The superstar performance artist, Melati Suryodarmo, returns to New York next month to perform Eins und Eins (2016) at The Armory Show. The piece uses the human body as a metaphor for a nation’s health and involves the spewing of black ink. Having been trained by Marina Abramović and Anzu Furukawa, Suryodarmo combines butoh practices with western performance art, merging her Indonesian origins with her time in Germany. Her most famous work, Exergie – butter dance (2000), may be familiar to some due to the fact that a recording of it went internationally viral in 2012 when someone replaced the traditional Indonesian music with a song by Adele. We met while she was here in October for a show at the Asia Society. We talked about the school she has set-up near her home in Java, the challenges artists face with the internet, and the difficulty of being a foreigner even at home. She explains her doubts regarding the performance art genre and why she has become more “serious.”
George Kan [Rail]: Your performance I Love You (2007) is one of my favorite pieces of performance art, and yet I’ve only ever seen it online.
Melati Suryodarmo: You know, the thing with technology in this millennium is everything is almost always accessible and—at the same time—uncontrollable. So artists, performers, and choreographers need to think about the authorship of their work, how much they open it for the public through the internet and social media. In the case of butter dance, people copied, edited… I was worried because of my daughter; many people spread insults and not nice words. But I asked her and she said “Mama, it’s YouTube, it’s fine.” And I thought: “Wow, I must learn from her generation!” For me, the public is always unpredictable. Once you send your work out, you cannot control people’s minds, either in privileged places such as the gallery or the theater or… outside, in the public space, on the internet.
Rail: So, for artists making work you must be open, prepared?
Suryodarmo: Yes. It’s a risk. With every artwork there is a risk. Artists must know this. If you don’t want to face the risk of the world, then don’t show your work! [Laughs] You need to have the readiness, which means you need to have control of yourself. I can do—well, maybe not anymore [laughs]—my butter dance in different places, in a church, outdoors… My work is not framed. There’s no high security. It’s about flesh. It’s about meetings and encounters.
Rail: What I admire about your work is, even in misinterpretation, like with what happened to butter dance, it is very resilient. Not everyone is able to perform without a frame. Other people’s work might not survive.
Suryodarmo: My medium is my body. I travel with my body, I migrate with my body, meet different kinds of communities, peoples, societies, cultures, and it’s always attached. I cannot separate myself from this. [She tugs at herself] It’s part of how you see life. I don’t see myself as an art object.
In 2013, I performed in the Alps where there was no one. And for me it was clear: “hey, nobody is coming, but you will perform.” It was cold, scary, and lonely on the mountain. “So, this is what you’re doing, you’re doing art, not making but doing.” The art of doing. That’s performance art to me.
Rail: What is your distinction between “making” and “doing”?
Suryodarmo: Making is preparing, creating. The doing is the full hard work, the full mind, doing your life. I’m not acting; it’s different.
Rail: You talk about what you call “poetical action.”
Suryodarmo: Yes, but it’s the doing. Not acting. The adaptability of our body is something that is very precious. You adjust to each new situation. When I arrived in New York, I thought, “okay, so this is the air in New York.” I tried to understand how my body moves here. It’s a bit heavy. The energy of the city is heavy. Why is it heavy? In Tokyo, it is crowded but I felt light. In my hometown it's warm, humid, slow—yet I’m over-active at home. This kind of thing is chemical. When using your body as a medium, you have to understand your body in these terms. Everyone has different knowledge about their own body. I say to my students: “This is your special knowledge.”
Rail: It’s interesting hearing you describe coming into contact with the air around you. Because watching your performances, there’s often an interaction, or a meeting, between yourself and some material. Such as an animal, or charcoal, or water.
Suryodarmo: Yes. If it’s necessary, I use it. It’s a long decision. Sometimes my idea never reaches a performance; maybe it’s just a film. In a film I was just showing, I was directing an actor covered in aluminium foil. And I was so obsessed that they were me. The figure is just walking in the forest, very quiet. And I saw them as myself. I felt like, “okay, I found it.”
Rail: Is there a big difference between different mediums?
Suryodarmo: Between performance and film? Not in the mind. It’s just a different language. But material is very important for me. Like why I chose butter. Normally I try to interpret the object as a substitute for something. For example, maybe this chair [places her hands on a chair next to her] is my father. Maybe the chair isn’t my father for you, but for me it is.
Rail: Just watching you hold the chair, I’m already convinced. [Laughter]
Suryodarmo: [Laughs] Sometimes you just have a strong connection with something.
Rail: Well, you talk about finding “audible language.” Which is interesting. It seems only when you find it does it become “audible”?
Suryodarmo: Yeah, because sometimes it’s not from me, but from the environment. Completing each other. The space, the audience, what the audience brings in their mind. That’s very important. It’s why I don’t mind repeating a performance. It’s so different. The message is working if people can enter their own space. I like it. I like it! [Laughs]
You know ten years ago I had some doubts about performance art as a genre. Because fewer and fewer people were interested, there was a commercializing of performers. The Abramović line was called old fashioned. But now I think it has a future again.
Rail: What’s given it a future?
Suryodarmo: Now there’s virtual reality and technology. So I think when this happens, there’s a necessity to go back to the flesh.
Rail: It’s interesting you had doubts about the genre. In some ways your work is very typical of the performance art genre, but then your inclusion of Javanese and Butoh influences sets your work apart a little. Or perhaps they reveal the similarities between the different approaches.
Suryodarmo: Yeah… Even now, more and more, I’m interested in tradition as a source of knowledge. When I was living in Germany, I was familiar with philosophy, aesthetic practices, etc. And that was good. But, to be in a different part of the world from my origin, to have those influences from the West, I always criticize this as a tool to look at my own origin. It’s very dangerous. Because then I colonize myself. That’s what happened in education in my country. It’s unavoidable. The only way is to go rough. No, not rough… to approach the source.
