Melati Suryodarmo’s performances often seem to exist in a temporal space distinct from daily life. Many of her best-known durational pieces offer an unhurried, inexorably unfolding experience of the impact that energy has on matter, and vice versa. In “I’m a Ghost in My Own House” (2012), throughout the course of a day, mounds of coal are reduced to dust; in “I Love You” (2007), a giant pane of tempered glass moves slowly, for hours, around an illuminated gallery room; in “Transaction of Hollows” (2016), 800 arrows are shot calmly but with thunderous impact into drywall, one unceasingly after another.
In all these cases, and in dozens of others throughout her prolific 30-year practice, the source of energy that shifts and resists various materials is Suryodarmo’s body. Hers is a strong, trained body, one she has dedicated over her lifetime to somatic practices, including Japanese Butoh dance and Javanese Sumarah meditation, in addition to rigorous formal training in performance art from Marina Abramović and others. It’s perhaps unsurprising, however, that Suryodarmo’s first academic pursuit was not art but international relations. Specific elements of her pieces are frequently grounded in how we, as individuals, form partnerships, communities, cultures or nations, and in how these structures, which we comprise or are excluded from, exert pressures on us.
In her writing, Suryodarmo has expressed a desire to address the worlds that exist within, the constellations of memories and emotions from which a sense of self, an ego, emerges. Considering both the vastness and the specificities of these interior worlds, there is a degree to which all our relationships could be considered akin to exercises in international relations. But while many of Suryodarmo’s pieces might be instigated by specific relationships and memories, they are not ultimately about them. Rather, her work creates immersive conceptual spaces which allow for an expansive mode of being. As she described to me, “I think that for me, art should be functional, and not only in a simple way. It should bring something, it should offer something — not necessarily just provoking our perceptions, but offering a space in which to think, to feel, to be engaged.”
Suryodarmo generates such spaces through careful attention to not only her movements as performer, but to her apparel, architecture, and sound. Perhaps the most important element of these spaces, though, is their fundamentally cyclical nature, through which revolutions become an engine for developing interactions between — or perhaps the merging of — material and the immaterial.
What Suryodarmo wears for her performances is not incidental. Fundamentally, she clarifies, “The design should be suitable for the action and the fabric should be comfortable.” Her garments are mostly self-designed and appear meticulously constructed. She often wears simple but striking gowns, as in her 2003 work “Alé Lino”, where, standing upon a plinth, she leans for three hours into a four-meter pole, the end of which is positioned against her solar plexus, a gathering point of nerves. The strong, clean lines of her black strapless silk dress emphasize the minimalism of the performance, the stillness within which, tension, exhaustion, and pain must be building.
Sometimes Suryodarmo’s garment is a dominant element of a piece. In “Excuse me, Sir!” (2009), she moves through a Taiwanese Confucian temple, whose walls are inscribed with a text commanding the appropriate behaviour for women. The artist wears a black mask, spiked with nails, seeming to express both the ease with which women can cause offence and an aggressive reaction against repressive strictures. Pale garments may collect and so emphasize other materials of a work; the coal dust of “I’m a Ghost in My Own House” coats her white dress by the performance’s end.
At times her clothes expand to become part of the environment as in “My Fingers Are Triggers” (2007), in which the skirt of her brilliant red silk dress spills out over the floor into a large and clearly defined circle. This circle reflects the distribution of ten ceiling-mounted tension bands the artist has stretched down and affixed to her fingers, creating a scenario in which she exists as a clearly demarcated fulcrum between ceiling and floor, working to pull the strings as they pull back at her. Throughout their various implementations, Suryodarmo’s garments are thin but significant layers which seem to fluctuate between being an extension of the body and a part of the body’s environment, complicating corporal boundaries.
Suryodarmo’s performance environments are often as carefully constructed as her garments. “In some of my performances,” she explains, “I need to create a certain environment that is merged with the concept of the performance. For example, the box-like construction in ‘Perception of Patterns in Timeless Influence’ (2007) was created based on the concept of having an isolated, separated situation. I performed inside a glass box in order to be able to have an intimate interaction with the seven rabbits that were there with me.”
