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Something In The Way She Moves

While performance art is becoming one of the most influential strengths of the Southeast Asian contemporary art scene, being a performance artist in Indonesia is actually a rare thing, according to artist and curator Melati Suryodarmo. A veteran of the region who trained under renowned performance artist Marina Abramović, much has been written about her powerful durational performances that commonly last for many hours, such as her 12-hour endurance performance piece I’m A Ghost In My Own House in which she crushes and grinds hundreds of kilograms of charcoal briquettes into dust. The work was a finalist at the Singapore Art Museum’s third Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) Foundation Signature Art Prize in 2014.

However, her role as probably one of the most well-known contemporary pioneers of Indonesia’s performance art scene extends beyond her artistic presentations and her journey as an artist. It could be argued that her greatest contribution may very well lie in her many positions as a trailblazer and inspirational voice in the region, and internationally, not only for performance art but also for female artists.

More recently, as the Artistic Director of last year’s Jakarta Biennale 2017, Suryodarmo chose the thematic approach of Indonesian Jiwa, which translates to mean the “soul” and can be interpreted as one’s life force or the essential energy for not only humanity, individually and collectively, but also for objects, and nature. In using the premise of Jiwa, according to their website, the Biennale sought “…to revisit the resource of our own aesthetic knowledge, a kind of resistance towards the domination of the Western knowledge of contemporary art…an attempt to reveal what kind of knowledge exists when creating work in relation to our nature and in our culture and to ask how do we use our philosophy to view the contemporary world?” With this foundation and with Suryodarmo at the helm, the Biennale saw an increase from more or less one or two performances in years past to an impressive 19 performances, 8 from Indonesia and 11 from other countries.

Detail of I Made Jirna’s installation, Unsung Heroes, 2017 at the Jakarta Biennale, which references the recognition, in Hindu-Balinese culture, of the primaeval soul of things.

Desiring to give performance artists a platform for discovery and an exchange of ideas, filling a gap which is not fulfilled by most art schools, Suryodarmo spares no expense of energy and many times, her own money, to work across cross-cultural and multi-national platforms. In 2007 she started Performance Art Laboratory (PALA) Project in Bali, Indonesia, an event that raised the visibility and awareness of performance art in her home country. In 2010 she moved PALA to Solo, Indonesia, a place known for its deeply entrenched ancient traditions of performance art such as Solonese dance and wayang puppetry, to Padepokan Lemah Putih, a school and laboratory for arts and culture started by her father, Suprapto Suryodarmo in 1983.

Subsequently, she launched the annual performance art event Undisclosed Territory in 2007 at her studio, Studio Plesungan, also located in Solo. Undisclosed Territory takes place in October or November every year and runs for six days. With more than 230 new and returning artists having participated to date, Suryodarmo’s event offers an opportunity for artists to engage in meaningful discourse, an exchange of ideas, and an occasion for artists to witness and understand one another’s processes while learning from one another. The project collaborates with visual arts departments from local and international schools and features public lectures, artists talks, and workshops. The framework is international and regional in nature and the agenda is organically and simply planned, concluding the week with both short and long durational performances.

Photograph courtesy of Undisclosed Territory

Free to participants who are invited by Suryodarmo, she funds their living costs from her own pocket. Financial support from government and public sources is scarce in this arena, so in the true Indonesia spirit, friends lend a hand by hosting the participating artists, while local caterers generously feed them and the supporting crew three times a day. Light and electricity are limited, so most activities take place during daylight hours and participants and Suryodarmo and her team eat, rest, and work together, the latter of which are volunteers who have worked with her since the beginning. Although she pays for the travel for local artists to come from different parts of Indonesia, she explains that fortunately, international artists are usually able to get funding from their home countries to travel to Solo and each artist’s situation is treated on a case by case basis.

Now approaching its 11th edition, Suryodarmo says she plans to invite more young Indonesian performance artists this year to contemplate the old rituals of traditional performance art that use food. Hoping to encourage her younger peers to consider the conventional performances and to use some of the elements in their contemporary practice, the event will focus on nutrition and how it relates to the use of the body as a tool for performance art as they create new works, as well as produce research.

Melati Suryodarmo, 24,901 Miles, performed at OzAsia Festival, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide, Australia, 2015. Image credit: ShanghArt Singapore

Suryodarmo recognises the need for all artists to not only be able to create but to sustain themselves and so another role she has taken on is that of mentor. Trained as a dancer, she works with the younger generation of dancers and choreographers in her studio laboratory, giving them advice on the practical aspects of their careers, such as accounting and marketing themselves.

Given the many hats she wears, especially as the founder of the longest running, self-sustained performance art festival hosting international and local artists in Indonesia, Suryodarmo’s place in history will be recognised as one of not only an artist and curator, but also that of a leader of great change in the course of contemporary Indonesian art.

Melati Suryodarmo, Transaction of Hollows, Lilith Performance Studio, Malmo, Sweden, 2016 and ShanghArt Gallery, Singapore, 2018. Image credit: ShanghArt Singapore

In her book, Feminisms and Contemporary Art in Indonesia, Wulan Dirgantoro asserts that the Indonesian art world is obviously a patriarchal system defined by male values. While that may be true, Greg Doyle’s review of the book countered that he sees attitudes changing with male artists often conceding to female wisdom, particularly as curators. If Doyle is correct, then Suryodarmo’s mark on the Indonesian art landscape will be further underscored as a woman whose role on the scene which will be indelible and invaluable to its contemporary legacy.


Note: Melati Suryodarmo is currently in residence at STPI – Creative Workshop and Gallery. Join Melati as she talks about her practice and processes today, 13 October 2018, at 3:00 pm, in Coffee and Conversations with Melati Suryodarmo.


(Feature image: Melati Suryodarmo, Lologue, performed at ArtJog, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2015. Image courtesy of ShanghArt Singapore)

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