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Body, Charcoal and Butter. Melati Suryodarmo at Ikon Gallery

Melati Suryodarmo, I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2023). Performance at Ikon Gallery. Image courtesy Ikon. Photographer: Tod Jones.
In this first article in the Afterall Notebook series, BA CCC student Sarah Chew reviews Melati Suryodarmo’s 12-hour long performance ‘I’m A Ghost in my Own House’ in the context of her current exhibition at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.

Southeast Asian contemporary art, and its many tangents, is difficult to define due to each country’s distinctly different socio-cultural contexts, causing the region’s history and art history to be difficult to consolidate.01 While the limits of contemporary Southeast Asian art are still being shaped, a large aspect of the region’s current art scene revolves around performance art practices that return to traditional forms of dance and theatre.

A non-traditional, intermedia, practice of art making, performance art prioritises liveness, ephemerality, and physical movement. Most importantly, performance art uses the body as a medium to express and physically represent the oppression faced by different marginalised groups across the Southeast Asian region, as seen through Josef Ng’s Brother Cane (1994) in protest against the arrest and caning of 12 homosexual men in Singapore, or Monument Round Tray (2000–10) by Ly Hoàng Ly which reflects the ‘perseverance of Vietnamese women faced with daily challenges’.02 Comparably, Melati Suryodamo’s 12-hour long solo piece entitled I’m A Ghost in my Own House (2012) tests the artist’s body’s physical and mental limits while exploring ‘notions of time, labour, and identity’.03 Originally performed in 2012 at Bandung’s Lawangwangi Creative Space, I’m A Ghost in my Own House is reperformed at Suryodarmo’s first UK exhibition at Ikon Gallery entitled Passionate Pilgrim. 

Melati Suryodarmo was born to Suprapto ‘Prapto’ Suryodarmo who was a meditative artist, Amerta practitioner, and an important figure in post-traditional Javanese performance.04 Leaving Indonesia for Braunschweig, Germany in 1994, Suryodarmo met Japanese Butoh dancer Anzu Furukawa and developed an interest in performance art. After her studies in Braunschweig University of Art under Furukawa, she went on to study under artist Marina Abramović, whom she would work alongside with as a ‘living installation’ at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Returning to Indonesia in 2013, Suryodarmo popularised performance art in her home country through establishing the festival ‘Undisclosed Territory’ in 2003 and Studio Plesungan in 2012.05

Melati Suryodarmo, I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2023). Performance at Ikon Gallery. Image courtesy Ikon. Photographer: Tod Jones.

In I’m A Ghost in my Own House the artist stands at a table in the middle of a sea of charcoal. She holds a large rolling pin in her black-stained hands as she grates and grinds a block of coal into black dust. The rough repetitive sound of lumpwood blocks being grinded into smithereens echoes throughout the dimly lit gallery. At this point, Suryodarmo had been performing for at least 3 hours – her white dress now grey, her left cheek now smeared with charcoal. Immediately, the work looks physically exhausting. As the performance progresses, the physical impact of the piece on the artist’s body becomes more apparent. Every so often, she stops to cough, or sneeze, or wipe away the sweat on her forehead. Her constant inhalation of black charcoal turns rivulets of mucus and sweat black. After a fully granulating yet another block of lumpwood, Suryodarmo walks around to gather more blocks in her smock before returning to her table to crush away.

My first impression of the piece was influenced by the title’s use of the word ghost through sociologist Avery Gordon’s definition which states that a ‘ghost is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure’.06 In Suryodarmo’s durational piece, the latter seem to refer to the way the endless yet fruitless cycle of work unfolds. On one hand, this could reflect the idea of unpaid labour, where housework, childcare, and caregiving are seen as a woman’s duty, but is often undervalued and invisible. Alternatively, this could also represent the intersectional identities of migrant domestic workers who often fulfil aforementioned roles for a relatively small sum of money and are often treated as invisible or secondary to the main family household.

For Suryodarmo, the charcoal process represents her ‘thoughts and psychological state, charred into coals through a certain system and, of course, through [her] personal events’.07 While physically exhausting herself, the process symbolises ‘the expenditure of life’s energy and the potential for renewal’.08 n addition, the 12-hour long performance attempts to reflect ‘Suryodarmo’s feelings of dislocation following her return to Indonesia after living in Germany for many years’, exploring the idea of psychological death and the haunting that occurs when once is attached to a place.09

Melati Suryodarmo, I’m a Ghost in My Own House (2023). Performance at Ikon Gallery. Image courtesy Ikon. Photographer: Tod Jones

This was my first time viewing a performance art piece live – many of my previous experiences involving performance art were through screens showing a recording of the live piece, or through art history classes back in secondary school. Witnessing Suryodarmo’s 12-hour performance unfold right in front of me was a surreal yet gruelling endeavour. Performance art, beyond its use of the body as a site for art making, also relies on the relations formed between the artist and the public – I mean who can forget the immensely impactful display of such interactions in works like Rhythm 0 (1974) by Marina Abramovic and Cut Piece (1964) by Yoko Ono? Through Suryodarmo’s performance, it was made clear that an impactful performance piece creates a symbiotic relationship with its audience. Not only could I witness Suryodarmo test her body’s physical limits, but I was also able to observe the reactions of audience members, some of whom stayed on for hours, taking breaks to peruse other pieces in the gallery before returning, while others walked past the performance with hushed mumblings of confusion and awe.

I recall watching Suryodarmo’s piece ExergieButter Dance (2000) when it was on display at Singapore Art Museum’s ‘Medium at Large’ exhibition back in 2014.10 The piece ran for 6min 29sec long, and featured Suryodarmo in a black dress and heels, dancing on 20 blocks of butter, to the sound of ceremonial Bugis percussion originating from Makassar, South Sulawesi in Indonesia. Every so often, she would slip and fall, then get back up to dance. She repeats this process until she loses energy, taking off her shoes before leaving the space. In 2010, a new version of the project – Exergie –butter dance extended – was performed at ‘Asian Body and Beyond’ at the Moderna Dansteater, Sweden. Alongside nine other dancers, this extended version lasted for 20 minutes.

This piece, similar to I’m a Ghost in my own House and many of Suryodarmo’s other projects, is comedically absurd and abject. Originating as a student project, it was inspired by Suryodarmo’s interest in time and the way the human body relates to it. The work, on one hand, reflects Suryodarmo’s love-hate relationship with butter and the western diet, and on the other, symbolises the cultural differences between Indonesia and Germany.11

To conclude, amongst all of the works presented in Passionate Pilgrim, I found I’m A Ghost in my Own House and the two videos of ExergieButter Dance to be the most compelling. Viewing these two works side by side, it was fascinating to observe the ways Suryodarmo explores her body’s capabilities through durational and repetitive performances. The two pieces held my attention without needing stylised shots and editing, displaying Suryodarmo’s legacy and persistence in perfecting her craft as an artist.


  • Grace Ignacia See, ‘Artists Who Defined Contemporary Southeast Asian Art’, The Artling [online], 21 February 2019,  available at (last accessed on 12 July 2023).
  • Ly Hoàng Ly quoted in Nora Taylor, ‘Vietnamese Women Artists in Performance: Engaging Acts’, MutualArt [online magazing], available at (last accessed on 12 July 2023).
  • Ikon Gallery, ‘MELATI SURYODARMO PASSIONATE PILGRIM’, [press release], available at (last accessed on 12 July 2023).
  • Amerta: A movement practice created by Suprapto Suryodarmo in the 1970s drawing from the practice of Vipassanā, Javanese Sumarah meditation and Javanese Theravada Buddhism.
  • Rachel Will, ‘Indonesia’s Maverick Performance Artist’, The New York Times [online], 12 June 2014, available at: (last accessed on 9 July 2023).
  • Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and The Sociological Imagination, Minneapolis and London: University Of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 8.
  • Melati Suryodarmo, ‘I’m a ghost in my own house’, Melati Suryodarmo [website], available at: (last accessed on 12 July 2023).
  • Melati Suryodarmo, ‘I’m a ghost in my own house’, Melati Suryodarmo [website], available at: (last accessed on 12 July 2023).
  • Suryodarmo, ‘EXERGIE–Butter dance’, Melati Suryodarmo [website], available at: (last accessed on 12 July 2023).
  • ‘Medium at Large’, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 25 April 2014–3 May 2015.
  • Suryodarmo, ‘EXERGIE–Butter dance’, op. cit.