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Melati Suryodarmo: a Ghost at Home, Star on Stage

Author: Jakarta Globe Dec,2014

The mass of charcoal that filled the ground on the second floor balcony of the Singapore Art Museum was to be ground down with a rolling pin by Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo. Her white outfit stood out vividly against the mass of black charcoal, a symbol of life’s energy, as she ground down the material for up to 12 hours, pausing only to rest or sleep.

“The motion of crushing or grinding involves emotions due to its repetition. We do not think about our surroundings, as we become one with ourselves,” said the 45-year-old artist, who first performed the piece, “I’m a Ghost in My Own House,” in Bandung in 2012.

“[‘I’m a Ghost in My Own House’] aims to understand our view of home. A home is a place where we live, but it can also be an environment that we feel attached or familiar with, whether it be our culture, country, work and so on. A home can be peaceful but also a place for confrontation, disasters, and conflicts.”

Melati’s physically and emotionally riveting performance in “I’m a Ghost in My Own House” won her critical acclaim in Indonesia and overseas, and she is one of 15 artists short-listed for the 2014 Asian Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize, celebrating cutting-edge visual arts from across the Asia-Pacific region.

Now Melati pits her physical brand of performance art, which was exemplified in 2000’s “Exergie — Butter Dance” and “Perception of Patterns in Timeless Influence” seven years later, alongside artists like New Zealander Lisa Reihana’s “In Pursuit of Venus,” a video art homage to the South Pacific, and “Golden Teardrop,” Thai artist Arin Rungjang’s take on cultural giving and taking.

For Indonesian curator Rifky Effendy, who referred Melati to the Art Prize, “I’m a Ghost in My Own House” exemplifies Melati’s total art, which she proves by getting black and blue after dancing and slipping in 20 slabs of butter in “Exergie — Butter Dance.”

“In ‘I’m a Ghost in My Own House,’ the audience gets to feel her alienation, sadness, tiredness and uncertainty, as the performance grinds them down along with the charcoal,” Rifky said.

“While [‘I’m a Ghost in My Own House’] perhaps brings up issues like domestic violence and political change, it also symbolizes her strength, perseverance and resilience.”

Melati got her start in the arts thanks to her father, Suprapto Suryodarmo, the founder of the Amerta meditative dance movement, and her mother, a traditional Javanese dancer.

“As an adolescent, I danced, I learnt tai chi and was an aerobics instructor. I also joined a Javanese Sumarah meditation community from the ages of 11 to 18,” she said. “But I got my real start in the arts when I met Butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa and contemporary dancer Marina Abramovic at the [Braunschweig] University of Fine Arts in Germany. Aside from teaching me Butoh, Furukawa encouraged me to trust my body and deal with it through dance by accepting my physique. She also encouraged me to do research in creating art, carefully choreograph it, and manage the production from basic means,” she said.

“Abramovic encouraged me to be faithful to my life and art, take the risks and responsibility of my work, be engaged with the public and be a professional performance artist.

“Both mentors reminded me of my dance roots by highlighting the physical and cultural experiences. But most of all, Furukawa and Abramovic encouraged me to find my own way and develop a unique method and style of work,” Melati said.

Melati’s years in Germany, and her tutelage under Furukawa and Abramovic was perhaps reflected best in “Exergie — Butter Dance”, which was first performed at Berlin’s Hebbel Theater in 2000. The act dealt with her first experiences in Germany, starting with the seemingly mundane, like eating butter for the first time, to less tangible issues like resilience, which influenced her as an artist and individual.

“‘Exergie — Butter Dance’ is a reflexive piece, as it deals with the moment when I have to rescue myself from danger or falling down,” Melati said.

“Although I know that I will eventually slip and fall when I dance on butter, I will tough it out by getting up and repeating the same steps. It’s like life, where we repeat the same actions, though we know the risks of repeating the same mistakes.”

For Melati, physical movement is the brush that makes her art. “The most important thing in performance arts is the use of physical action to convey energy. Sometimes this creates contradictions, as I have to balance reality and the hitherto unseen part of me,” she said.

“My body is only a medium, yet it has the energy that gives it life. It also contains my memories as well as my cultural roots.”

She adds that her art is also bolstered by being true to herself.

“My ideas come out from honest, deep-seated notions of my own life and a belief in an unspoken universal language of feeling and mind that probably connects us through similar experiences. I might provoke different opinions, but then again different perceptions are one of the beauties of making art work.”

The artist’s take on energy and change is conveyed in “I’m a  Ghost in My Own House.” Her use of charcoal highlighted its capacity for sustaining life by providing heat and fire on one hand, as well as burning and destruction on the other. Charcoal as the material used in this performance can represent this phenomenon. From its source and original substance, it can change into another substance through a process.

Her grinding of the material is akin to an individual undergoing a psychological metamorphosis that transforms their appearance and structure.

“I first got the idea to make ‘I’m a Ghost in My Own House’ in 2009, as I was doing research on homeless people and pondering the meaning of being psychologically homeless and uprooted. The concept was developed further two years later, as I was seeking to work on different materials for my performance art.”

Melati is certain that performance art is undergoing a renaissance that promises to raise its profile back to its heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, before it slipped into obscurity for nearly three decades.

“Interest in performance arts among young people is increasing, and that’s a good sign. But we need more workshops, classes and other means to foster their appreciation for the art form,” she said.

“Performance art is still hampered by a shortage of appreciation and critics who understand it.”

Article courtesy of Jakarta Globe:

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