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Visual Arts

Insights: Melati Suryodarmo

Explorations on enduring human behaviours


Published: 5 Dec 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Explorations on how enduring human behaviours that trace back to prehistoric times resonate with present-day lived realities, shaping how we relate with each other and lending insight into the fissures that exist in the world today.

 Installation view of <em>Fracture</em>, Melati Suryodarmo, 2023. 

The body, a vessel of experience and memory, is a living testament to the continuity of human nature across the ages. Behaviours like hunting, gathering, greed and defence have existed in the earliest human civilisations. Fracture looks at how enduring human behaviours that trace back to prehistoric times resonate with present-day lived realities, shaping how we relate with each other and lending insight into the fissures that exist in the world today.  

Through performance and an installation of objects, prints and video, Melati Suryodarmo unveils the connections that tie behaviours with prehistoric roots to the tapestry of our present existence. As part of the exhibition, there were two durational performances where Melati and two performers enacted symbolic gestures that evoke primal ways of being. As the performers interact with the installation, the environment transforms, with the objects embodying new layers of meaning. A moving image work and a series of cyanotype prints in the installation explore ideas of identity, memory and the passage of time. 

 Installation view of <em>Fracture</em>, Melati Suryodarmo, 2023. 

Interview with Melati Suryodarmo

Fracture is a poignant exploration of the human condition. In an age of globalisation, sociopolitical divides continue to persist and shape the relationship between the body and the world it inhabits. Melati shares in this interview her development process of Fracture.

The genesis of 'Fracture' emerged from the impulse to explore human nature and the divides that persist in the world today. How did the idea for 'Fracture' come about? What is the inspiration behind this work? 

Fracture is not just about the present day but recognising that our society is also a product of the past, not just referring to post-colonial or colonial times, but what existed millions of years ago. I live about 15 minutes from the Sangiran Museum of Ancient Man in Solo, Indonesia which has the world’s largest collection of Homo erectus fossils. It is also the site where the remains of the Solo Man (homo erectus soloensis) were found. The story goes that the Solo Man was always travelling. I am also drawn to the legend of the lost city of Atlantis1. The idea of the 'disappearing paradise' is a product that has been created by historians using archaeological evidence. We are unable to travel back in time, but we can exercise our imagination with the information we have uncovered to experience what it could be like in the past.

 Installation view of <em>Fracture</em>, Melati Suryodarmo, 2023. 

There are many layers that form the foundation of Fracture. One key idea is that of migration and the migration of bodies. It is not just movement across geographical territories but also the evolution of the body. Migration is like a plant which could sink its roots or move to another place depending on the seasons. 

The desire to survive remains till today. It is a fundamental characteristic of human behaviour. There is a primordial tendency in humans to protect our clan, fearing strangers and being territorial. The traits we observe in primordial societies are still present and this is what I am drawn to. These innate behaviours influence the sophisticated systems that we observe around us in the present day. If we continue perpetuating such ways of being without being aware of or questioning the origins of such behaviour, then we are lost. 

 In two durational performances, you and two performers engaged with the installation in the space, a presence of being in the space. What were you exploring through these performances, and could you share about the objects or devices used? 

I created suspended installations and head pieces for the performances out of goat’s hair. The use of goat’s hair is symbolic for me. During Eid al-Adha, Muslims would sacrifice goats in commemoration of the story in which Prophet Ibrahim was commanded to sacrifice his son Ismail. Every year I would witness mass numbers of goats being killed. I sourced the goat’s hair from Bali where it has traditionally been used to make costumes for the temple dance Barong and for Calon Arang, a female character in Balinese folklore who is known for practising black magic. I am aware of the symbolic connotations of goats’ hair in Balinese culture and the Balinese would be reminded of these associations when they see this material. However, I do not want to highlight these in the context of Fracture. 

