By Ikon Gallery

26 September 2023 - 15:05

A performance artist standing in front in a costume made of various scrap objects, strings, paper, and other materials. ©

 Doc. by Razan Wirjosandjojo.

Ikon Gallery converted their space in Birmingham to resemble Studio Plesungan in the Javanese countryside as part of Melati Suryodarmo’s art laboratory, working with six artists to foster connections between the UK and Indonesian performance art scenes.

Between 30 May and 4 June 2023, we hosted three UK and three Indonesian performance artists for Melati Suryodarmo’s Present to Presence art laboratory. This was presented as part of Melati Suryodarmo’s exhibition Passionate Pilgrim that took place from 17 May to 3 September 2023. The participating artists were Alastair MacLennan, Sinéad O’Donnell, Selina Bonelli, Kelvin Atmadibrata, and Ratu R. Saraswati, with Marintan Sirait participating online.

Modelled on the innovative work of Studio Plesungan, an artist-run space in the Javanese countryside founded by Melati in 2012, the laboratory provided a non-hierarchical and reflective platform for artists to exchange, critique and share their work.

During the project, each artist led a workshop on a theme of their choosing, as well as sharing information about their own practice. Themes that emerged from Present to Presence were collective knowledge, ecology, as well as the relationship between object and body and between environment and body. As a result of the workshops, each artist presented a new durational performance at Ikon.

Translating cultures, translating spaces

Translating Melati’s way of working in her studio in Indonesia to the UK was an interesting challenge for our team. Melati and her collaborators perform in the Javanese countryside, often erecting a platform in the grounds of Studio Plesungan. The different climate and urban location of our space in Birmingham, UK meant that we could not use the landscape in the same way. 

In conversations with Melati, it became apparent that the particular environment of Indonesia, specifically Studio Plesungan, is a key factor in creating a collaborative atmosphere for encouraging exchange between local, national, and international performers, dancers, writers, and choreographers. 

Thus, we converted a space within our gallery to reflect Studio Plesungan, creating a welcoming and comfortable place to rest, spend time, and explore visual, textual, and oral material from the Studio Plesungan archive. Visitors and laboratory participants sat together chatting on cushions, on a raised platform or in the seating area.

“I like the idea of a space growing together with the needs of the people,” says Melati. She hopes it will “introduce the people of Birmingham to be closer to the reality of another part of the world” as well providing a space for Southeast Asians in the Midlands.

Fostering a close-knit international family

Unfortunately, a few weeks prior to the start of the laboratory, Marintan Sirait injured her ankle and was unable to join us in Birmingham for Present to Presence. Whilst Marintan could participate in preliminary group meetings via Zoom, she could not present a new performance at Ikon. In place of a live durational performance, we screened Building A House (Membangun Rumah) (2023), a 15-minute performance art film based on Marintan’s earlier performance of a work of the same name.  

It was incredible to witness the conversations that took place during the art laboratory. Many of the participants from the UK and Indonesia were living and working in different places from their country of birth, so the laboratory became important for community building within the global performance art scene.

Having the artists arrive two days before the public workshops and performances enabled them to get a sense of their surroundings and get to know the other laboratory participants. This enabled the two groups of artists—UK-based and Indonesian—to foster a sense of collegiality.

The group became a close-knit family, supporting each other by attending performances and offering help and guidance during and after the workshops. Not only did artists share information about their practice, but they also split Indonesian and British snacks with one another during workshop sessions.

These impromptu moments of connection, dialogue, and inspiration offered an insight into ways of working with international artists and thinking about staging diverse performance practices in institutional settings.

A performance artist wearing a black and white dress, black, white, and yellow socks, and a few leafy twigs attached to their hair. ©

 Doc. by Razan Wirjosandjojo.

A performance artist lying on their stomach on the floor, looking intently at a red object attached to strings in front of their face. A few pairs of hands and legs from the audience members can be seen in the background. A wooden chair, likely part of the performance, can be seen off to the side. ©

Doc. by Razan Wirjosandjojo.

A performance artist sitting on a wooden chair and reading an old book. A small thin book, a document, a print-out of a plant, a mug, a brush, and a bottle with red liquid can be seen across the floor. ©

Doc. by Razan Wirjosandjojo.

A safe space with the atmosphere of a summer camp

Throughout the art laboratory, there were visitors who attended each performance. This created a lively atmosphere with many visitors staying after each performance to talk with us, Melati, and the laboratory participants.

On the last day of the art laboratory, we hosted a public panel discussion with Melati and the participating artists. This event enabled each artist to reflect on their experience taking part in the project. A key message from this panel was that collective decision-making and creating safe spaces for listening and feedback were central to encouraging knowledge exchange.

The atmosphere was different to any event we have hosted before. It was reminiscent of the last day at a summer camp—staff, visitors, and participants were all hugging, exchanging telephone numbers, and promising to meet again.