One cannot talk about performance art in Southeast Asia without mentioning Melati Suryodarmo.
As one of the most celebrated contemporary artists in the region, Suryodarmo’s works are characterised by their profound physicality, emotional depth and durational nature. Having pushed the limits of the mind and body, her performances and installations explore existential questions, cultural identities, and social issues, often inviting viewers to reflect on their experiences and the human condition.
Earlier this May, Birmingham-based Ikon Gallery opened the artist’s first solo exhibition in the U.K. The exhibition celebrates her practice over the past 30 years and, most notably, recreates and repositions some of Suryodarmo’s pivotal works in response to the history of the West Midlands in England.
New contexts abroad
Led by Curator and Acting Artistic Director, Exhibitions, Melanie Pocock, Ikon Gallery has been actively enhancing its representation of Southeast Asian art while acknowledging the city’s diverse demographic and cultural richness. The Gallery also previously worked with contemporary Thai artist Mit Jai Inn in 2021 and Thai collectives and practitioners like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Surasi Kusolwong, and Soi Project in the early 2000s.
Seeking to reposition her classic works within new contexts, the Gallery debuted the first hybrid performance of Passionate Pilgrim Extended (2010-23), which featured Suryodarmo performing with the U.K.-based network and the activist group The Voice of Domestic Workers.
The performance spanned two hours and involved Suryodarmo and a group of women navigating a space adorned with 100 mirrors, which remained an installation after the performance concluded. During this experience, the participants engaged with their own reflections and the audience’s gaze, prompting introspection. This work considers the challenging living conditions often faced by migrant workers from Southeast Asia.
The exhibition unfolds with Suryodarmo’s feature films and recorded performances, which invite reflection on female strength and personal history. These include the iconic Exergie-Butter Dance (2000) and Memory of Water (2022), with the latter following the artist’s search for the ‘soul’ of her father’s house and reconnecting with her familial heritage.
Also on display is Suryodarmo’s long and gruelling work I’m a Ghost in my Own House (2012), where she ground blocks of charcoal with a stone rolling pin for 12 hours. While expressing the estrangement she felt upon returning to Indonesia in 2014 after her time in Germany, its new context in Ikon evokes Birmingham’s coal mining history. The work recalls a diary entry by Princess Victoria of Kent (later known as Queen Victoria) describing the area as “desolate” and “black” during her visit to the Midlands.
Additionally, Suryodarmo’s artist-run space Studio Plesungan was also brought to the Gallery. Studio Plesungan is a studio space located in Desa Plesungan, the northern part of Solo in Java, Indonesia. It teaches young people to create and organise performance art. Here, audiences can access documentation of the studio’s past residencies, workshops, and performances while tropical soundscapes play in the background.
Suryodarmo’s photographic triptychs Self-Portrait (2018) and Membran (2019) draw inspiration from Javanese culture, East Asian and Western painting, as well as Japanese Butoh dance and theatre. The self-portraits depict Suryodarmo amidst backgrounds reminiscent of photographic studios, where elements of identity such as clothing, makeup, hairstyle, and furniture are meticulously staged. These works highlight photography’s role in performance art and the impact of fellow artists, dancers, and choreographers on Suryodarmo’s artistic journey.
Contemplating consumerism and social advancement, her delegated and durational performance Kleidungsaffe (Clothes Ape) (2006) involves a towering 6.2-metre-high ‘tree’ adorned with clothes that were donated to Collection 4 Clothes, a West Midlands ethical recycling business. At designated times, solo performers would perch on a hidden platform and support the vibrant structure for three hours—prompting us to consider ideas of excessive consumption and belonging.
Stirred by her physical, emotional and creative pilgrimage, I sat down with Suryodarmo to discuss the driving force behind this exhibition, the collaborations with local communities, and her take on performance art today.
Welcome to Birmingham! As this is your debut solo exhibition in the U.K., what was the thought process behind it? What ideas did you want to convey to the viewers?
The exhibition is a significant milestone as it marks my debut solo show in the U.K. This was an opportunity to showcase the perspectives and experiences of Southeast Asian artists, which have been underrepresented in the U.K. and Europe.
I am grateful for the chance to exhibit works produced in Indonesia and recreated in Birmingham, such as Passionate Pilgrim. It delves into the experiences of Indonesian domestic and migrant workers–[a topic I find to be] overlooked in the U.K. and Europe. My intention is not to conform to the European zeitgeist but to offer viewers a glimpse into different ways of thinking and the unique cultural practices of my region.
Collaborating with Ikon Gallery, we have carefully selected works that bridge the language of the past and present, emphasising the liminal quality in my body of work as a performance artist. Indonesia’s distinct perspective on spirituality and the relationship between humans, nature, and higher spirits is a recurring theme in my works.
After living in Germany for 20 years, returning to Indonesia in 2013 was a significant decision for me as it allowed me to further explore my identity, home, culture, and political context. While my time in Germany influenced my artistic practice, I aim to challenge dominant narratives, such as colonialism, and incorporate diverse perspectives.
