Seeing the World through Performance Arts

Seeing the World through Performance Arts

Karolina – photo by Arief Budianto

The ‘grandmother of performing arts’, as she calls herself, Marina Abramovic, recently performed her greatest work, The Artist is Present. Seated for 750 hours at the MoMA gallery in New York, she continuously looked into the eyes of a long succession of strangers.  A performer since the 1970s, now Marina has become well-known amongst younger generations after Lady Gaga and James Franco recently brought her artwork into the spotlight.

Her MoMA performance was documented in the film The Artist is Present, which also featured the artist Ulay – Marina’s former lover – whom she dramatically left on the Great Wall of China during a performance in which they ended their relationship by walking away in opposite directions. Ulay made a dramatic appearance at her recent performance, where they reunited and held hands across the table in a moving scene.

For eight years, Indonesian performing artist Melati Suryodarmo, studied under Marina Abramovi?, whose students undertake a strict schedule of fasting and perform various exercises to learn how to be ‘present’ and increase their stamina.

Marina & James Franco

Marina & James Franco

Melati certainly has stamina; in one of her internationally famous pieces called EXERGIE: Butter Dance, Melati wore a tight black dress and high heels and danced on 20 blocks of butter for 20 minutes. Some critics were left puzzled by the piece which became viral on the Internet. However, many performing artists such as Melati use the body to express themselves, rather than through isolating meaning with words. According to Melati, the piece was about time and our attitudes towards certain moments – for Melati the most important moment in time was after each fall and her will to rise again. Despite the terrifying ups and downs, Melati, at the end, was able to get up and walk away from it all.

I recently met Melati’s father and the father of dance and performing arts in Indonesia – Suprapto Suryodarmo – at his home in Solo, Central Java. Ironically, Suprapto is more famous outside of his homeland and has visited (or lived in) countries including Japan, Italy, Mexico, India, The Netherlands, France, Germany, USA, UK and Australia – teaching and learning more about dance. Curious to find out more, I joined up for a course with Suryodarmo to learn about his Joged Amerta technique, which he developed in the 1970s – an exploratory free-form dance movement which he teaches in Java and Bali.

Studying on an intensive ten-month course with Suprapto was Polish artist Karolina Nieduza. “The aim of my visit was to find a common field; to explore a new way between my background in archaeology and performance art movement. The other important practice was tuning – to find a common language for dialogue with nature, God and other humans. Suprapto’s aim was to wake up the sleepy potential within, find a new point of view and be able to transform it into art. He also taught how to grow trust, feel confident and surrender.”

Suprapto organises various performing art events across Java and often encourages artists to remember their heritage. Every month at the Radya Pustaka Museum in Solo, artists are invited to attend Nunggak Semi Leluhur, an event which remembers old, forgotten art. For her performance at the museum, Karolina gathered 50 mojo (maja) fruits from Suprapto’s garden. “My performance was about the journey of artefacts to the museum,” she said. Most of the people who came to the event had never seen the mojo before and some of the young musicians took the fruit home to use as instruments – that really touched me.” In fact, the Kingdom of Majapahit of Java’s golden age took its name from this fruit. “The mojo fruit was found when Raden Wijaya was permitted to cut open Tarik forest. One of the guards looked for food in the middle of the forest, he ate the mojo fruit and the taste was pahit (bitter). Somehow I wanted to remind Indonesians of the genesis of Mojopahit.”


Karolina – photo by Arief Budianto

As we sipped tea with honey on a rattan rug in Suprapto’s garden beneath a mojo tree, I felt as if I had found a sanctuary where relaxing and connecting with nature were necessary goals in life. While Karolina and I danced in the garden, Suprapto sang mantras and clapped. Sat in old Javanese lurik cloth, with his flowing silver hair, I still remember the glint of his eyes – of someone who has unearthed many of life’s secrets. Yet he also encouraged the exchanging of knowledge and recently organised the International Sharing Art Festival at Sangiran Museum where Karolina created a performance about the timeline of human evolution.

“I wanted to have a physical experience of that human journey through millions of years – struggling through adaptation, transformation, touching the source of my being and my ancestors’ being. During the presentation I used three different sizes of Indonesian hen cages and as I pushed up the last cage, a crowd was following me, joining in – it was a very powerful moment,” said Karolina.

“Sangiran is an archaeological excavation site in Java in Indonesia where fossils of ‘Java Man’ were found. According to a UNESCO report from 1995, Sangiran is recognized by scientists to be one of the most important sites in the world for studying the fossils of man.” Now Karolina has created her own project, Artist in Archaeology, Archaeologist in Art and once a month she will perform in a heritage site or museum across the UK or Poland in order to bring alive the past and hopefully encourage younger generations to be interested in their heritage.

My experience with Suprapto and Karolina left me feeling that the interactive nature of dance has a wonderful way of opening us up – with the body, I began to learn how to express myself and make sense of a universe that has no need for words. As the famous choreographer of modern dance Pina Bausch once said, “Dance, dance. Otherwise we are lost.”

Further Information

Suprapto Suryodarmo’s Padepokan Lemah Putih:

Melati Suryodarmo’s ‘EXERGIE: Butter dance’:

Marina Abramovi?’s ‘The Artist is Present’:



Tess Joyce is a writer from the UK but currently lives with her husband in Indonesia. Her writings have appeared online for OFI.