Bodies in the yard
On Saturday, during the couple of hours leading to the opening of Undisclosed Territory, the two-day outdoor performance art festival organized by artist Melati Suryodarmo, the air was hot and scantly brushing through the long bamboos and trees within the curtilage of Studio Plesungan’s grounds. A mix of birds’ chirps and gentle laughter wafted round the house atop a 5000-square-meter, grassed yard—but for a cemented platform-stage built at mid-hill—where artists and assistants were rounding up the last of the preparations. Undisclosed Territory was created nine editions ago in a rural part of Surakarta, also called Solo, an Indonesian city on the island of Java, and hometown to Suryodarmo, with a historic royal-capital past known for producing traditional arts, especially performing arts, theater, dance, music, and crafts, and attracting scholars and students of Indonesian lore to its local universities. If an event featuring contemporary performance seemed suited to take place here for its artistic essence, it is also incongruous, for its ethos often opposes acting and folk. As Claire Bishop has put it: “Today, if we complain that a work of art is ‘theatrical,’ […] [it] seems to refer to a visible excess of staging, and thus a particularly queasy relationship to mimesis.” Suryodarmo is aware of this, “it is challenging to present performance art, especially here”, she says. “It is risky as you are not presenting the beauty of the movement, you are not acting, you are presenting reality with a different language.” She has been inviting fellow artists of the genre whom she met over the years at international festivals and workshops, such as members of Black Market International, or colleagues she got to know during her work with Marina Abramović, to share the location, meals, and time together for a few days; and then to perform. For Undisclosed Territory 9, Suryodarmo invited only female performers, though making it clear that feminism wasn’t relevant in this context. Two days of workshops led by Japanese performance artist Sakiko Yamaoka and photographer and performance artist Aor Nopawan at the studio, and a day of lectures at Sebelas Maret University preceded the program.
So we were quite warmed up when Serbian artist Snežana Golubović, who was dolled up in a hibiscus pink satin bustier with black lace, quietly began counting her hair for Counting, a durational performance first shown in 2005, during which each strand of her hair is accounted for aloud (for the Solo edition, she counted 3420).
A few moments later, Right, performed by Chu-Yia Chia, also on a small platform pressed at the edges of the yard somehow negotiating a stage with a natural border, began with the artist weighing rice on antique scales, and writing “right” on each grain. While Golubović’s counting under scintillating rays of sunshine on a white-stairs pedestal distanced the viewer through a natural proscenium, Chia’s staged black laboratory poked at the audience’s romantic torpor by inviting them to touch and make use of the magnifying glass and perhaps ponder about justice, access to food, and access to making decisions about it.
We also followed Indonesian artist Luna Dian S. A. through the field and stopped at a distance when she slowly ate a papaya leaf, a bitter plant known to be purifying and healing. Here the action was strong and quiet, painful but controlled, metaphorically acceptant of life’s ups and downs. One performance segued into the next, creating a converging yet independent configuration of movements in the yard, and a shift of stage(s) and places for the audience to watch from. On the actual stage, Thai visual artist Imhatai Suwathanasilp, whose work often includes knitted hair reminiscent of female anatomy, had been encouraged by her peers to perform for the first time. She knitted hair to cover small stones that she later threw with a handheld catapult—some of which are probably still there in the grass.
The evening performances continued on the central platform, but not without fluidity. Singaporean artist Lina Adam called everyone close for I remember, I forget (2013) while setting a red-clothed table with household objects including plates, photographs, noodles, a mirror, and milk. I was reminded of a Chinese house shrine, especially when she invited the audience to write the name of a dear one, passed or alive. But she also made me think of that traditional tarot card representing the magician. On the card, the character is seen setting a table with symbols and objects, epitomizing the creation in the moment. Body, space, and time were the words used by my temporary performance art teacher, Aor Nopawan, during the workshops to describe performance art. Body, space, time, and magician’s tools in nature, all seemed fitting.
In Singularity, Irma Optimist staged herself within a visual vocabulary of objects such as feathers, newspapers, and clips dangling in her hair, alongside photographs, and a fishnet as backdrop. Forming a narrative that seemed to call for shamanic morphings, a deep yearning for northern landscape and personal transformation, her performance powerfully mixed ridicule and gravitas. Artist Ma Ei from Myanmar closed the day by demonstratively roaming in a white dress through the audience with a flash light. In Searching for Nothing, she poked at viewers as if they were hiding something—answers?—from her, shouting “hey!” towards the sky, in a physical and unnerving series of gestures.
Sunday made Aor Nopawan co-exist in the large yard with Tzu-Chi Yeh, in performances that risked unraveling their meaning while in progress. The first changed strategy mid-course from holding a wood log on her head to other physically challenging actions that included rope. The second struggled to pull meaningful weight while tightening chicken feet with red strings. Yeh later explained she didn’t feel as ready to premiere Let’s Go for a Walk as she had wished for, but it was all work in progress. Festivals like this one allow process alongside presentation. Sunday was also bloodier, releasing a lot of withheld anxiety and angst, Rinyaphat Nithipattaraahnan’s costume dress bled when she poked at it with scissors and Komet Randeroro filled up bags with blood-like liquid that she eventually threw on herself. “Her husband needs a kidney transfusion every week,” Suryodarmo told me as we witnessed the climax of that action in the remote part of the yard.
In the evening, as a thin moon crescent was waxing, Elin Lundgren performed I am here for you, a text-based performance in which the artist constructed a mockery speech patched from official talks by Barack Obama, Saddam Hussein, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel, Muammar Gaddafi, among many others. She wore a skin tone puppet mask and a glove of an exaggeratedly big hand, rendering the performance puppeteer-creepy and absurd, and revealing the passive aggressiveness of political discourse and its universal branding.
Some of the Indonesian performances were closer to dance, radio-show talks, or music concerts, which seemed at odds with the festival’s spirit. Perhaps it was a necessary local intervention made possible by a non-curated context and the paucity of established female performance artists in Indonesia. It was through Sakiko Yamaoko’s site-specific performance Songs for Life, where the Japanese artist planted trees while four local female singers sang and joked with the audience, that both cultural understandings of performance oxymoronically successfully crashed. On the one hand, the performance itself was non-transferrable and messy, on the other, it allowed the audience to be part of something conceptually foreign through a familiar conduit—food was also part of the set.
Ultimately, Undisclosed Territory 9 combined amateur and professional competences. Suryodarmo created a tropical platform for artists to network, show their works to a different audience, or explore ideas. Incidentally, it also created a combined cultural exposure while exploring complex emotional and aesthetic experiences and eating spicy food. In performance art as in life, you get what you put in, and there is much satisfaction to find one’s own truth through trial and error within a safe and gentle community amiable to spontaneous decisions and the art of the indeterminate.
undisclosed territory # 9, Solo, Indonesia
November 11 to 15 2015
Snežana Golubović, Counting
Chuyia Chia, Right
Imhatai Suwathanasilp's stone
Elin Lundgren, I am here for you
Sakiko Yamaoka, Songs for Life
Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art writer, co-founder of Hong Kong-based contemporary art magazine Pipeline, regular contributor to Artforum International Magazine.
 Claire Bishop, UNHAPPY DAYS IN THE ART WORLD? De-skilling Theater, Re-skilling Performance, December 2011. http://www.brooklynrail.org/2011/12/art/unhappy-days-in-the-art-worldde-skilling-theater-re-skilling-performance