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Melati Suryodarmo: Culture, performance, and womanhood

A reflection on her career and practice


Published: 16 Oct 2019

Cover image courtesy of the artist. 

The following article is extracted from an archival report of da:ns lab 2018, written from the perspectives of participants Chloe Chotrani and Chan Sze-Wei. It include excerpts from the artists' lectures and Q&A sessions with the da:ns lab participants.

It is very rare, to gather all women artists, especially in Southeast Asia

Melati shares this thought before she introduces herself, and goes on to talk about the periodical timeframe of her life and artistic practice.



Born in Solo, Indonesia. Parents both are dance artists, growing up in an environment of struggling local artists.


Studied International Politics in Bandung, Indonesia. Heavily involved in political activism, demonstrating on the streets against the regime, participated in dangerous underground movements.


Moved to Germany without any plans, wanted to study politics, but ended up in the arts by meeting Butoh master Anza Furukawa, who taught her performance art. Which led to her studies in Hochschule fuer Bildende Kuenste, Braunschweig, Germany; having had the chance to be a student of the pioneer performance artist, Marina Abramovic.

On otherness,

During her studies in Germany, she faced culture shock, particularly with nudity. In Indonesia, nudity would be forbidden. She explored sexuality, eroticism, watching films that wouldn’t exist in Indonesia. How then does she continue making work from her cultural context within this Western liberalised landscape in Berlin?

Facing a very latent sense of discrimination of ‘otherness’ was heavily present. For Melati, she made a statement of ‘no, I am not representing Indonesia, this cultural identity is a burden, actually’. The mental construction by being brought up in Indonesia as told to always ‘represent’ her cultural identity made her criticise these national strategies that exposed the exotic, values that are used to only please and feed the other.

With that said, remembering the 350 years of colonial history of the Dutch, and remembering our ancestors, that we once were perceived as a ‘lower human’ compared to the Dutch. The appropriation of culture that is carried today in post-colonial society: How then do we present ourselves? How do we present our culture in the global context? This includes—How do we culturally perceive women?

Melati shares that in her work “I think that I am independent of all of this. What if I don’t belong to all of this? The substance of nothingness is very important to me, it is not empty.”

“My work is very simple, it is how I experience life, without exposing the experience itself.”

On nothingness,

“Nothingness can appear from near death experiences. Nothingness is the experience of birthing my daughter. Nothingness is when I divorced, leaving my abusive husband. Nothingness is also when you don’t have money, when you have nothing to eat, only your body.

I am very close to myself, I am close to my breathe, because my breathe gives me my life.

My work is very simple, it is how I experience life, without exposing the experience itself. As people in society, sometimes we don’t want to expose our private experiences. I try to find the language in my performance, to avoid a narration. I’d rather learn a more poetic approach, to leave my body in time, and space.”

On criticising culture,

As Melati learned performance art from the traditional Japanese form Butoh; it is very internal, but also political. For Butoh practitioners, they do not call Butoh as dance. Butoh is important to understand how we deal with our insight, Butoh is a visual form of meditation. Butoh inspired Melati to understand how the body becomes political. Butoh appeared during World War II and criticised Western culture. Which brought Melati to ask—What can I criticise about my own Indonesian culture?

“Butoh is a visual form of meditation. Butoh inspired me to understand how the body becomes political.”

Realising, there is so much that she doesn’t agree with, she then made a list of all that she doesn’t agree with from her Indonesian culture, from domesticity, to freedom of speech. As well as, looking at German life in the ’90s. In Germany too, especially in the conservative villages, there were several problems of domestic life for women. Mothers who were waiting for children in the school to come out, were actually worse off than in Indonesia.

These experiences influenced the way I work, the way I speak with the teachers, the way I asked for a place for my daughter to get afternoon care. First of all, I am Asian, second, I am an artist. It was very difficult to put yourself in this conservative society.

On being an artist and a mother,

Working with Butoh master Anza Furukawa, and later on as a student working with Marina Abramovic, both were very strong female figures who shaped the way she thought about women as artist and inevitably, her thinking about gender equality. In an indirect way, there was a strong presence of feminism. There were questions of societies’ attitude towards women, the place of female artists, and these were applied consciously in her projects.

As a student of Marina, Melati insisted on bringing her daughter to class. Marina was infamous for believing that you had to choose between a family and a career as an artist. Melati and a fellow friend of hers both had children; she brought her baby to class and she said: “I will bring my baby to class, because I have no money for a baby sitter”. Marina responded by saying that as long as it doesn’t disrupt the class. Other professors too started to allow Melati to bring her baby to school. She was the first person who started to bring her baby into the school, and other friends followed. During some of Melati’s performances, Marina caringly took care of Melati’s baby.

On performance art,

Melati then shares her body of works from 1998-2016, from which I have only chosen a selected few to include in this archive.