The lit, windowed box that encases Suryodarmo and the rabbits (incorporated into the work due to their appearance in various mythologies) also separates her from the two other performers in the piece, an opera singer and violinist who at 20-minute intervals perform “Blute nur, du liebes Herz!” from Johannes Sabastian Bach's Matheus Passion. This introduces a patterned sonic background that Suryodarmo is immersed in and yet structurally removed from.
In “Lologue” (2014), a work that delves into gestures used when enacting power through public speech, the performance takes place on an oversized flight of bright, white stairs. These dramatically elevate the performer over the viewers and provide a striking contrast to her costume, a loose, black full-body suit covered head-to-toe with bells. “Lologue’s bells-costume was made to exaggerate the presence of power through the loudness of the ringing bells,” she says. “Bells are used in many rituals traditionally to awaken the spirits and to religiously keep awareness.”
This and other pieces underscore the importance of sound in Suryodarmo’s practice. In “Transaction of Hollows”, the walls she shoots at were specially constructed to amplify sonic impact so that each arrow strikes with booming resonance. In “Eins Und Eins” (2016), Suryodoarmo imagines a nation as a body with organs and repeatedly takes in mouthfuls of black ink, then vomits it out onto white walls. She groans but utters no words, in an expression of the nausea induced when silenced by repression. She cites “Exergie — Butter Dance” (2000), in which she dances in high heels on blocks of butter, repeatedly falling, as a piece which focused her attention on the power that sound as sound could bring to performance. “The first time I considered sound beyond being merely musical was when using the Makassar drums in ‘Exergie —Butter Dance’. I collaborate with traditional drummers from Makassar, and I see the sound material produced by the drums as a powerful vibration which can go through time.”
Music, however, was critical to the very foundation of Suryodarmo’s professional training, and by extension to the development of the deeply cyclical nature of her practice. She famously veered away from studying international relations and into art because of a 1994 chance meeting with the renowned Butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa in Germany, after which she studied performance under Furukawa’s tutelage.
“Before Furukawa trained us in choreography and dance, Butoh and performance, she introduced a lot of music, from classical to avant-garde. She’s a composer, as well as a Butoh dancer; she studied composition in Japan. She used music to convey how the body moves and why we connect movement with music or why we disconnect movement from music. Furukawa introduced me to Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Cage and so on. For me it was interesting to understand the repetition in music composition, especially in Steve Reich.”
Repetition has since manifested in numerous ways throughout Suryodarmo’s practice. At times it is clearly evident, as in the repeated falls of “Butter Dance”, the succession of arrows in “Transaction of Hollows”, the repeated titular utterances of “I love you” as she carries tempered glass. But Suryodarmo sees stillness, too, as fundamentally repetitive. The ‘tableaux vivants’ of 1970s feminist performance artists informed many of her works, such as “Alé Lino”, or “Black Ball” (2005), based on Egon Schiele’s portraits, during which she sits on a wall-mounted chair holding a black ball for eight to ten hours a day over four days.
Sometimes Suryodarmo’s repetitions seem to address the ways in which our quotidian cycles can feel laced with frustration, as in “Cruise Control” (2007), when she runs and launches herself into the face of a steep, grassy bank only to fall back again and again, or in “Why Let the Chicken Run” (2001), when she continually chases, catches, and releases a black rooster in a gallery space. In the dance piece “Sisyphus” (2015), Suryodarmo directs and choreographs a group of dancers in a meditation on the nature of cycles. “Sisyphean tasks are often seen as futile or stupid,” she proposes, “but what if he liked it? I believe that nothing remains in this universe, in this life. Performance art and its immateriality provide an important opportunity to experience those changes, and therefore each repetition is special, because it is not the same as the one before.”
In developing “Sisyphus”, Suryodarmo researched shamanic rituals related to possession and how these might relate to Antonin Artaud’s idea of the “body without organs” as a process of becoming, both long-standing influences throughout her career. “My focus was not on mysticism, but on the phenomenon of the body when it is so-called ‘possessed’. In the process of learning and experimenting, I experience natural repetition. We have to turn ourselves in circles several times, and then we are open, and then the spirit comes and we become.”
