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Fire and blood—Indonesian performance art

Jan Cornall at Perfurbance#2, Jogjakarta

Jan Cornall is a Sydney based writer-performer who is working on a number of collaborations with Indonesian artists. Her involvement in Perfurbance #2 was made possible by Asialink, Arts NSW, The Australia Indonesia Institute and Teater Utan Kayu, Jakarta.

Perfurbance Perfurbance
photo Jan Cornall
A man stands on a burning chair screaming at the national palace through closed gates. A body is draped, arms spread as if impaled on the bars of the gate. Notes from the audience about education are glued to the bars.

Rows of old style wooden desks from Dutch colonial times are set up like a classroom with blackboard and teacher’s desk, in front of the Jogjakarta Parliament building. A group of blue and white uniformed students, arms and legs in bandages, march under the regimental instruction of their teacher/commander. Their faces blanked out by tall white hoods, they are marched to the desks where their berating instruction continues.

Men swing from ropes hanging from tall banyan trees. They come dangerously close to crashing into the desks, each other, the trees and the audience. Then the inevitable happens. Two of the men collide. One falls to the ground. A pool of blood spreads out across the asphalt from the back of the man’s head. The other dangles unconscious in his rope. This part of the performance wasn’t planned, but this is performance art Indonesian style, where anything can happen.

Perfurbance is a new festival organised by Iwan Wijono and Ronald Apriyon of the Performance Klub, a group of Jogjakarta artists who want to take art out of conventional spaces and into the street.

Perfurbance#1 in 2005 had a similar format. Around 30 artist/performers were invited to submit proposals for 10-minute performance pieces in outdoor locations around Jogjakarta.
Iwan Wijon Iwan Wijon
photo Jan Cornall
In April this year, performances took place in 3 locations: the grounds of DPR, the local Parliament in front of the National Palace gates on Malioboro Street and in the bookshop street behind. In case you didn’t know, Malioboro is the famous street of Jogja leading to the Kraton, the Sultan’s palace, and is alive and bustling at all hours with vendors, becak (pedicab), andong (horse and carriage), street food and masses of motorbikes and cars cruising its length just to see what’s happening. On any Sunday an audience is assured and crowds gathered to watch local artists and a couple of guest performers—myself and Seiji Shimoda, a noted Japanese performance artist who is also director of Nipaf, Japan’s twice yearly performance arts festival.

Seiji travels internationally performing his art and has interesting things to say about how culture and censorship mould the different tastes and personalities of performance art in all the countries he visits.

In Indonesia, as one audience member noted, you can always count on pissing and penises, blood and fire and a degree of body mutilation. The blood spilt when the flying tree swingers crashed is characteristic of the wild nature of some of the performance art seen here. There is nothing chaotic, however, about the way this festival is organised. On little to no budget it pays its performers a token fee (50,000 rupiah or AUD$7), provides lunch, produces posters and programs, pays for performance permits and produces a VCD-ROM for each performer. It also gives its performers a theme to work with. Last year it was urbanisation. This year it’s the industrialisation of education.

As the day progressed artists performed their work in different classroom arrangements in one of the locations. The desks were then piled into a truck and carried on to the next place.

One artist in school uniform sat alone in the desks pretending to be a good student, working on his laptop until it dawned on the audience that he was watching porn. A crowd then gathered to watch with him. A woman watched cartoons on a monitor placed on piles of books on the teacher’s desk while another stepped from desktop to desktop dressing in layers of coloured school skirts and cutting up standard text books with scissors. Another artist crawled through the desks, asking the audience to cut his skin and cover him with crushed chalk before placing him in a cardboard box.

There was body painting, spray painting and proclamations, and ideas about the education system were taped, eaten, shouted, waved and burned as the audience gathered and dispersed again.

Jogja, a university town overflowing with students, artists and street performers, is accustomed to this kind of thing and the hard core audience stayed to the end to catch the dusk performance of Seiji Shimoda. Stepping up onto the teacher’s desk, he used his body alone to display the tensions of a man trying to fit himself impossibly into a frame.

More performances followed as night fell. Rose petals flew into the air, fire, smoke from a hookah, kisses through plastic and the fate of a lone roast chicken on the sidewalk were all remembered. As the last performance faded into the dark we all took our places behind the Perfurbance banner for photos, and the ongoing discussion among participants and audience about what makes good or true performance art continued on into the night.

The experienced artists, including Iwan Wijono, who performs internationally, Ronald Apriyon who is about to perform in Japan’s Nipaf festival, and Seiji Shimoda all have something in common. Their presence as performers comes from an intense focus and commitment to a single idea. As a result you are left with an image, a taste, an experience or a feeling, so strong it stays with you like a dream image. Whether you recognise it, understand it or process it at the time doesn’t matter, for performance art often works best when it cannot immediately be explained but instead wakes you up to a new way of looking at the world around you.

Spending the day like this with Indonesian performance artists has the same effect. It changes you, and you can’t help but be moved by the commitment they all have to producing their art. While the intense energy of their work comes from celebrating a new freedom of expression following the years of repression and censorship of the old Suharto regime, there is still little or no support for artists, only the cold comfort that conservative forces in government are rallying again to bring in new anti-pornography laws that will seriously hamper the work of all artists in this country. Hence the flavour of performance art in Indonesia is always political. Whether carrying a direct message to the powers that be or reflecting a past of violence, pain and neglect, these performers represent a spirit that pervades all Indonesian life—the will to survive against all odds and laugh in the face of impossibility.

As Australian performance artists only a few hours’ plane ride away, we have the opportunity to experience this spirit and the vibrant atmosphere of Jogjakarta’s arts communities. This year’s festival was spontaneously supported at the last moment by a handful of Aussie performers and by RealTime. The organisers of next year’s festival invite more Australian performance artists to be involved.

For the VCD of Perfurbance #2 and more info contact Jan Cornall, [email protected] or go to

Note: Performance Klub members survived the recent earthquake and are carrying out volunteer work in affected areas. They badly need donations to get kerosene, food and tents to those left homeless. Please email Jan Cornall [email protected] to arrange a direct donation

Jan Cornall is a Sydney based writer-performer who is working on a number of collaborations with Indonesian artists. Her involvement in Perfurbance #2 was made possible by Asialink, Arts NSW, The Australia Indonesia Institute and Teater Utan Kayu, Jakarta.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 8

© Jan Cornall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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