by Shraddha NairMay 26, 2021
For most people, even those well versed with various nuances of contemporary art, performance art can be an esoteric enigma. Being the rebellious lovechild of various traditional artistic disciplines, it consciously breaks boundaries by subverting popular expectation and this may be the cause for a general difficulty when it comes to ‘understanding’ the practice. The distance that may be created by the forms that performance art takes, is in turn compounded by its format, as it is practically impossible to ‘consume’ it in retrospect. And for those living in regions without a community of established practitioners, this can cause yet another disconnect for the masses do not have many opportunities to be exposed to artists and their bodies of work. Keeping this in mind, Melati Suryodarmo’s first solo exhibition at Museum MACAN (Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara) may be an example of how the aforementioned distance between performance art and its audiences can be bridged.
Titled Why Let the Chicken Run?, after a work which was originally performed at the Kunst-Werke Berlin in 2001, the exhibition brings together select artworks, which Suryodarmo had executed through the course of her career within the walls of the museum in Jakarta, thereby bringing the artist’s oeuvre to the Indonesian public in an unprecedented manner. The performances are presented by means of photography, video and other documentation alongside live recreations, by the artist and other performers, with the intention of presenting a comprehensive picture of Suryodarmo’s practice. “They also display my costumes from twenty years ago… People get a lot of information because of my older documentation, so people can see a little bit of my journey and what is the thought behind it,” says Suryodarmo. Yet, despite its outward appearance, the show is not meant to be a retrospective in its traditional sense for the artist but an introduction, both into her practice and performance as a medium.
Developing a practice that incorporated the body came naturally to Suryodarmo as her parents were both dancers, her father notably being Suprapto Suryodarmo, the founder of the Amerta movement practice, and it was developed under the guidance of the Butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa, and the performance artists Marina Abramovic and Boris Nieslony. Coming from these divergent cultural positions, she uses her practice to explore the body, particularly her own, as it navigates various corpospiritual experiences as iterated by the artist. Simultaneously, her works also consciously escape a sense of cultural location, a decision informed by her post-colonial awareness so as to avoid exoticisation.
“With the many dilemmatic situations that I was in and confronted with, being an Indonesian in a western environment, I made a decision about being a representative – of not being a representative of a culture or of a country – in my work. I was thinking very much against the terms of exoticism. The term exotic is always used as how western people see coloured people and the terms appear because of colonialism. I decided I am against being exotic.”
This does not mean her work is absolutely devoid of cultural indicators; she uses several Indonesian regional practices to inform the subtext of her performances but by not placing a spotlight on these aspects she avoids them from being eroticised. For instance, Alé Lino (2003), a work in which Suryodarmo spent three hours leaning against a four meter pole which was supported against her solar plexus in an arduous attempt at exploring the physicality of emptiness, was inspired by her research on the Bissu, gender fluid demi-gods from the Bugis community of South Sulawesi, but no attempt was made to superficially call attention to this defining characteristic. In Transaction of Hollows (2016), where Suryodarmo shoots arrows around a room in which members of the audience are encouraged to interact as she meditates on the path society has taken, the artist uses a Javanese bow, which identifies the style of her archery as the indigenous Jemparingan whose philosophy informed this work, but resists further hints of regionality as is her standard.
Most works presented at Museum MACAN continue to illustrate the meditative quality of Suryodarmo’s practice. In The Promise (2002), the artist, who wears a red dress and has hair extensions flowing across the floor, explores the contours of a cow’s liver for a long period of time as an invocation of the Indonesian phrase “makan hati”, which translates to “eating one’s own liver” and means to suppress ones negative emotions, while mediating the aesthetic boundaries between the beautiful and the grotesque. I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2012) lasts for 12 hours with Suryodarmo, who starts the performance in a white suit, grinding pieces of charcoal which were previously sprawled across the floor into fine dust through which process the appearance of her costume and her own progressive physical exhaustion becomes symbolic of the act of living. Some of her works are also responses to older works by other artists, including the one eponymous to the exhibition, which references Ana Mendieta’s Death of a Chicken (1972), and "Hapuslah, tapi bukan airmatamu ! (Wipe, but not your tears !)", which is inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s 1954 critique of Marchel Duchamp, titled Erased De Kooning Drawing.
Why Let the Chicken Run? was scheduled to be on till May 31 but has been suspended due to the global outbreak of COVID-19.