she messed them up and put on as many pieces of clothing as possible until she was stuck and could not move. Believing in “You are what you wear,” her performance looked at how clothes influence the way in which people behave. Studying in Germany then she was producing her performances that played on what she calls her “doubled otherness” vis-à-vis German culture: she was racially and sexually at odds with the accepted norm of the artist as Euro-American male. “I am too small, my skin is too dark, my legs too short. My face, my walk, my speech are not suitable in Germany. But I could speak their language, I could present my ideas, I could work and raise my child in this country. Yet there is very little room for life in it. I am a ‘black’ face in a white environment,” says the artist. “I was searching for an identity.”
Suryodarmo was born in 1969 and brought up in Surakarta, Indonesia. Her father, Suprapto Suryodarmo, who passed away earlier this year, was the purveyor of Amerta, a meditative dance practice, and her mother, who died in 1987, was a traditional Javanese dancer. In the late 1990s, she moved to Germany, where she studied performance art and sculpture under Japanese Butoh dancer, the late Anzo Furukawa, and performance artist and filmmaker Marina Abramović. She later completed her postgraduate study in performance art at the Braunschweig University of Art (HBK). In 1999, Suryodarmo and performance artist Boris Nieslony discovered their complementarity and collaborated in artist residencies and exhibitions, strengthening their relationship and artistic vision. Another of her works, The Dust (2013), discusses the subjects of the diaspora and cultural identity. Installed in a room is an iron frame bed, which looks like American or European made. Elegantly dressed in white blazer and puffy tulle skirt, Suryodarmo grasps the bed and drags it across the room, the rasping squeal of the heavy legs against the concrete floor makes one cringe. At one point, she rubs some pigment powder over her face that she takes from her pockets, and turning to look at the audience, her resplendent gold-masked face at once surprises but it only declares her impersonation to be white. It is as if this operates as a symbolic remedy for alien cultural contact. Likening the contemporary problem to a “world classification system,” says Suryodarmo. “You can see it as an historical phenomenon, post-World War II, a structure that promotes the difference between the West and us, the European fear and ‘habits of obedience,’ the mainstream or alternative.” In fact, “the art world is part of this system,” she says. Suryodarmo discusses the ways in which authority in its various forms has made the rules that artists must live by and that the market is the latest dictator of these rules. “The intention of my work has always been to understand my relationship with people and the surroundings. It may come out abstract and indirect, but I want to address what I know, what I see ….” In 2013, Suryodarmo directed a performance called Sweet Dreams Sweet at the Jakarta Biennale. Comprising 30 female participants, all wearing large, white veils over white uniform-style outfits with white stockings, they are a spectacular sight as they walk in pairs inside Jakarta’s arts and cultural center Taman Ismail Marzuki and the nearby Taman Suropati Park. At times, they are seen lying or sitting down side by side, dipping their feet into blue-colored water, staining their white stockings. Suryodarmo’s artistic strategies are inextricable from her identity politics and social politics. Her Sweet Dreams Sweet posed as demonstrations against the mechanization of human relations and the herd mentality in Indonesian society and elsewhere. Suryodarmo, who lives and works in Indonesia and Germany now, credits dance for developing body and movement awareness. In particular, she was inspired by Butoh dance, a form of Japanese dance theatre developed in the post-war avant-garde period, designed to subvert Western styles and mainstream society’s ideals of beauty and identity. In 2000, she performed Exergie – Butter Dance at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin. “I walk into the space, toward the butter blocks prepared already on the dance carpet,” she has written, “I put myself, standing with my back toward the public. I turn to the front and step on the butter. I start dancing and let myself fall if it happens and try to stand up again. This action is repeated until I lose my energy. I take off my shoes, stand up slowly, and leave the space.” In a tight black dress and red heels, Suryodarmo dances to the traditional music of Daeng Basri Sila and Khaeruddin, Drums of Makassar, while the audience watch—the repetitive cutting motions of her heels causing the butter to be soft and squishy, and her pained expression—as her feet slip and fly out from under her, countless times. “Dance must be beautiful, everyone says so, but dance is about life itself, and life isn’t always a bed of roses,” says Suryodarmo. “Why does society make people feel like they have to be obsessed with beauty? The ugly, the grotesque in Butoh dance, for example, is about the familiar, the real, in life.” In The Promise (2002), she positions the female body as monstrous, strong, and non-idealized. Adopting the theme of the Madonna and Child in Renaissance paintings, Suryodarmo is seen holding a raw cow liver tenderly, with blood trickling down her shoulder and red dress, the grotesque aesthetic further enhanced by her long 11-meter trail of black hair. Revealing the real as traumatic and repulsive, the work conveys the artist’s inner world and speaks directly to audience’s memories and emotions, creating powerful theatrical experiences as well. “We are in the age of the Instagram face where women are enticed to do anything to achieve that thinner face, or have smoother skin, larger eyes, fuller lips. Butoh is accepting what is real, and part of reality is the grotesque,” says Suryodarmo.
