Melati Suryodarmo: The Unspoken Language

Story By
Stephanie Mamonto

As one of Asia’s most important performance artists, Melati Suryodarmo has been building her powerful body of work for nearly 25 years.


Photo by Artist’s Documentation


On a grinding table placed in the middle of the exhibition hall, Melati Suryodarmo crushed and ground hundreds of kilograms of charcoal briquettes transforming them into a vague and magical charcoal pool. That constant motion was a glimpse of Melati’s 12-hour performance I'm a Ghost in My Own House (2012), which she last performed live at the end of February at Museum MACAN.

For Melati, charcoal has served as a symbol of life's energy, but she has experienced herself how life's magic can fade away and even become spent. “This charcoal process can represent my thoughts and psychological state, charred into coals through a certain system and, of course, through my personal events. In my mind, charcoal also has the potential to change and also to destroy... I choose to grind down these coals, turning them into grains and dust and soot. Ground charcoal will only lose its energy potential. My thoughts have been turned into coals by the system, if they pass through the processes of liberation, catharsis, and death... maybe they will once again grow into something new." wrote Melati Suryodarmo, on her official website.

“The long durational aspect of my work, which lasts for 12 hours, is for the examination of endurance. It has a quality of the natural, physical as well as psychological process. Within that time, there are so many possibilities to enter different kind of perceptions into the work. So the live aspect of the performance art, where the artwork itself happens at that time, in that space, is very important. Just to give the whole atmosphere, the whole space and the sense that the human energy can be transferred directly to the visitor.” said the artist to Singapore Art Museum TV.

Melati once said that, “talking about politics, society or psychology makes no sense to me if the nerves are not able to digest the information. I love it when a performance reaches a level of factual absurdity.” And she has proved true to her words. In this work, the artist’s act of grinding the charcoal briquettes to dust can be seen as a metaphor for the crushing of the human spirit by the pressures of life. 

“Crossing the boundaries of cultural and political encounters has been a challenge that stimulates me discovering new identification. An effort to find identity is yet a dangerous act of losing the ground of origin.” she stated. This effort has been showcased through her performance work, Why Let the Chicken Run? (2001), last performed at the opening of her first museum solo exhibition at Museum MACAN, under the same title. In Why Let the Chicken Run? Melati chased a black rooster around the gallery area, symbolizing relentless pursuits in life.

The 15-minute performance itself was a response to Jens Hoffman’s invitation, back in the year 2001  at "A little bit of the History Repeated", to look back at the history of performance art she took as a reference of in 1972’s work of Cuban feminist Ana Mendieta (1945-1985) entitled “Death of the Chicken”. In Ana Mendieta’s work, they killed a white chicken in order to speak to her exile from her homeland and culture. This homage nonetheless clearly marks the Indonesian artist’s different approach to the same theme, as Melati let the black rooster loose among the audience, chased and caught it again.

“For me, the process of making artwork is a life long research that never stops me from putting myself inside the metamorphic constellation.” as the artist’s personal statement on how she, as a performance artist, processes and transforms. “The world that inspires me to move my thoughts is the world inside me. The body becomes like a home which functions as container of memories, a living organism. The system inside the psychological body that changes all the time has enriched my idea to develop new structures of attitude and thoughts.” wrote Melati in her personal biography, as she tries to perceive her surroundings as the fact of the real presence of now, but also considering the path of its history.

“I try to understand the language that is not spoken, and opens the door of perceptions.” she continued. As one of the most unique and provocative Indonesian artists, Melati has gained international recognition for her physically-challenging and long-durational performance works. Marina Abramovic even included her in third position of the 10 provocative artists whose work must be watched, side by side with other legendary names in the world. Her practice is influenced by Javanese tradition, Japanese dance theater Butoh, as well as her years studying art in Germany. She makes art that brings together time, space, bodies and audiences, which is not theatre or dance, but brings all kinds of different actions.

The initial plan on her Why Let the Chicken Run? solo exhibition in Museum MACAN will feature her significant works from over 20 years of art practice, including 12 performances that range from 15 minutes to 12 hours. The solo exhibition will run over 13 weeks and showcase some of her most challenging and acclaimed works as well as artifacts of past performances, photography and historical video documentation. One that is believed to spark a conversation about the body, human memories, and deep explorations of what it means to be human.

As Museum MACAN is now temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it has joined the #MuseumFromHome global movement. Follow their Instagram @museummacan or stay tuned to their website to see, hear, and learn about their exclusive online content.