Rail: The source…?
Suryodarmo: Okay. Take this for example: There are shamanist practices, Javanese practices. If I see them with my Western influence, I think “Wow! It’s fantastic how there can be drums, how they use the body,” and so on. But I’m always like the outsider. If I can empty myself and just watch and be with them, it’s a totally different feeling. It’s the experience.
Rail: And that is richer.
Suryodarmo: Yes. And I think there is of course a bridge. Because I come from there. It’s not the transcendence some scientists describe about trance. To connect with the spirit, you must let go of everything. It’s about the spirit, not about catharsis in terms of cleaning or healing yourself.
Rail: Do you think about the future of art practices, particularly in relation to this East/West binary?
Suryodarmo: You know, I try not to be the representative of my culture. That’s not the intention of my art. To be myself is enough. To communicate with art. I think, of course, I’m always foreign when I’m in Germany or abroad. But I’m also a bit foreign when I’m at home. [Laughs] I’m a stranger in my own place. And that’s interesting. People say “Your work is not Indonesian enough,” and I ask, “Well, what is Indonesian?”
Rail: You’re saying to instead embrace the complexity…?
Suryodarmo: Sometimes. Like, even at the beginning of this interview, I felt, “we are not important!” Our beings are part of the whole thing.
Rail: You mean the individual is not important?
Suryodarmo: Yes. And yet my work starts from the very, very private. And I’m inspired by personal experience a lot. That’s where I learn. My task is to translate this into a language that leaks through different aspects of life, or of society.
Rail: Something accessible—
Suryodarmo: Yeah… I don’t want to, like, cry “Oh I’m broken hearted!” And then make a performance about my broken heart. The task of art is, in part, to transcend the idea of the personal area into a more accessible area.
For instance, hearing from audience members of I Love You, one person feels happiness, another sadness. It’s an area that’s undefinable. It is undisclosed territory. And I like it like that. I don’t want to bring people to the same mind as me.
Rail: With I Love You, I always get fixated on the suit and high heels.
Suryodarmo: Yeah, it’s always a suit and high heels. Neat hair. White shirt. Because can you imagine if I hold the glass sheet—it’s fragile and heavy—and wear a dress? It would look like Madame Butterfly! I like cliché but I’m also anti-cliché. As a woman with a suit, it’s a stereotype too. I like it to reduce the over-feminized, because it’s not about the fragility of a woman! I’m interested in the surreality of life. Like in natural catastrophes. After an earthquake, or volcanic eruption, it’s like a Dali painting. But it’s real!
Rail: Is this the “factual absurdity” you sometimes refer to seeking?
Suryodarmo: Yes... I’ve been talking about this for more than twenty years. [Laughter]
Rail: And what is it?
Suryodarmo: The impossible of the possible?
Rail: I’m picturing I Love You, and there’s something so impractical about the heels and that sheet of glass.
Suryodarmo: Yes. [Laughs]
Rail: Do you embrace that comic aspect of the absurd?
Suryodarmo: I used to work in the comic aspect then I became very serious [laughter]. I trained with Anzu Furukawa and she is not into the dark, dark butoh. Her approach is closer to real life: “Life is hard but—okay! Let’s do it and continue!” Treating our misfortune with lightness.
Rail: So why serious now?
Suryodarmo: In Germany—no matter how hard it was for me—it’s a comfort zone, everything is organized, everything is there. You just follow the rules and you are fine. Even if you don’t have work, you still can eat. I move back to Indonesia and, if I do not work, I cannot eat! Every hour, everyday life is seriously dangerous. Everything is safe in Germany. In Germany, you take the baby in the car, you have a seat belt and everything. In Indonesia you see mothers with their babies on a motorbike without a helmet every day. It’s chaos. I’m working on a dance piece about chaos at the moment and it’s getting serious—how to deal with life. I have to take care of my safety all the time. What is wrong? Why do people live in such poverty and it’s not improving? Although they’re smart kids, smart people I think, “why am I doing high art?”
Rail: How does art help?
Suryodarmo: Yeah. Or how does it function? Because I think art must be functioning. And I ask myself, where is the function? If I can make you think about your mum, okay, that’s functioning, that’s enough if you remember your mum. That’s what I can do. But in terms of making it only clean and beautiful, no, it’s not my thing. I cannot. I work a little more rough. There’s a trend now in performance art where people are using more and more beautiful performers, like Anne Imhof, and this may be kind of a return to the beautiful idea of performance art. Perhaps it’s more conservative.
Maybe my life is becoming a bit more rough—and my work very serious, less comedic—because my environment is tough. The uprising fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has been rooted in the schools for 30 years, the university, the family. It’s a big crisis. I felt even more like we had to do something with art. I opened my space, my studio. In the last five years, I’ve thought, “okay, what can I do for my village?” I thought: “okay, let’s make a dance practice for the kids.” And it’s working! And it makes me very happy! And the kids are happy! And they come for free; I don’t charge. You see these kids normally just standing at the cross section in the village, they go to the mosque to learn… and now they do traditional Javanese dance at my studio with my friends teaching them. And I think that is something useful. I don’t know where it goes, but—
Rail: That’s “functioning.”
Suryodarmo: Yeah, that’s functioning. That’s really functioning. But I cannot live without making art. My choreographic pieces empower my younger friends. Introduce them to self-management, economics—what we can make with what we have. It gives them confidence. Because, actually, our society lacks confidence.
Interview courtesy of The Brooklyn Rail: https://brooklynrail.org/2020/02/dance/MELATI-SURYODARMO-with-George-Kan