Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter

RealTime Issue 11, February – March 1996, p4 

Deborah Pollard explores her ongoing relationship with Indonesian culture.


Performer Deborah Pollard went to Kalimantan and East and Central Java, Indonesia in 1993 with Canberra’s Jigsaw Theatre Company, performing Bruce Keller’s Treehouse, a play about environmental issues. In rural areas the company were mobbed by intrigued locals. The performances though were greeted with silence by children even though honey bears had been substituted for koalas and komodo dragons for kangaroos. The closer to the cities, the better the response. But what stayed with Deborah was a curiosity about audience response in a very different culture. “We couldn’t rely on our old tricks. They weren’t communicating anything to our audiences.

“I went back to Indonesia in 1994 on a quick self-funded tour to put my culture shock in perspective with a view to meeting contemporary artists and to see how their processes differed from mine and whether I would think that the work they were producing would translate to an Australian audience.”

Deborah asked to meet installation artists or performance artists. The latter didn’t mean anything. “Seni installasi” (installation art) was considered “a little bit wanky”, considered to be produced by “failed artists” who “have no skills”. “I said okay, I want to meet some of these failed painters. So I went to Jogjakarta, an arty city. It was fantastic. I met an abundance of installation artists and foremost, I would say, would be Heri Dono who’s visited Australia many times.

“As soon as I met Sutanto—he’s a journalist, a visual artist and a composer who works just outside of Jogjakarta in a little place called Mendut which is very close to the famous Borobodur Temple—I knew that he was the one that I could actually work with. Everyone had said ‘You must meet Sutanto. You must know, he’s crazy’. He’s eccentric but I wouldn’t say he’s crazy. He’s a very critical man and he likes to produce ‘happenings’, still pretty much an unknown form in Indonesia and seen as pretty bizarre. He’s out on a limb but because he’s a journalist, he has a huge press network. I went back in 1995 to work with Sutanto.”

Deborah also worked with Teater Byar in Pekalongan in Central Java, a town famous for its batik but not for performance. “I thought it might be interesting to work rurally as well as in Jogjakarta but it proved to be a very conservative, very Muslim town. We had to be very careful about what we put on so that it wouldn’t offend socially, politically or religiously. That’s one of the problems with working in Indonesia. The censorship is quite phenomenal. It’s embedded in the social fabric.”

She worked with an enthusiastic group including the local religious teacher, the tailor, the English teacher, someone who did batik, someone who sold chickens—a range of people. “There was no funding, of course, so they had to have a way to make a living outside of their art.” Before Deborah arrived, Teater Byar was doing text-based work in a culture committed to narrative. “After a month and a half I moved to Jogjakarta but the actors in Teater Byar were so overwhelmed with all the new information I’d given them in the workshop that they somehow found the money and a lot of them came to Jogja. They wanted to be in the next project. As a result of that, we had actors and farmers and visual artists working on a project with Sutanto called Postcards. It made a nice mix.”

In workshops Deborah offered Suzuki Tadashi training and drama games while the performers demonstrated how they created performances and the martial arts training base they used, probably learned from the military. “They loved the Suzuki. It felt very strange to me, teaching Asians another Asian form of theatre training.

“I wanted to introduce the idea of site-specific work which proved to be quite difficult. The performers were afraid of public opinion within such a small community. If they were seen doing strange things what would it mean? They wanted to use natural sites. I preferred the railway station but we used a waterfall: it was easy to reach from Pekalongan and was visually overwhelming. My role was to create a structure they could work in. They wanted to stand in the waterfall. We added umbrellas (I was encouraging them to think about irony and juxtaposition), and then they wanted to add choreography and beeps and whistles to go with the movements. The sounds were drowned out by the waterfall. They called the piece Nissa Hujan—rainy season—which is great because the work felt monsoonal. Their movement was influenced by traditional dance not because they’ve been trained in it but because traditional dance is still alive and kicking in Indonesia”.

The work Deborah created with Sutanto was Postcards. “I wanted to create a piece that was coming from me. I didn’t want to delve into cultural details that I didn’t understand or social issues that I could understand but felt I had no place in.” As an outsider she was always struck by the rice fields as beautiful and exotic even though they were part of her everyday life in Java. “I wondered how we might make the everyday activities of Mendut appear exotic or different to the local villagers and the first thing that came to my mind was changing the colour of their hats. They would stand out against the vibrancy of the green rice field. We thought this was a good starting point. One thing I learned immediately is that Indonesians don’t appreciate minimal art which is something I had picked up in Japan and quite liked. I was content to stick with the hats. When we tried them out, it worked. People stopped and looked and said ‘What’s this?’