  • 1998: Der Sekendentraum (Having a dream in one second), World Haus TV, Weimar, Germany

This work was done when Melati just gave birth. These were clothes she collected in Germany since 1994 every weekend in flea markets to buy cheap clothing, obsessively trying to be accepted into society and seek an identity. 300 pieces of clothing; a symbolic action to construct and destroy life.

A one-hour performance where she starts folding all of the clothing, then starting to wear each piece of clothing, leading towards a sense of claustrophobia, pressure from the layers of clothes, until she literally cannot move anymore.

  • 2000: Exergie – Butter Dance, Hebbel Theatre, Berlin

How do we use the body at its minimum condition? Melati reduced ideas until it was condensed into only dancing on butter. Fear was the motivation of this work. Questioning her existence—Where shall I go, after this?

The economic situation in Europe was poor during this period. Marina Abramovic challenged her students to create a work only using 10EUR. It wasn’t about having money, but also about anticipating the economic situation. Especially as a performance artist using the body; rather than complaining about no money for production or choreography, but “you have your body”, you actually don’t need much, you can do enough with your body.

“Why was I so worried to express myself in this outfit in Germany?”

The actions in this piece symbolize the transgression against the prejudice towards Asian women married to German men, the prejudice towards Taiwanese, Filipino, or Asian women. “I do respect women who have the courage to change no matter what.”

The 20-minute soundtrack is from Makkasar in South Sulawesi; a ceremonial dance that is being played for seven days, non-stop; the ceremony is hosted by a transgender shaman in Sulawesi.

“The aim of making this work is to get up. You can fail, but you do it anyway. You seldom expose how to get up when you fail.”

This was performed over 21 times in different cultural environments. Men would laugh, while women take it seriously.

  • 2001: Lullaby for the Ancestors, LOT Theatre, Braunchweig

In this piece, Melati focused on both the traditional performance, and the contemporary performance. Inspired by the Tarang Kepang from East Java, created by a shaman artist where they used objects in rituals such as—woven bamboo in the form of a horse that criticised the king who controlled society during that time.

The performance used elements of trance, torture, anecdote, and demonic symbols. Melati combined these elements and took the challenge to make a clean performance out of this messy ritual.

She then narrowed it down to only three elements, first putting her head in a bucket of water, then she walked to crack a whip repeatedly, then to walk the horse around the stage. Using simplicity and repetition. The sound of the whip ruptured the atmosphere, so she took the time to learn how to use large leather Western whip, which produced a stronger cracking.

Traditionally, this dance is done by men. The choice of the dress and her appearance with high heels was a statement of protest, after hundreds of years there was no difference in this tradition, other than seeing pretty girls dancing on the horse for tourists.

    Chloe Chotrani: Did you do fieldwork to study the shamans’ dance?

    Melati: No, I grew up around these trance rituals, observing it as a child. In the ’70s, I would witness trance people eating glass bulbs, sometimes these men were whipped, they have these large masks with peacock feathers and would do trance dances. This carried on until I grew up and left big questions 30 years later. It was scary to see people bleeding, and because children were small, they were put in front. If I never left Indonesia, I wouldn’t feel that it was shocking. It changed my perspective on children, culture, education. Only recently I thought to myself, that was actually scary.

“Art is my spiritual process”

The thing with performance art is that, you decide on a repetitive action for a long period. Thus, Melati prepares her body and work by constructing her thoughts of giving her work to the public. “As soon as my work is shown to the public, I don’t own it. I reserve all obsessiveness of being seen, of understanding, of meaning, of all inner obsession. With this, art is also my spiritual process. To share your work for the public, is not to control their minds. Let people interpret with their own mind and feeling”

On daily practice,

    Susan Sentler: What is your daily practice?

    Melati: What constitutes Melati’s daily practice is meditation. Which is not only a practice of meditating, but also to experience life events in these moments. Daily practice as a means of how one deals with life, the life of your relations, and the life of moving constellations.

“Performance art for me is the art of doing.”

The research that Melati practices is not necessarily scientific, it can come from a surprising life event, or irrationality, or to see news of fundamentalists taking children into suicidal bombs, people throwing rubbish in the river next to her studio, to see the destruction of nature in replacement of a housing unit, to experience changes.

Feminism is not about how you make a feminist work, it is not about how you show women suffering, or any gendered context onto the stage. Rather, it is how you live in it.

On feminism,

Feminism is not about how you make a feminist work, it is not about how you show women suffering, or any gendered context onto the stage. Rather, it is how you live in it. Feminism now a day is not about yelling for your rights, but it is about action that can enter as many sections, in-between sections is just as important. Performance art is considered an in-between genre, it is not performing arts, it is not fine art.

“The jokes that objectify women and female dancers on the public media—this must be fought with, collectively.”

