Culture Editor Charlotte George reviews the art exhibition Passionate Pilgrim and finds the production to be a poignant live performance which helps the audience reflect upon their own life experiences and emotions

Written by Charlotte George

Trapped. Restricted. Stuck. These were dominant feelings that encompassed Suryodarmo’s live performance of I’m a Ghost in My Own House, and most importantly made the audience reflect upon their own feelings. Some art exhibitions can often lack a personal relationship to the audiences own thoughts, but this was certainly not the case for Suryodarmo’s exhibitions.

Melati Suryodarmo is an international visual and performance artist from Surakarta, Indonesia and is renowned for physically challenging durational performances. Her contemporary work uses installation, photography, film and live performance to push boundaries and address concepts of home, family and spirituality. Although these concepts are based around Javanese socio-political issues, this does not limit the audience to reflect how these issues are relevant to their own lifestyles, which all art exhibitions should try and achieve.

…most importantly made the audience reflect upon their own feelings

I was lucky enough to watch a live performance of Suryodarmo’s I’m a Ghost in My Own House. The exhibition sees Suryodarmo’s grind blocks of charcoal with a stone rolling pin for 12 hours. Throughout the performance, Suryodarmo becomes increasingly tired and eventually exhausted representing the tedious and monotonous pattern of domestic work which feels impossible to escape. This feeling was particularly prevalent in Suryodarmo’s life when she returned to Indonesia after a long-term stay in Germany and noticed the lack of freedom women experience in some non-westernised cultures.

Although expressing the same message, the context of the performance was altered for the Ikon Gallery to show the coal mining history of the West Midlands. I thought it was particularly clever that Suryodarmo wore a white dress to represent the strenuous work coal miners experienced; the longer Suryodarmo worked the dirtier her dress became physically showcasing the arduous nature of this work. This stimulating and poignant experience will soon be available to watch digitally at the Ikon Gallery.

This centre piece is just one of the many exhibitions by Melati Suryodarmo which can be seen at the Ikon Gallery. An infamous example is her iconic Exergie-Butter Dance (2000) which shows Suryodarmo dancing and falling on blocks of butter to Bugis percussion in a short black dress and red high heels. The performance showcases the freedom that Suryodarmo felt as a women when she experienced a westernised culture in Germany. Sweet Dreams Sweet (2013) also explored ideas of feminism but rather demonstrates the constraints of freedom. Women carry buckets with blue dye staining their white clothes in the process. This was originally contextualised to the conflict Indonesian women face between their individual identity and collective cultural identity, but the  restrictions society places on all women is also applicable to this performance. A live performance of this exhibition will take place in July at Handsworth Park as part of Ikon’s annual Migrant Festival.

Of course, some of you may be wondering why the exhibition is titled Passionate Pilgrim. This is another live exhibition that Ikon has to offer on Sunday 28th May. Suryodarmo and UK-based network and activist group Voice of Domestic Workers will move around an installation of 100 mirrors to contemplate their reflection and wider feelings of entrapment and confinement to societies rules. This performance was inspired by an encounter Suryodarmo had with an Indonesian domestic worker who was experiencing inadequate living conditions and intolerant domestic work.

Melati Suryodarmo’s exhibition should not be missed

Overall, Melati Suryodarmo’s exhibition should not be missed; unlike most art exhibitions which are still life, these are mostly live performances. Personally, I found this more engaging because the physical actions, body movement and facial expressions vividly convey raw emotions which can be hard to interpret from still life art. This in turn helps the audience to connect on a deep level and reflect how their emotions and life experiences personally relate to the performance. This style of art exhibition is a new experience for the Ikon Gallery, and something that I’m certainly glad I have seen for the first time.

Melati Suryodarmo’s exhibition Passionate Pilgrim is at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham until the 3rd of September.

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