“But everyone participating said, ‘Oh, but we’ve got to do more. We’ve got to entertain them. It’s boring’. I wanted to explain that I didn’t want it to be a theatre performance, it was an installation. They quite liked the idea and it fits in quite well with Indonesian audiences who are quite used to wayang kulit where you can scan, come and go and fall asleep. So we created a structure of three hours a day over three days and hoped that the local police wouldn’t shut us down. Every day Sutanto would come back and say, ‘Another day through. Aren’t we lucky’. We’d worried that the pink hats would be seen as Communist but the Indonesian flag is red and white, so the local police authorities could read the pink hats and white shirts as part of a patriotic performance celebrating 25 years of independence.”

Deborah gave the process over to the actors and to Javanese artists who embellished the work with everyday elements like traditional farming songs, the Islamic call to prayer, the formal rest time. Many villagers came to see the work and stayed a long time and tourist buses made quick stops to snap the eleven farmers and eight actors at work—like postcards.

“I don’t know if I had a higher purpose, other than my belief in being quite simple in the work and knowing that sooner or later it’ll have layered meanings. Other artists contributed, for example Untun who read the artists’ statement I’d prepared and said ‘That’s very different from the way that I work. I produce from here (pointing to his head)’. He talked about creating a farmer’s dream. He covered himself in mud and connected himself to a bamboo pole, which is what the water buffalo are usually tied to for ploughing the earth, to represent drudgery, while observing wealthy farmers singing and dancing, and speaking on mobile phones.

“Without Sutanto I don’t know how we could have done it. Many of these people speak Javanese, not Indonesian. Half the time they speak a dialect from Mendut. Sutanto had trouble communicating with them, let alone me. He ran workshops for certain sections of the installation in which the farmers would run riot with their farming implements, playing them like musical instruments, imitating animal sounds of the farm—Sutanto’s a composer and he loves working with sound—old farmers making frog sounds so different from our perception. Quite beautiful.”

Asialink, the Australian funding agency that provides artists and writers with, amongst other things, residencies and exchanges, is assisting Deborah to return to Jogjakarta for three months this year, to work with the Teater Asdrafi, something akin to a film and drama school—“some 20 very eager students, very creative in their movement and quite abstract, which I still find unusual when the main push within theatre is quite narrative”. She’ll work with Sutanto again and invitations will be sent to installation artists to participate. “The main thrust of this project is cultural perceptions about the sea in a site specific work delving into Javanese traditions, mythology and contemporary beliefs. I want to work with fishermen and streetsellers as well to keep contact with everyday life.”

Asked about the dynamic of her exchange with Indonesian culture, Deborah points out that “every familiarity is taken away from you, from language to food to how you sleep to your religious and cultural base—it’s all gone. You have to learn to go with the flow but at the same time you have to have a way of working as an artist: that’s what you bring and even that is challenged and that is good for an artist.” As for the influence of her Indonesian experiences on her work in Australia, she says that the brief work Mother Tongue Interference, with its dense context of 30 cups of Indonesian coffee, clove cigarettes, alien sounds and a litany of ‘copings’, is a precursor to her new, longer work coming to Sydney’s The Performance Space in May, Fish Out of Water. “I’ll be dealing with themes of culture shock and perceptions of the East from the West. I’m going to build a rice field on the proscenium arch of The Performance Space. It’ll be a cross between stand-up cabaret and performance art: a genre without a name—thank god!”

Deborah says that she’s not out to reproduce Asian culture, her work here is about the expatriate experience. “The radical pleasure of rootlessness?” “Exactly,” she says. Did she perform Mother Tongue Interference in Indonesia? “I was too scared. I performed it at an Indonesian Night in Australia and that was the scariest thing I’d ever done. I got out on stage with a basket on my head and I could feel the audience thinking, ‘What are you doing?’ But when I started speaking, in English and in my Indonesian bits, thank god there were people who could understand English. It took a while but when it clicked that I was making fun of myself, they found it hilarious, particularly the Balinese. They’d seen this batik clad person walking down their streets before.”

1 February 1996