‘Art has the ability to repair damaged social bonds between humans’ – taking a hike with artist Ratu Saraswati 

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

Collecting dew in the morningsun, cherishing fragrant flowers and remembering her grandmother´s cooking: artist and Rijksakademie resident Rutu Saraswati knows how to keep herself grounded in the midst of an on-going pandemic. Poet Roy Voragen takes a hike with her and writes this portrait.

The ongoing pandemic and the policies taken in attempts to tackle it - a ''smart'' lockdown, social distancing, face masks, testing, isolation and quarantine - elicit diverse responses from artists and cultural workers. Some migrate online but merely dump a portfolio online to have a sense of visibility; for others it draws out a fervor to experiment with exhibition formats: an exhibition on Instagram[1], or a performance in Minecraft[2], or on Zoom[3], can push the boundaries of these platforms by utilizing bad connections and glitches; some left art behind; and for the introverts the pandemic is a time of introspection and contemplation: why make art? For whom? How to connect bodies in times when we are mediated by screens? Performance artist Ratu - ´Saras´ - Saraswati (Jakarta, 1990) is clearly an example of the latter.

Saras landed in the Netherlands from Indonesia on January 17, 2020. Only a couple of weeks later the first policies in regards to COVID19 were implemented. I first met Saras back in 2013 when she was about to graduate from art school in Bandung [4]. When she was working on her final project, she invited me and performance artist Jef Carnay [5] to give her feedback on her process.

Indonesia does not have an art school where one can study performance art, Saras actually studied printmaking but her professor, Tisna Sanjaya, was very supportive of her turning away from printmaking (it, of course, helped that he is a performance artist as well). For her, prints lack the immediateness of the visceral body and embodied processes. Her first introduction to performance came when she enrolled in a workshop by Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi [6] in 2011.

And in subsequent years, Saras developed her voice and skill as a performance artist, for her 'art has the ability to repair damaged social bonds between humans. Thus, I focus on revisiting the interpersonal values of art in my contemporary art practice. The meaningful encounters developed from the individual, collaborative, and participatory performance are what are most valuable in my practice. I use the artistic endeavours that I believe expand human empathy to create a sincere common ground within the realm of the psyche.'

'I focus on revisiting the interpersonal values of art in my contemporary art practice. The meaningful encounters developed from the individual, collaborative, and participatory performance are the most valuable'

Before returning to Amsterdam, I share some of her performances to show how she deals with societal and personal traumas in a non-confrontational way.

In her 2019 performance Optik-Optik Kecil [7] she and the participants of her performance collected dew in the early morning - subuh - during three weekends in the holy month of Ramadan. In 2019, Indonesian society was highly polarized due to the presidential elections between sitting president Joko - ´Jokowi´ - Widodo and former general Prabowo Subianto (who has been accused of human rights violations for his role in violently suppressing anti-Suharto demonstrations in 1998). During the same period, there was a blasphemy case filed againstthe former Jakarta governor Basuki - ´Ahok´ - Tjahaja Purnama, who was sentenced to prison after the courts were pressured by fundamentalists.

I consider the morning dew as the material of hope, the formation of dew is cyclical and has its own continuity

The political turmoil split up families and friendships. Political partisanship came at a high societal and personal cost - tolerance went out of the window. Add to the mix: life in metropolitan Jakarta is stressful - the pollution, the corruption, the traffic jams, the lack of proper public goods, the rising cost of living. Taken together, Saras reasons, it has become harder to recognize and respect the other as a genuine other. Instead, we instrumentalize relationships with our body, the other, the city and nature - ignoring that these are intricately interconnected and intrinsically valuable.

The thirteen rivers that run through Jakarta are highly polluted (and a cause of the annual urban floods). Yet, we imagine water as pure, as a purifying force. In Optik-Optik Kecil, Saras takes this contradiction as a blessing-in-disguise: 'I saw this performance project as an opportunity to bring people together. I consider the morning dew as the material of hope, the formation of dew is cyclical and has its own continuity. The material is ephemeral and evaporates with the sun, but it will reappear every day. This gathering provided an opportunity for participants to be intimate with the ephemeral materiality of dew. We became an active witness to life itself.' It is no easy feat to collect dew, but while collecting dew the participants bonded.

