Words Victoria Lane / Photography Connor Pope
It is 8pm on a Friday night. Melati Suryodarmo stands in a white room situated on the first floor of the IKON Gallery. The floor is blanketed by jagged pieces of charcoal. Systemic and serene, she grinds lumps of the charcoal with a heavy stone rolling pin, seemingly unaware or unbothered by the crowd gathered to watch. The walls, her dress, and her face are covered with charcoal residue, it swirls through the air and later in the night I will find a smudge of it on my forehead.
Her calm composure and stamina shock me as by my arrival she had been repeating this action for 10 hours.
Passionate Pilgrim is the first ever UK exhibition of Melati Suryodarmo’s work. Considered one of Indonesia’s most important living artists, she is famed for her time-based performances which are considerable feats of physical and mental strength as well as performance pieces.
Mentored by famed performance artist Marina Abramović and Butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa, Suryodarmo’s work blends strands of contemporary performance with traditional influences from Indonesian cultural tradition, most notably for the works on display here the concept of rasa; the ‘essence’ of ‘feeling’ of a work of art.
The exhibition focuses on documenting the artist’s celebrated career in performance. Video screens line the walls playing excerpts from performances from 2000 to 2022. Her work is varied, but is linked by themes revolving around the strength, resilience, and the perception of the female body.
In ‘Exergie-Butter Dance’ (2000), we see the artist dance to Javanese music whilst slipping repeatedly on blocks of butter, and in ‘Sweet Dreams Sweet’ (2013) groups of young women stain each other’s clothing with dyed water.
The actions of the performers in these pieces take on a measured, meditative quality which speaks of endurance and strength.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is by far the most powerful. The piece I’m witness to, ‘I’m a Ghost in My Own House’, is noted in the exhibition guide as Suryodarmo’s “longest and most arduous work”. Suryodarmo breaks pieces of charcoal for a total of 12 hours, her exhaustion symbolic of the expenditure of life’s energy. Despite her unaffected expression, her shoulders droop, she sighs when bending to pick up pieces of charcoal and she is covered with a sheen of sweat and dust.
Performance art is a mutable medium. A piece’s meaning can change and shift based on the viewer’s perspective and the physical context in which the piece is performed. The artwork’s present stage is the West Midlands, a region famous for industrial coal mining and sizable working class.
The performance echoes the gruelling and monotonous work undertaken by the women in the mines, unsung and forgotten by many male-centric history books.
The piece also speaks of the strenuous unpaid labour undertaken by women and migrants; child care, cleaning, cooking and emotional labour, which all take mental and physical toll. Here, the repetitive motion and exhaustion of the performer brings a very physical quality to this notion. As the performance draws to a close, the artist’s white dress is stained almost completely black, symbolic of the physical traces left by the strains of modern life and the hardships faced by migrants.
As the charcoal swirls around the room and covers almost everything within the pristine white cube space, I cannot help but think of the performance as a metaphor for climate change, the expenditure of fossil fuels and its devastating effect on the environment.
Performance art is a very tricky artform to document in an impactful manner. Whilst a video may record the action, it does not convey the essence of the performance.
After the performance ends, Suryodarmo’s soiled dress and shoes are hung within the space amongst the charcoal rubble, representing a tangible link to the action of the performance. Her blackened handprints line the walls and opposite the performance area, nine charcoal drawings evoking the gestures of the performance are also hung, appearing as ghosts of the action.
Melati Suryodarmo’s exhibition runs from 17 May to 3 September 2023 with a delegated performance and a talk by the artist taking place on separate dates in May.
Passionate Pilgrim Extended takes place on Sunday 28 May from 2-4pm and viewers will get to see Suryodarmo and women from the migrant domestic worker activist group ‘Voices of Domestic Workers’ perform the piece, which promises to meditate on questions of identity, reflection, and the ‘audience gaze’.
Melati Suryodarmo’s exhibition ‘Passionate Pilgrim’ is free to visit at IKON Gallery from 17 May to 3 September 2023
For more on Melati Suryodarmo go to: www.melatisuryodarmo.com
For more on IKON Gallery go to: www.ikon-gallery.org