The notion of cycles, whether occurring within minutes or throughout a longer view of history, has an intense relevance to notions of tradition. Suryodarmo has lived with her own specific tensions around tradition, yet her personal experiences have generated perspectives with universal significance. She has often described how, as a Javanese woman practicing art in Germany, she was aware that overt references to Indonesian culture in her work would likely be seen as ‘exotic’.
And ‘tradition’, she says, is a contested notion. “I am one of the full products of the New Order era [synonymous with the reign of Suharto, 1966-1998] where the cultural strategies included the overwhelming of our national identity through tradition. In that era, the conventional understanding of tradition was maintained, including the belief that every citizen must praise high tradition and become a cultural ambassador in the global world. I regret that this long-term practice has gradually reduced the real sense of living tradition itself.”
Though aspects of traditional, ritual practices, particularly those of Javanese and broader Indonesian culture, are woven into Suryodarmo’s practice, they are very deliberately applied in a functional rather than a formal sense. Archery, for example, features strongly in Indonesian mythology, but there is nothing about the bow and arrow she uses, nothing in her performance clothes (a simple, tailored white pantsuit), or the physical performance space of “Transaction of Hollows” that would direct attention to this fact.
In “The Promise” (2002), Suryodarmo spends three hours in a red gown with hair extensions winding out across the floor, cradling a fresh cow’s liver. The large organ is a visceral object with numerous connotations. Suryordarmo refers to the Indonesian idiom ‘eating your own liver’, which translates roughly to ‘consuming your own pain’. Her primary research for the piece was focused on Durga, the Hindu warrior goddess (most prominent in India but also depicted in ancient structures in Java and other regions of Southeast Asia), on whom Suryodarmo reflects: “In short, this beautiful young woman, who slays demons seeking to be her lovers, and who exists independent from male protection or guidance, represents a vision of the feminine that challenges the stereotyped view of women found in the traditional Hindu law book. Such a characterization perhaps suggests the extraordinary power that is repressed in women who are forced into submissive and socially demeaning roles.”
The mythology of Durga offers powerful associations and yet Surydarmo opts not to use overt indicators of the goddess’s presence in the work, such as the familiar visual representation of Durga’s many arms. She explains, “I’m interested in learning from the traditional way of becoming and the presence in dance and ritual, because traditional art normally has a social function and is less about the aesthetic.”
The social functions of art can move through history and cultures very differently from how formal elements of art persist. While Suryodarmo was studying Steve Reich and Antonin Artaud in her early education, she was also researching how these artists, who so deeply influenced modernist concepts from which contemporary artforms have grown, were themselves deeply influenced by Balinese gamelan music. Though Artaud, in particular, is widely known now to have misunderstood many aspects of gamelan, this transmission of local tradition through countries, cultures and artforms does seem to obtain some circularity in Suryodarmo’s work (though she is Javanese not Balinese) in how she reconnects ritual and contemporary artistic modes. And it could be seen as an example of what she refers to as ‘living tradition’, which can incorporate change, generate unpredictable offshoots and metamorphoses — and which can be repressed or reduced in discourse to the exotic or the patriotic, risking its functional extinction.
“24,901 Miles” (2015), features a large room full of earth. Suryodarmo moves around the space over the course of several hours with a mattress she sometimes rolls and carries, sometimes lies on. She periodically shovels dirt from one spot to another in what might be read, as in some of her other works, as a ‘futile’ Sisyphean activity. The title refers to the circumference of Earth at the equator — a circle writ large, the circle in which the pragmatic, psychological, and generational cycles of our own lives are inscribed.
As Suryodarmo has discussed regarding the work, a circle has no beginning or end and so it is undivided, and yet it can also mark a boundary between inside and out. “24,901 Miles” delves into the intimate, complex relationships between a shelter and a home and, like her practice as a whole, between emptiness and possession, connection and separation, and how bodies function within these tensions as containers that might seem, in relation to Artaud, to periodically dissolve their organs only to regrow them again.
Thanks to Natalia Filimonova and ZETTAI for their collaboration in producing this article.