Melati is highly aware of the misuse, objectification and harassment particularly of the dancers in her hometown Solo, Indonesia by male directors and choreographers. The jokes that objectify women and female dancers on the public media—this must be fought with, collectively.

The arts environment is still dominated by the male, it is still a soft macho focus. It is bad that it continues to be a male perspective that dominates. There is a spirit that we need to keep, platform is important, especially cross-cultural sharing, to be exposed to varied practices and movements. Do we know what we fight for? Are we capable?

“Using an element of life to make art is a present for our collective spirits.”

Even though we don’t think about gender, it affects everything. Our task today as artists that use the body… our body is full of statement. Are we tired of that? How do we put our statement in the right place, and the right time? Let’s learn together.

On working with dance and dancers,

Melati mentioned that she is going back to dance to engage more with her community in Solo. She is interested in examining the use of the body in different mediums.

Susan Sentler: The ’50s approach of visual artists appropriating dance and dance labour is problematic.

    Melati: There is more awareness in the West that artists who contribute labour in (the) collaboration process should be acknowledged. In Solo you don’t talk about collaborators. Even choreographers forget to mention dancers, musicians. It’s all about me, me, me. A lot of things need step-by-step improvement: a minimum wage, a monthly standard – there are some attempts for more open administration in Indonesia.

“My understanding of collaboration with dancers is to borrow someone’s body.”

    Sonia Kwek: How did you decide to shift to work with dancers in pieces such as Sisyphus?

    Melati: Since 2011, I also borrow dancers’ bodies to become the realisation of my thoughts. I have been thinking about how to combine the practice of performance art and dancers’ bodies. There is some translation of what is choreography with the concept of performance art. For Sisyphus, we examined the act of possession. I did research with shamans, dancing with spirits. With the dancers we examined if (the) spirit was really inside (the) body or our own spirit that allowed us to be more free of our body. I also wanted to know do we remember movement that we do in trance/possession. Traditional dance respects the body so much because dance is not a show but part of ritual. Court dance is more objectifying.

 My work is very boring for most Indonesian dance viewers. Some dancers say “Oh, Melati’s doing choreography now?”

Reflections by Chloe Chotrani

The informality, laughter, and discussion between the participants and Melati made the lecture-performance so accessible and enjoyable. Most especially, having someone come from this region, it was insightful for us to have someone understand their place in the world of performance art from a Southeast Asian context.

It was important to have her in this da:ns lab, to receive a rooted and local perspective, where we too can relate and learn strategies and perspectives on having a critical approach that is both intimate and distant of our cultural placement, conditions, and how they may reflect in our artistic practice.

I found that there was a beautiful parallel moment, when Melati took care of Sze-Wei’s baby, whom joined us during most of the da:ns lab. I felt, this moment reflected the growth and change in the arts industry, on how it is now accepted for motherhood and a career in the arts to co-exist. Her baby was an important presence, because it echoed in the space for all the women there, that this life is possible for us. We can make art, and we can make babies too, at the same time if we’d like.

Contributed by:

Chloe Chotrani

Chloe Chotrani (1992) is movement artist based in Singapore. She is a dancer for local companies Chowk and P7:1SMA, and is an associate artist with Dance Nucleus. She holds a Post-Graduate's Diploma in Asian Art from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She has travelled and learned dance forms and philosophies in West Africa, New York, and Southeast Asia. As a writer, she occasionally reviews dance performances for regional arts publication Arts Equator. Interdependently, her artistic practice is rooted on the studies on softness, which she explores as a way of life. When she is not dancing or writing, she is tending to plants in her food garden, and immersed in nature.


Melati Suryodarmo

Melati Suryodarmo (b. 1969, Solo, Indonesia) is a visual artist currently based in Indonesia. She holds a degree in international relations from Universitas Padjadjaran Bandung (UNPAD), Indonesia and has studied under renowned Butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa and acclaimed performance artist Marina Abramovic in Germany, where Suryodarmo earned a degree in fine art and an MFA in performance art at the Braunschweig University of Art. Suryodarmo is known for her highly physical, time-based performances in which she uses her body as a theatrical canvas. She has performed widely all over the world, notably in the Venice Biennale International Festival of Contemporary Dance (2007), eBent festival (Barcelona, 2007), AccionMad! (Madrid, 2006), and Videobrasil International Electronic Art Festival (São Paolo, Brazil, 2005). Since 2007, she has organised the annual Performance Art Laboratory Project for the interdisciplinary arts institution Padepokan Lemah Putih in Solo, Indonesia. Melati Suryodarmo’s presence in Singapore was supported by STPI.

da:ns lab

da:ns lab is an annual platform for dance practitioners to reflect upon key issues surrounding their creative practice, as part of da:ns festival at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay. The programme aims to engage dance practitioners in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region in artistic discourse, research, reflection and exchange.

Download the full report for da:ns lab 2018 here

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