press enter to search

'Why Let the Chicken Run?': Melati Suryodarmo's enduring human experience

Carla Bianpoen

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, March 11, 2020  /  12:49 pm
'Why Let the Chicken Run?': Melati Suryodarmo's enduring human experience

Life cycle: Melati Suryodarmo’s 'I'm a Ghost in My Own House' (2012) is one of her incredible long-durational performance pieces that range from three to 12 hours. (Courtesy of Fendi Siregar/-)

Thirteen durational performance pieces from celebrated artist Melati Suryodarmo’s 20-year career have been selected for her first solo museum presentation, which also includes photography, video performances and historical documentation.

Titled “Why Let the Chicken Run?”, the comprehensive solo exhibition runs from Feb. 27 to May 30 at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN) in West Jakarta.

Of the selected performances, 10 of them – I Am a Ghost in My Own House, Ale Lino, Why Let the Chicken Run, I Love You, Behind the Light, The Promise, The Black Ball, Transaction of Hollows, Eins Und Eins and Exergie Butterdance – are performed live by Melati herself. The other three will be performed by other artists.

Melati’s background goes back to the family she was born into in 1969. Her late father Suprapto Suryodarmo was an artist who created amerta, an unconventional form of art that combines movement, dance and the spiritual, while her mother was an artist of traditional dance.

From an early age, Melati was immersed in a world of various forms of art and culture.

She said her house was always buzzing with her parents’ friends and family. They all came from an eclectic mix of culture, mostly Javanese. They belonged to the world of stage performance, dance, theater, literature, music and chanting.

From a young age she was familiarized with diverse cultural practices. Besides learning from her mother, she was also taught traditional dance by her mother’s teacher Ngaliman, the renowned maestro of dance.

She was introduced to theater, learnt to write poetry and received painting lessons. She also practiced tai chi in a combined form with Buddhist and Javanese elements.

She also learnt to practice yoga and diverse meditation techniques particularly the Javanese sumarah – a local form of meditation that develops sensitivity and acceptance through the deep relaxation of body, emotion and mind.

With such a background, to be an artist would be the logical profession for her, but it was not to be, at least not initially, as her parents were not keen for her to have the same fate as an artist, living on less than minimal income. So she pursued studies in international relations at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, West Java.

It was when she moved to Germany in 1994 with her husband that a chance encounter with renowned Japanese dancer Anzu Furukawa during a lone walk in the park changed her life, ultimately leading her to what she was meant to be. 

Furukawa was known as a prominent dancer and innovative choreographer of the experimental and avant-garde butoh, a form of dance that encompasses cross-cultural, absurd and surreal elements. She was also a professor of performance art at the department of visual arts at Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig (HBKB) in Germany.

“Trust your body”, she told Melati, “and deal with it through dance”. She persuaded Melati to attend her class at the university, which Melati, who was already fascinated with butoh, gladly did.

The encounter began Melati’s engagement with performance art and her interest in her body as the source and storage room of life.

After Furukawa left the university, Melati continued studying performance art, or Kunst und Raum, now under the tutelage of no less than the equally renowned Serbian-born Marina Abramovic, who, since the 1970s, has been a pioneer in the use of performance as a visual art form, employing the body and duration as a means to test her mental and physical limits.

Her method entails an exploration of being present in both time and space, incorporating exercises that focus on breath, motion, stillness and concentration. 

In 2002, Melati finished her studies she began in 1991, graduating as Meisterschuler (MFA). She stayed on in Germany for about two decades, working between Germany and Indonesia, before permanently returning to Indonesia.

Since the late 1990s, Melati has presented her pieces at exhibitions all over the world, including the Venice Biennale, the European Manifesta, the Incheon Biennale in Korea, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and recently, at the Asia Society in New York.

Focusing on her body as a storage room of experience and memory, and using it as her primary tool for revelations through performance, Melati’s pieces reflect deeply on human experience, such as a person’s daily problems and actual concerns, like alienation, discrimination, grief and themes of social, cultural or political struggles – infused with the spirit of experience, indomitable strength and exceeding limits of physical and metaphysical endurance.

They often include intense drama and may appear theatrical, though she insists it is not theater. “I am not an actor,” Melati says.

Challenging: 'In I'm a Ghost in My Own House', the artist grinds charcoal in a chore-like process, mirroring the duality of work and liberation as well as destruction and transformation.Challenging: 'In I'm a Ghost in My Own House', the artist grinds charcoal in a chore-like process, mirroring the duality of work and liberation as well as destruction and transformation. (Courtesy of Fendi Siregar/-)

The piece I am a ghost in my own house, for instance, is infused with an abominable energy of life experience that draws in the audience, evoking their own ordeals in their past or present lives.

Relating to the shifting notion of the house as a home, the problems of daily life and all that bothers humanity, it is about human experience.

“I am always interested in the changing tides of the human condition, which inspires my creative resource,” Melati says.

Her latest work If We Were XYZ, performed at the Asia Society Museum in late 2019, is the result of her self-created Sleep Laboratory to explore the subconscious as a source for her creative performances.

Melati shares her experience, knowledge and network with the younger generation in Indonesia and beyond, working with cross-cultural artists and cross-national art institutions at Padepokan Lemah Putih Solo Indonesia, where she has been organizing the annual International Performance Art Laboratory Project since 2007.

As she proceeds along with the changing zeitgeist, the spirit of the time, Melati continues to expose the changing tides in the human condition, inspiring her audiences to elevated levels of thinking and imagination. (ste)

Your premium period will expire in 0 day(s)

close x
Subscribe to get unlimited access Get 50% off now