At the 2018 edition of Undisclosed Territory, founded by performance artist Melati Suryodarmo [8], Saras performed Gulai [9], named after a spicy curry dish. The departure for this performance is a book she inherited from her late grandmother: Mustikarasa (which means precious and magical tastes). This cookbook was published in 1967 at the initiative of president Sukarno and the book collects 1001 recipes from all over the vast archipelago to ground the imagined community in the food Indonesians eat and cherish. And food is a vital part of Indonesian culture: to share a meal or a recipe creates bonds across time and space. Through eating, ¨we can recollect the tastes of both the joys and pains of life.¨ Talking about food we have to raise the question of gendered - hidden and, in middle and upper class families, often outsourced - labour. ¨Who cooks? Who does the dishes?¨ It comes as no surprise that an idealized woman adorns the cover of the recipe book (Sukarno was a well-known womanizer). During the performance, personal stories changed hands.

At the 2017 Jakarta Biennale - titled Jiwa (i.e. soul), curated by Melati Suryodarmo and directed by ruangrupa´s Ade Darmawan (this artist collective is curating the upcoming Documenta 15; https://ruangrupa.id/; https://www.documenta.de/en/documenta-fifteen/) - she performed Meronce (Beading) with her mother and sister in the Jakarta History Museum. The setting of their performance had a telling backdrop: an immense painting depicting Dutch colonial oppression. And many of the visitors who witnessed the performance didn´t come for the biennale nor to appreciate contemporary art, this particular museum is popular as a weekend outing as its entrance is rather cheap. And perhaps it's good to bracket contemporary art discourse once in a while to allow for a different, an embodied experience.

Pelayan Membasuh (Washing Service) [10] is a durational work Saras performed at Cemeti Art House [11] from December 2014 to January 2015. In this work, Saras cleans the dust and sweat of people's hands and feet and listens to their wounds and blisters. ¨How to be your genuine self? How to be accepted? How to accept yourself? How to embrace oneself? How to go beyond fears?¨ For Saras, the boundaries between the performance and leisurely chatting afterwards was blurred.

Saras left Jakarta for Amsterdam for a residency at the Rijksakademie. To get to know this new, alien city she walks, she walks the streets of her surrounding. Navigating the streets of Amsterdam she tries to find sanctuary. She walks the pandemic-quiet streets and takes pictures of flowers. These pictures punctuate her puzzlement with being in an odd spot.

I invited her to visit me and one hot Sunday in July she took the train to southern Netherlands and we took a hike through the countryside. She photographed corn, cows, crows and me. The tables have turned, now she is the foreigner and now the Netherlands is the exotic other. From mountainous Bandung to hilly Limburg, now it was my turn to guide her around the land.

'What can a performance artist do in a time of social distancing, when we cannot touch and be touched?'

How to connect with people? How to connect when we are mediated by screens? 'What's my reason being here? How can I contribute through art? What differentiate art from life? What can a performance artist do in a time of social distancing, when we cannot touch and be touched?' We have become pixelated selfs. The self has become avatarized. And our skin is quarantined.

At least flowers are alive and tactile. Cherishing fragrant, beautiful flowers keeps her grounded. Also, the remembrance of her grandmother´s cooking and the stories narrated to her. Savoring dew and realizing we are not the center of the universe helps to keep her grounded as well. In the meantime, Saras walks the streets, meandering through this new old city that has been vacated from hordes of tourists from around the globe. And she will continue these walks, these walks through her neighborhood, slowly expanding her territory. The Rijksakademie extended her welcome till 2022 because of the pandemic.

Roy Voragen
is a poet and he is a curator at publishing lab Kwago in Manila

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021