On her long-duration works, Suryodarmo is clear about her motivations, “The Exergie – Butter Dance performance, for example, was inspired by my interest about time, especially how the human body relates to its biological, psychological, and physical time.” Suryodarmo lets on how she sees art “as a process, performance, and happening (becoming),” rather than focus upon the art object and the finished work. “Performance is not showing, it is how the body becomes … and the body needs time to become a “becoming” body … it is about experiencing change,” as she puts it. “Performing Exergie – Butter Dance will not be the same for me now as compared with doing it 20 years ago,” says Suryodarmo. In her 12-hour performance I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2012), the artist fills the Lawangwangi art space in Bundung with charcoal that she kept grinding on a table until pulverized to a fine powder. Dressed in all white, she picks up large chunks of charcoal from around her and repeats the grueling process of crushing, grinding and rolling out the charcoal mixture. As the hours go by, Suryodarmo’s room is left eerily empty of life, like when she disappears in the sea of charcoal, her dress heavily soiled with charcoal powder and her face covered with soot black stains. The oversized artwork looks menacing, like a dark, dusty, and disheveled workshop, but it is engrossing, an interactive and all-encompassing environment designed to disorientate and disturb. In his essay The Critic as Innovator (1977), Ihab Hassan wrote “[t] he main point is this: art … is becoming, like the personality of the artist himself, an occurrence without clear boundaries: at worst a kind of social hallucination, at best an opening or inauguration. That is why Jean-Francois Lyotard enjoins readers to abandon the safe harbor offered to the mind by the category of ‘works of art’ or of signs in general, and to recognize as truly artistic nothing but initiatives or events, in whatever domain they may occur.” Suryodarmo’s artistic practice argues a similar relationship, her emphasis on restless experimentation and her attempts to present the unpresentable. For the artist, “becoming” is what it is all about, that which is “not sensation, not fixed, but always changing, developing, growing … the radicalness of an event, more direct, more surprising, more happening.” Suryodarmo’s performances often point to a more fluid notion of identity, one that understands identity as a “becoming,” as contingent upon her own experiences, other people’s experiences, and shifting positions within and around narratives of the present and past. “How can this performance help us to think through these varieties of racial and ethnic identities?” says the artist. On several occasions, Suryodarmo explores death as a subject, as she recognizes “life and death are one,” and “one [is] aware that death could come at any time, we [should] live each day to the fullest.” At Museum MACAN until the end of May 2020, Suryodarmo showed the first retrospective of her work since 2000, titled Why Let the Chicken Run?” The exhibition surveyed her work on a generous scale with more than 100 live performances in Jakarta as well as on display archival images, photographs, and videos. She has developed her radically different approach to showing the ways in which power and authority are constructed, her work is at once intellectual and humble, abstract yet literal.