The experience of living in Germany and Europe at large provided valuable reflections and deepened my understanding of art’s role in depicting life and reality honestly. I hope this exhibition will encourage a sense of introspection and exploration in viewers, inviting them to engage with diverse perspectives and question preconceived notions.
Which of your performance art pieces shown at Ikon Gallery has left the strongest impression on you so far?
Every work I create holds immense significance to me. However, if I were to highlight one that has shaped my artistic path, it would be I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2012). This took me seven years to develop, and its impact on me has been profound because it was my reflection on my displacement in Indonesia after living in Germany for 20 years. This propelled me to further explore the interconnectedness and dynamic relationship between the body and the surrounding world.
Another memorable piece is Exergie-Butter Dance (2000). This work reflects aspects of my life and the human condition, where the experience of falling and standing resonates with everyone. As I performed it over the years, I felt a deep connection with it, especially as my body changed and aged.
Even in 2021, I was surprised by my own performance, despite being heavier. This reinforced the idea that it’s not about appearances but about the health and physical challenges involved in withstanding the falls.
The perception of the female body has evolved significantly since I first performed this piece in 2000. It emphasises the importance of rescuing oneself and the resilience to move forward, rather than focusing solely on one’s fall.
Created in 2013 and recreated for this show, Sweet Dream Sweet expresses the tensions between individual and collective identity, as felt by women in Indonesia and across the globe. Likewise, Passionate Pilgrim Extended (2023) expands on its 2010 version, Passionate Pilgrim. Inspired by a film project on contemporary slavery, you were the sole performer. How do these differ from the versions currently on display?
The remade versions of Sweet Dream Sweet and Passionate Pilgrim Extended exhibit notable differences compared to the originals.
In Sweet Dream Sweet, the performance involves delegated performers (non-professionals or specialists from other fields who are selected and assigned to carry out a performance on an artist’s behalf), which inherently causes variations. Performers donned white costumes, walked, lay down, sat and dipped their feet in water buckets—symbolising the conflict between individual and collective identities of women. What’s essential are the performers’ experiences and emotions, which may differ from what the audience perceives.
Passionate Pilgrim Extended delved into modern slavery and the concept of injured identity–a subject that’s distant from my personal reality.
In places like Singapore, for instance, there is a considerable population of domestic helpers. Increasing reports of the prevalence of emotional abuse reflect the discriminatory attitudes towards this marginalised community. [To me,] the legacy of colonialism has created systems of privilege and disadvantage which reinforce existing social hierarchies and perpetuate inequality.
Working with the women from The Voice of Domestic Workers enriched me. Although I shared my perspective as a migrant woman, I acknowledged that my experiences are incomparable to their hardships, which include struggling with returning home due to complex paperwork and regulations.
During rehearsals, I emphasised exploring our feelings and the struggle to define our identity amidst being far from home. This evoked tears from some performers, creating a poignant and powerful atmosphere.
While healing was not the intended outcome, the shared space allowed for a profound connection, highlighting the strength and confidence of these exceptional women.
What advice would you offer individuals interested in practising performance art?
I would advise them to embrace openness and curiosity, free from preconceived notions of what art should be or what is traditionally considered beautiful.
As a performance artist, one must be prepared for the limitless possibilities that unfold.
Confidence and an open-minded audience are essential. With familiarity, one can gain a deeper understanding and appreciate diverse perspectives.
However, the human body in performance art is dynamic. Its movements create rich, vivid images that stem from the interplay between the body’s energy, space, and a specific moment in time. Performance art is inherently radical, and in a world that craves radical change, it begins with thoughts and actions rather than mere theatrics.
Lastly, what’s next for you?
I have an upcoming solo exhibition in Singapore, featuring new works commissioned by the Esplanade. I will also present new work, including performance videos and installations at the Jendela Art Space from September to December 2023. Additionally, I have been invited by the Esplanade to perform as part of their da:ns focus 2023, which is a first for me.
Furthermore, I’ve been appointed as the artistic director for the 2024 edition of the prestigious Indonesian cultural festival, Indonesia Burtutur. Currently, I’m occupied with pre-event preparations and government-supported labs, which involve young Indonesian artists in dance, music, theatre, and photography. These labs aim to explore Indonesia’s rich cultural heritage, trace it back to the 15th century before the colonial era, and connect it to the realities of today.
I will also be conducting a workshop as part of the choreographer camp at the Taipei Performing Arts Centre in Taiwan, focusing on my work Passionate Pilgrim.
To fully commit and remain faithful to your practice is both challenging and essential. Once the decision is made, it becomes a way of life that demands wholehearted dedication.
Melati Suryodarmo: Passionate Pilgrim runs at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham till 3 September 2023. Click here to find out more.
Feature image courtesy of Ikon Gallery.