She enters the space to sounds of beating Indonesian drums. Stepping on 20 slabs of butter positioned in the center of the floor, she starts to dance; the movements of her body become faster and faster as the beats accelerate. She slips and falls, hitting the floor, but rises and continues. As the butter melts, her falls become more frequent and violent. Fear is visible in her eyes each time she loses control. After 20 minutes, exhausted and covered in butter, she takes off her heels and leaves.
First presented in 2000 at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin, Exergie – Butter Dance has become an iconic work for performance artist Melati Suryodarmo. We meet amid the frenzy of the inaugural Art Basel in Hong Kong at the Pawn, a casual, trendy lounge in Wan Chai district. Petite and attired in an all-black outfit—the classic artist’s look—she is also sporting her signature ruby-hued high heels. Suryodarmo laughs as she tells me that she never thought of becoming an artist. Having received her first degree in international relations at the Universitas Padjadjaran in Bandung, Indonesia, she moved in 1994 with her first husband to Braunschweig, Germany, planning to continue her education. Unable to find a suitable program, she instead spent her first year retouching photographs.
“My story is very weird, actually. I loved reading at Braunschweig’s botanical gardens, and one day sitting next to me was a Japanese woman wearing big black sunglasses. We struck up a conversation and she mentioned she was a Butoh dancer, teaching performance art at the city’s Hochschule für Bildende Künste (HBK). Her comment caught my attention as I had previously attended a Butoh workshop in Japan. I mentioned this to her and she asked what I was doing in Braunschweig. I told her I was only doing photo work, so she invited me to join her class.”
The mysterious woman turned out to be Anzu Furukawa, the renowned Japanese Butoh dancer and choreographer, who Suryodarmo now considers among her most important influences. “Anzu was the one who discovered me and unveiled my abilities,” she reflects. Suryodarmo became Furukawa’s student in the performance-art program at HBK, with classes that followed a grueling schedule, starting at half past seven in the morning. Furukawa was a tough mentor who taught Suryodarmo how to create and organize stage productions, including choreography and costume making.
While still under Furukawa’s guidance, Suryodarmo presented her first solo performance piece, Rindu (1996), in a dimly lit cellar space in Berlin. Slapping her body and eventually the floor, the pain she subjected herself to reflected her loneliness as a foreigner in Germany and her culture shock in these new surroundings. In the mid-1990s, Berlin was burgeoning with underground spaces—young artists occupied houses as studios and venues for impromptu happenings—and this first foray into performance took place in an art space on Auguststrasse in former East Berlin. Only six people attended, yet, looking back, Suryodarmo explains to me that the experience wasn’t so much about the work itself, but her willingness to do something. “Anzu has always told me not to wait for someone to give you an opportunity. You have to make your own chances and not wait to get curated or invited. Her outlook was brilliant.”
Despite her chance encounter with performance art, Suryodarmo continued the program at HBK after Furukawa left the faculty, and soon met another notable professor. She chuckles when reflecting on her first encounter with Marina Abramović: “I didn’t know who she was, but I remember there were 80 students in her class that first day and she only allowed a maximum of 20.” Suryodarmo continues, “Marina asked everyone why they would like to be in her class. When she turned to me, I said, ‘I want to continue my studies where the last professor left off.’ She looked unimpressed and asked me again. This time I replied, ‘I think you’re very beautiful and I believe I can trust you’—a very silly answer. But that got her to laugh and to accept me in her class.”
Not only was Suryodarmo admitted to Abramović’s class, but she later became her assistant. While Furukawa taught the young Suryodarmo how to organize productions, Abramović’s approach focused on durational solo works, in which the concept of time is pushed to the fore (such works typically exceed an hour and a half), challenging both artist and audience while also transforming perceptions of space. In 2003, Suryodarmo and her classmates performed as living installations at the opening of the 50th Venice Biennale. She remembers that moment not only because it was Venice, but also because it was a three-hour performance executed in the Giardini della Biennale in astonishing 46-degree Celsius heat. “Marina was in a wheelchair at the time, so her then-husband, Paolo Canevari, came around and sprayed us with water,” she recalls fondly.
Most of Suryodarmo’s performances are durational pieces, giving her time to build up tension relating to a repeated action or to the concept of the work. It’s during these moments that a nonverbal language develops between Suryodarmo and the viewers—one based on basic emotions and on the process of endurance, both physical and psychological. In her recent work I Am a Ghost in My Own House (2012), staged at the opening of her solo exhibition at Lawangwangi Creative Space in Bandung, Suryodarmo crushed and ground charcoal briquettes in the exhibition hall for 12 hours. She communicated a sense of loss by taking charcoal, a substance that has potential to generate energy, and destroying it. As in her other works, she pushes against her physical limits and uses her actions to reveal deeper emotional layers to the audience.
When we meet, Suryodarmo is in town for the fair, showing photos and mattresses from Dialogue With My Sleepless Tyrant (2013) with Yogyakarta’s Ark Galerie. The work is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” in which a girl’s claim to be a princess is tested by her sensitivity to a pea hidden in her bed. In a two-hour performance, Suryodarmo lies in between a stack of 18 mattresses, with only her head exposed. She breathes regularly but, when the weight becomes too much, turns her body and frees herself by lifting the mattresses until they topple, relieving herself of their pressure, or, seen in another way, of the social pressures forced upon women.
Suryodarmo also works in other mediums, and reveals that she is just finishing a single-channel video about maritime life in various fishing villages in West Sumatra, Bali and West Sulawesi. The Lover Across the Sea is inspired by the women—the wives and the lovers—who are left behind when the men go out to sea, and by humanistic expressions of letting go, surrender, love and hope.
Given the time-based and ephemeral nature of performance art, I ask Suryodarmo if she has any advice for viewers who may not know how to approach the medium. She simply replies, “Performance art unites the concept and the performative body. The work lies within the actions of that specific place and time, and involves a frontal communication between the artist and the public. With this in mind, I can only encourage people to watch and experience performance art more and more.”