Melati Suryodarmo: Timoribus at Shanghart, Singapore

By Adeline Chia

Transaction of Hollows, 2018, performance by the artist at the opening of Timoribus. Courtesy the artist and Shanghart Singapore


Melati Suryodarmo’s greatest asset is her Javanese dance- and butoh-trained body, the limits of which she explores in durational performances. The latter range from full-sprint displays of power (as in her best-known work, Exegie – Butter Dance, 2000, in which she dances and skids on blocks of butter), to periods of deep meditative surrender (in I’m a Ghost in My Own House, 2012, she grinds down hundreds of kilograms of charcoal over two days). Born in Solo and at one point living and working in Germany for almost 20 years, she mines material that interrogates cross-cultural identities and the female body – although unlike some of her performance-art compatriots, such as the artist-activist Arahmaiani and Heri Dono, her references tend to be abstract, inviting a variety of interpretations in different contexts.

However, this exhibition, gathering her works in performance, photography and video from the past ten years or so to constitute her first solo showcase in Singapore, does not exactly play to her strengths. If it highlights the multidisciplinary nature of her practice, it also reveals that the quality of the art is uneven, with her live performance and performance videos overshadowing the rest. Casting an unconvincing pall over this seemingly random selection of works is the portentous title Timoribus, which translates as ‘fears’ (specifically in the dative case) from the Latin.

Her short films and photography featuring people other than herself range from self-consciously cerebral to inoffensively bland. Take the title work, Timoribus (2018), which tackles the fear and paranoia propagated by mass media. Its belaboured solution to our appetite for live-streaming HD news images is to present deliberately blurred footage of a group of people running around and fighting. Meanwhile, her photography is moody but forgettable. One work is a series of double-exposed photographs capturing Suryodarmo in motion (Self Portraits, 2018) – falling from a chair, standing up and yelling, twisting her head. The careful compositions and elaborate styling make for pretty studio portraits, but they ring hollow, especially when you learn that to achieve a satisfactory photo, Suryodarmo apparently tumbled out of her seat more than 50 times. But somewhere between the scrupulous art direction and editing, the truth of this punishing performance got lost, and along with it, a vital sense of risk and danger.

Performance art is her strongest suit, and the four videos included in this show demonstrate her ability to create striking, charismatic images that translate well to photographs and edited videos. Her best pieces are drawn from personal experience but open out into a wider resonant space. In 24,901 Miles (2015) she drags a mattress and a spade around a roomful of red clay over ten hours in two days. The work, which speaks of her cultural and physical nomadism and her search for home, alludes to other forms of disenfranchisement, such as the experience of refugees.

The only live performance she did in Singapore was Transaction of Hollows (2018), which took place on the first two nights of the exhibition and featured the artist firing 400 arrows every evening, over four hours, in a white room. Alert but relaxed, she takes her time nocking, aiming and shooting them. Every arrow slams against the facing wall like a gunshot. The piece bears no easy exegesis, but is compelling in a formal way, with its repetitive actions starting out innocuously in a soothing pattern of tension and release, and then escalating to a darker ending. On the second day, the skin on her fingers starts to tear. Blood twangs off the bowstring and speckles her face and clothes. When the last of the 400 arrows for the day is shot, she collapses to the floor in tears. The end product of the performance, with the artist on her knees and the four walls completely hedgehogged, conjures a more pessimistic vision of war and siege, one in which the executioner becomes the victim. 

Melati Suryodarmo: Timoribus at Shanghart, Singapore, 25 January – 25 March

From the Spring 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia