by Jonathan Tan
Stepping into the 3rd floor of the ‘Special Exhibition Gallery’ at SAM, I was greeted by a notice explaining that the predominance of mixed media, photography and video installations in this collection was not due to any curatorial bias, but rather an honest reflection of how artists in the region have preferred these mediums to explore the evolution in time – as if the curators already sense that I’ve had my fill of videos by the time I made it up there.
Taking a quick glance across the room, I make out two rooms with ongoing projections and decide to tackle those first but soon retreat after coming to terms with the amount of time they demanded. I cross the room to the last piece of video art and hear a steady traditional drum beat before absorbing what was happening on the small wall mounted screen. I reached a comfortable distance and recognized the figure of a woman in a fitting black dress and red heels. She is in a black room and a spotlight focuses the attention solely on her. In front of her are blocks of butter neatly placed in a grid-like manner. Before I can comprehend the connection between the elements, the woman begins moving to the drum beat. She sinks her feet into the buttery platform. Lifting her feet she stamps back down and softens yet more butter beneath her. Hips twist and arms spread with palms facing out in a sort of traditional dance. The visual absurdity of the piece immediately grabs my attention. I shuffle my footing and centre myself in preparation to stay as long as it takes. It was about this time I realise there arer two rows of three photographs each placed beside the screen. Snapshots from the same performance revealing instances of the woman slipping, falling, battered and defeated. Clearly, the artist had no issues with the photographs hinting at the ending of the video. And rightly so, this is not a visual narrative but a fluid performance emphasizing a process.
The woman’s first fall fulfills the prophesy of the photographs but what you now see on the screen is her struggle to maintain the dance. Her feet shift uncontrollably on the slick surface and are mimicked by her arms, still outstretched and fanning through the air; All a futile act of regaining composure. These few seconds of her struggle, as she spirals out of control and her eyes bulge in anticipation of the fall are brilliant and hilarious. Films of slapstick comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Rowan Atkinson flash through my head. A pure performance backed by a simple track of music, Suryadarmo’s piece resonates with the ‘comedic performance’ not just in its presentation but also in its obsession with self-inflicted pain. The struggle leading up to the fall and the act of falling itself happen to be so entertaining that they become the performance itself. After each fall, I found myself anticipating the next, because each plunge was different, and provided a new exaggeration of form.
As she picks herself up, buttered fingers comb through her hair and reveal signs of exhaustion stalking every attempt to recover her footing. As if nothing happened she collects herself and dives back into what was so vulgarly interrupted, only to be slammed back onto the ground. The sound of flesh slapping heavily onto the cold concrete reminds me of trips to the butcher where the treatment of dead meat, as it was thrown on the chopping board, was thoughtless and purely routine. It is exactly this banality that stirred in me a counter weight to the hilarity I found in the work. With every laugh lies an undercurrent of guilt and shame within me as the woman inflicts more pain on herself. Unlike the images of slapstick comedians, the presentation of performance art in the form of video installation assumes a form of pure recording of an actual event. There are no takes and there are no cuts, everything is presented as it was seen at that moment. This implication of reality is what made the piece successful for me, because it further accentuated the nagging guilt which threw me into a moral dilemma.
Performance art by nature explores the dimension of time, and where there is time, there is rhythm. As the woman dances to the rhythm of the drums, I felt myself entering a rhythm of emotions as I watched the screen. Even after coming to terms with the pain and the humiliation the woman was going through, I still could not deny the enjoyment I had of witnessing each struggle. This emotional roller coaster ride from extreme amusement to self-reproach was important to me as an essential component of the piece. It was an experiential process of a performance that’s unique to its medium. As the video comes to an end, the woman’s black dress is smeared with butter; she sits disheveled in the midst of the very butter she’s danced upon. Taking off her heels, she holds them in her hands and walks off the stage. Time check: 20 minutes. Yet within these 20 minutes, not once did I feel a sense of her repeating herself. For me, it was the idea of ‘chance’ that brought about the spirit of spontaneity to the piece. At the time of the performance, each slip and each grapple to stay on her feet was something that surprised both the artist and the viewer simultaneously. The honest reactions drawn from the artist and the viewer is what makes it powerful. And the artist’s establishment of the fixed set of conditions for which to instinctively yield herself to is what creates this ‘chance’.
As I was walking away from Exergie – Butter Dance created by and performed by Melati Suryodarmo, I felt myself coming to terms with the work and how it was presented. Without the display screen between me and the performance, would I be able to feel comfortable in my own private space? And without this private space, where I am free to experience the performance separately from the performer, if I had seen it ‘live’, would I have been able to laugh at all? I don’t think so…
NB: The video embedded above is from a different performance to the one viewed by the author of this piece.
NB 2: This piece was part of a parallel event of the Singapore Biennale 2011, entitled ‘Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia, 1991 – 2010’.