In the performances, the living sculptures as portrayed by the performers dressed in blue and wearing head pieces made of goats’ hair appear weird. I have intentionally covered their faces as a response to our human obsession with 'face.' We are scared to 'lose face' and are concerned with how we are identified or viewed by others. If we let go of this preoccupation, we can see more into people’s hearts. The culture of identity—how we align ourselves according to certain traits or characteristics—is an expression of territoriality as well. One of my strategies is to invite the audience to sense more and pay more attention to the presence of the human body, to let go of the physical and sense what is inside. 

The repetitive action of breaking precast concrete slabs in the performances is a gesture of survival. The fragments that emerge from this process are symbolic of our primordial behaviours manifesting themselves in the present day, in our belief systems, culture and even wars. Our territorial instincts are related to the desire for power, which is also a basic human instinct. Fracture is a metaphor for the broken pieces that have been scattered by humans over millions of years of existence and evolution, and which still resonate today. 

Could you elaborate on the inspiration for the video work 'Paradise of the Unknown' and the ideas that you are exploring? 

I am interested in the idea of paradise which often connotes a good life, happiness or a sense of heaven or utopia. Paradise of the Unknown refers to the story of the prehistoric human. I wanted to convey this idea of weird creatures existing in a real environment in the present day. I am interested in the concept of the underworld. The Bugis people2 believe that three realms exist: the underworld, middle world and upper world. Humans are part of the middle world and must respect the underworld and upper world. There is balance and harmony in this relationship. This ancient knowledge and belief system also influences the way I see human relationships with nature and our environment. 

 Installation view of <em>Fracture</em>, Melati Suryodarmo, 2023. 

The colour blue features prominently in Fracture. For me, blue is fluid, always moving and changing. It is not fixed like black or white. I like the associations with this colour and the emotions it conveys. I did not intend for it to necessarily symbolise the underworld. In the video, you would see the figures above the water, where their faces are concealed; and under water, where the faces are revealed and resolved. There is a fairytale-like quality which I like. 


I have been reflecting on the idea of freedom. What is the meaning of freedom? There are a lot of theories about what freedom is. I believe it is something that we already have but which has been suppressed. I have been observing the situation in Indonesia and thinking about this idea of freedom.

The relationship between beliefs and knowledge has always been my interest. I am currently the Artistic Director of the Indonesia Bertutur, the art and culture festival presented by Indonesia’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology. In this role, I am learning a lot about archaeology, culture and heritage. I am interested in seeing my culture from our own perspective, not just from a colonial or post-colonial lens. There can be a colonialism of thinking when we view our culture through frameworks or fields of study from the West, like sociology. This causes us to keep a distance from our own resources.

The concept of time is something that runs through 'Fracture' and your practice. In this work, you engage with materials which embody time and history—seashells, sand and cyanotype prints. The durational performances and video work also explores the human body within a landscape or nature, a form of embodied history where stories reside deep within. There is an examination of different facets of time. Could you share more on what you're seeking to convey about time in 'Fracture'? 

Time is interesting and fluid. It depends on how aware you are of it. When I was living in Scandinavia, there were periods when I experienced only one and a half hours of sunlight every day. This affected my mental state, behaviour and sense of productivity. It is very different to living in the tropics where we get sunlight for half the day. Time, to me, is about breath and breathing. This is something that is central to my practice. It is about understanding our capacity for breathing and how it is connected to our pulse and heartbeat. Humans have created a system for counting or telling time, and this supports the collective systems of production that we witness today. On the other hand, nature has a very long history that stretches for millennia. This history is different from human history. Time has a close relationship with nature and it also in turn shapes culture and society. 

 Installation view of <em>Fracture</em>, Melati Suryodarmo, 2023. 


1The legend of Atlantis originated from the philosopher Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias. It allegorises the downfall of a great civilisation because of the hubris of human society and corruption in human nature.

2The Bugis people are from southern Celebes (Sulawesi), Indonesia. They are a culturally dominant ethnic group of the island. While they are known for rice cultivation, they are also a maritime people who have engaged in maritime trade for centuries

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