by Manu SharmaJun 26, 2023
Melati Suryodarmo is one of the highly regarded contemporary art practitioners working in Asia today. The Indonesian durational performance artist has been enthralling audiences with her thought-provoking and sometimes extreme work, for over two decades. Her art combines the political, philosophical and spiritual in a heady mix that remains with audience members well after her performances have ended. Suryodarmo is a former student of Marina Abramović, who herself is perhaps one of the most prominent "crossover" artists in the world, meaning even those who are uninitiated to performance art will have heard of Abramović for the acclaim that the rigour and authenticity of her works have garnered her. Suryodarmo has very much followed in her footsteps, and if one were to consider the contextual specificities of Asian art and Southeast Asian art, has arguably even surpassed her acclaim within relevant circles. Suryodarmo is also a curator who has organised multiple artistic projects and events. Among these is Studio Plesungan, a performance practices space founded by her. Additionally, the artist has undertaken the duties of Artistic Director at the Jakarta Biennale, which receives audience attendance from all over Southeast Asia.
Late in 2022, Suryodarmo participated in Entrance, which was a show commemorating the 10-year anniversary of ShangART Singapore. The exhibition featured works from Zhang Enli, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Robert Zhao Renhui and of course Suryodarmo herself, with the show's titling referencing the gallery's inaugural exhibition in 2012, which was called Part, and featured Enli presenting three works at ShanghART's entrance. Entrance provides an opportunity to look both, back and ahead, into the minds of the participating practitioners as well as the possibilities that the future holds for their work.
Among the works on display is Eins und Eins, which takes after Suryodarmo’s analogy that a nation is not unlike a human body with a functioning set of organs, and when the peoples of that nation are repressed, the result is as though the body must purge itself of all its bilious wastes so as to recover. This act of purging is, entirely by necessity, quite jarring, and so is the artist’s work here. The art performance itself involves Suryodarmo wearing a black dress and white shoes, and holding a basin of black liquid. She drinks from the basin and spits it out violently, groaning deeply as though in a trance of pain. Eins und Eins is a strangely hypnotic endurance art piece, and quite meaningful as well, despite its disturbing overtones. Suryodarmo discusses the development of thought that went into this piece, telling STIR, “In a post-colonial context, I was raised during the New Order in Indonesia. As I studied art and politics, I came to realise how limited everything in the country was. The press and freedom of speech in particular were very heavily controlled by the government. I don’t think that people realised how deeply oppressed we were, because Suharto was an expert of military strategy. He ensured a very pleasant surface, which hid a darker reality. However, when major reforms came in 1998, this meant that freedom was taken in all things. The chaos this caused; this chaos is my reality.”
The artist is optimistic for the future of Indonesia, as he tells STIR, “The youth no longer possess the burden of a feudalistic mindset, which in the past has led leaders to act like kings.” However, she is simultaneously leery of Western influences diluting the cultural integrity of Indonesia, along with the rest of the Southeast Asian region. “I am a critic of the blind faith people place in the West. I was in Germany for 20 years, and saw my integration as impossible, as there is too much one must leave behind in order to be assimilated into Western cultures,” Suryodarmo explains. She questions narrow notions of internationality and often asks how people of the Global South might raise confidence within their own systems, while simultaneously being "international" and contemporary.
Since Entrance, Suryodarmo has also undertaken Unpacked, which included two performance lectures, where art curator Kimberly Shen engages the contemporary artist on the topic of her practice. Over the course of Unpacked, Suryodarmo quite literally unpacks objects pertinent to her past performances, from a suitcase that was shipped from her home in Germany. She explains, telling STIR, “I wanted to reflect on my older works and found myself wondering how I can best represent my creative archive. The works I look back to had a lot to do with love and political action, among other themes.” In order to better embody these older pieces, the artist reperformed certain actions from those performances. The objects, she notes, are not merely props; they are in fact witnesses to her history, as are all objects to their owners. By existing within our space, and engaging with our needs, they come to possess our essence and carry our legacy.
As performance practices go, there are not a great many artists that have maintained the kind of authenticity that Suryodarmo is known for. Well into her career, she is still willing to push her body to extremes in order to make resounding artistic statements that resonate with her audiences. Already no stranger to acclaim, the artist turns her attention to more inward growth. She tells STIR, “I think after the pandemic, our bodies are trying to discover a new era where we are more in touch with nature, the human aspects of ourselves, and perhaps spiritualism as well. We need to continue to train ourselves to hold these in high regard.” The truth to her words is only magnified by our current zeitgeist, wherein we are marred by overproduction, environmental collapse and social dissatisfaction. We must all look inward, as the artist does, to explore new paradigms of living. Suryodarmo ends her interview with these words: “I am an artist, a creative director and a festival organiser. I will continue to pursue these principles within my work, and shall focus on our relationship to other human beings, our relationship with nature and our relationship to God.”
Melati Suryodarmo is currently presenting Passionate Pilgrim at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, which is her first solo show in the United Kingdom. The show is on until 3 September 2023.