Indonesia’s Maverick Performance Artist
The New York Times
By Rachel Will
JUNE 12, 2014
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Two years ago, the Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo gained YouTube notoriety when a version of her “Exergie — butter dance” was posted to the website. Originally accompanied by Indonesian drum percussion, the reworked clip set Ms. Suryodarmo’s performance of a traditional Indonesian-inspired dance on 20 blocks of melting butter to Adele’s “Someone Like You.”
For the dance, first performed at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin in 2000, Ms. Suryodarmo wears a short black dress and red heels. She slips and falls to the ground repeatedly and exits the stage after 20 minutes, covered in butter.
The “Adele Butterdance” clip has garnered more than 1 million views and 2,000 comments. It has bolstered the original video, which now has more views than the remake. It has also turned Ms. Suryodarmo, now 44, into one of the most famous performance artists to come out of Indonesia, where classical and traditional dance dominate the culture scene.
The piece — both the Adele-dubbed version and the real one — provokes a mix of responses, but that hasn’t deterred her. “Any artist should be ready for misinterpretation from the public,” said Ms. Suryodarmo in a recent telephone interview ahead of a performance at the Indonesian contemporary art festival ART|JOG, which runs through June 22. “Every public has their own personal experiences that influence their perception, and this freedom is great. I want to give that freedom to the public so it doesn’t matter if people insult me or yell at me or admire me, I don’t care what they think.”
Performance art is still relatively unknown in Indonesia. The 1980s marked a high point for the art form in the country when some groups used experimental theater as a means of protest against the authoritarian leader Suharto. Since then, however, diminishing support from the arts community has made funding scarce and performance art less popular.
But Ms. Suryodarmo continues to perform her work and to spread performance art in Indonesia. Her annual Undisclosed Territory workshop, held in her native Solo, Indonesia, a small town in central Java, focuses on the education and promotion of the performing arts by inviting international artists to mentor promising young artists. Now in its eighth year, the weeklong event will be held in her studio in August through private donors.
Ms. Suryodarmo’s roots in the arts can be traced back to her parents. Her father, Suprapto Suryodarmo, is the purveyor of Amerta, a meditative dance practice and her mother, who died in 1987, was a traditional Javanese dancer. She credits a chance meeting in Germany with the Japanese Butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa for her start in performance art.
She went on to study under Ms. Furukawa at Braunschweig University of Art in Germany. “Everything happened by accident honestly, I left my country and I had no plan, I had no dream,” Ms. Suryodarmo said. “Anzu always said ‘I do not want to make you become a dancer,’ she just said the first step is to go into the understanding of the body.”
Ms. Suryodarmo performing “Perception of Patterns in Timeless Influence” in Malmo in 2007. Credit Lilith Performance Studio/Melati Suryordarmo
At the university, Ms. Suryodarmo also studied under Marina Abramovic. She would later serve as Ms. Abramovic’s assistant and perform alongside her with a group of students at the 2003 Venice Biennale.
“Her work is very strong, very charismatic, extremely mesmerizing when she performs,” Ms. Abramovic said by phone. “You can’t take your eyes off her.”
She later added by email, “The most important thing a performance artist can do is to create a charismatic space around them and connect with the public. This is not easy, but Melati has the qualities and abilities to achieve this.”
Now Ms. Suryodarmo splits her time between Gross Gleidingen in northern Germany and Solo, with performances around the world. Her varied and physically demanding performances range from occupying a glass-paned box with live rabbits for five hours (“Perception of Patterns in Timeless Influence,”) to being sandwiched between a stack of 18 mattresses (“Dialogue With My Sleepless Tyrant”).
She has also earned acclaim for her exhaustive pieces including “I’m a Ghost in My Own House” performed in 2012 in the rising arts hub of Bandung, Indonesia. For the piece, an exploration of consciousness related to family, she spent 12 hours in a room crushing charcoal briquettes to the point of collapse. She performed wordlessly, intermittently lying down for relief.
With just one to two new performances per year, she commands a vigorous creative process ahead of new works by focusing on the body as her main material. At the shortest, her period of reading, analysis and research takes about six months. Her longest, a multimedia project on the homeless, took seven years.
Inspired by daily life, Ms. Suryodarmo says her lengthy creative process is necessary to separate her own subjective influences from the performance sphere. Though “Exergie — butter dance” draws on her personal experiences, such as feelings of alienation when she moved to Germany and her first experience eating butter, her distance is what she believes allows the audience to participate emotionally with her performances.
Her favorite performance is “I Love You,” a piece originally performed in Barcelona in 2007 that she has since re-performed in Malaysia, Sweden and England. Bathed in the red glow of a theater light, she grasps a 35-by-78 inch piece of glass weighing 70 pounds as a means to convey the burden and joy of love. She repeatedly says “I love you” while traversing the space for four hours, allowing her voice to vacillate with emotion and fatigue.
Her next performance is in September in Istanbul at the ARTER — Space for Art. Iola Lenzi will curate the exhibition featuring works by 30 Southeast Asian visual artists and Ms. Suryodarmo will perform her “I Love You” piece.
“I don’t think she has made her best work yet,” said Ms. Abramovic, who recently named Ms. Suryodarmo as one of 10 young artists to watch in an article for Harper’s Bazaar. “There is a very strong progression and clarity in her ideas. I think it’s remarkable how she is slowly putting her own tradition and background more and more into her work.”
A version of this article appears in print on June 13, 2014, in The International New York Times.
Article courtesy of The New York Times