The Composting Costumier talks The Planet – A Lament with Garin Nugroho

This interview took place between Boon Wurrung Land of the Kulin Nation, Australia; and Jakarta, Indonesia. I acknowledge the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants and traditional custodians of this nation and pay my respects to First Nations’ Elders past and present and traditional owners of all lands on which this interview took place.

“The Planet – A Lament” was part of a the Asia TOPA festival supported by Arts Centre Melbourne at the beginning of 2020. While Arts Centre Melbourne begins to open up outdoor events in December, their Together With You program will continue to be available online, where you can watch a digital showing of “The Planet – A Lament” as part of Asia TOPA Connected.

This article is part of a two part series that also includes an interview with set and costume designer Anna Tregloan. A podcast version of Garin’s interview is available through the Climactic Network here or by searching The Composting Costumier on Apple Podcasts.

(Readers are advised that this interview contains some descriptions of physical and political violence and conflict.)

CC: I watched The Planet A Lament a few weeks ago, so thought now would be a good time to hear a bit from you about that process.
GN: The important issue of The [Planet, A] Lament is a song about enlightenment and death. I think it is the important issue of the era of Covid now – it is about death and survival and enlightenment. These are three words that are important today and if you saw The Lament itself, it’s a story about someone who saved the planet. [Those are] the two words, pandemic and tsunami – an environmental problem and [a] pandemic. In this way the issue of Planet is about death, survival, enlightenment and also about so many problems with the environment, with tsunamis (especially in my country) and about [the] pandemic itself. Which is why in one chapter of The Planet there is the song [that asks], where do we want to go? Where are the natural places that make us safe?

CC: You said that it relates to what we’re going through now, but the tsunami you’re also talking about is the 2004 tsunami isn’t it?
GN: Yeah, Because Indonesia is the ring of fire, it has more than 100 mountains active in my country. [The show is] In between environment and how people must understand the character [of the] environment and survival, but also know that the cycle of life is also part of human existence itself. And I have experienced so many [environmental catastrophes]: with the tsunami in Jakarta; with the mountain eruption in Aceh; I came to this [work-The Planet, A Lament] after the tsunami in Papua and Nusa Tenggara, I always come [to create work] in the chaotic atmosphere in the relationship between human beings and environment.

CC: So you started working on this particular piece in 2014? Is that right?
GN: I started in 2014, but the idea was a long time ago, about 5 years before 2014. Because I have experience in so many catastrophes, not only in the environment but in politics.
I saw many conflicts: between tribes; between politics and society; in Ambon, in Kalimantan in front of my eyes. For example: in Jakarta between tribes of Makassar and Ambon for example; in Kalimantan: between Kalimantan and Madura for example; in Anbon between Muslim and Christianity for example. And everything is bleeding in front of my eyes- bleeding. [They] cut the nose [of eachother] cut the eyes, in front of my eyes. And the second thing is, I always come to the area of catastrophes, because of the environment: mountain eruption or tsunami for example, in front of my eyes.

And then I always have experience in lament, I dreamed to make a lament.

Lament is personal, personal in every human-being individual. And I believe in the catastrophes in the world now, this is the important [thing], that every human-being individual has the lament in their soul.

And that is why when in 2014 AsiaTOPA asked me to make a new performance, then directly I brought the idea of The Lament itself.

Indonesian Dancer Rianto performs in a stylised costume representing a bird with bright yellow face paint and protects a large egg. In the background the "The man who saves the world" can be seen with a bag slung across his chest and arms above head.
Indonesian dancer Rianto as The Bird protecting The Egg (Image Credit: Gregory Lorenzutti)

CC: You’ve got a team from Indonesia, Melanasia and Australia, what was it like bringing that team together?
GN: Melanasia is an important thing in political and cultural geography in the world. Melanasia is the area from Australia, Papua, Nusa Tenggara, Timor and also Hawaii, etc etc. In Hawaii itself World War Two is also an important issue [because that’s where] the Japanese lost [to the American Allies] in 1945. It means Melanasia is also one of the political geographies that changed the world itself. In this way geopolitically it is also important. The second thing is also that the Black society – a proud society – is also [living across a] very big area (except the US). You can see like Papua, Nusa Tenggara you know, and Melanasia have a special character, that centres voices in song and I think [that makes it] one of the important sources of the musical key and voices in the area of Melanasia. And the third thing is also because Nusa Tanggara and Papua, (part of Indonesia) is the biggest population of Melanasian society itself. And If you read the history of music and the musical key, that forest – part of Nusa Tenggar – is one of the best sources of vocals and music in the world I think – in the forest itself.
That’s why Melanasia is a very important map for the choir and Lament.

CC: The natural disasters would be a shared experience for everyone in the team, how did all the different experiences feed into the piece?
GN: I think the important thing is the voices of society. This is the important thing of the lament. If you saw all the members of the choir, [they don’t] come from one area, or one city, or one village, they come from many areas of Nusa Tenggara, from Rote, from Batawa, from many areas with different perspectives. It means they came together with their own [individual] Laments and [together] it has become the orchestra of Lament with the differences – different experiences, different backgrounds like that.

And The orchestra of Lament from different persons, characters, people becomes the orchestra of humanity and I think this becomes the soul of the planet itself.

We also only choose the songs that are not diatonic but pentatonic, only note 1 until 5,not to 7. [Note: most European based music, which would have been brought to Indonesia through colonisation, is written using a diatonic scale with 7 degrees/notes, the pentatonic scale contains 5]. Why? Because the aural tradition in my country is more pentatonic: the dilemma in Indonesia is the majority of the church and the country only bring diatonic songs, in church for example, or in choir group for example. But the biggest lament that develops from society is more pentatonic and that is why we collected all the pentatonic songs, laments and transformed them into the choir method which I think has become one of the important processes of The Lament itself. Because it’s never happened in Indonesia that [they] collected the songs with the pentatonic [tonality] from many areas or villages and then transformed [them] with the choral method.

CC: One of the things I found really interesting was the three creatures that come out of the wreckage of humanity after the collapse, what was the idea behind those?
GN: The idea is always connected with the environment. Because the sense of this [is that in] the planet [there are] more environmental dilemmas now and [will be in] the future.
The three creatures are because all the development of humanity [has been] the development of dead things. Dead things [are] like the car, hotel; everything that is not part of the environment – the car, street, building, everything. The dead things are developed so fast, and the live things like [the] forrest are getting more and more displaced. It means all [that] humanity creates is developed from dead things, and the dead things are close to the live things. And it is a tragedy! [Society is] more clever, more intellectual, more technological, more sophisticated, more millennial, but we create more and more dead things and don’t leave the room for the live things.

CC: So they’re like creatures made of the dead things.
GN: Yes! The irony, something that humanity didn’t realise,[is] that it is an irony of humanity: We are born as live creatures and then we develop the dead things bigger and bigger. And the three characters more represent the dead things itself, like plastic for example, that also cannot die, they also need energy, they cannot die. Then humanity develops the dead thing that never… cannot, die! And it becomes more like a monster, like plastic is like a monster and these three character represent how the dead things have become a monster.

And if you saw all the cars, the buildings, everything is a monster that needs energy. The energy is created from the environment, and it is ruining the world. It’s this irony, you create a dead thing, the dead thing needs energy and energy comes from the environment and kills the environment because the way you create the energy has broken the environment.

CC: In some of your other interviews you’ve spoken about the spirit of play and adding a childlike element to the process, what is the importance of that in bringing more humility and humanity into art?
GN: Yeah I think we must think back to a sense of the lament itself, and the choir and the planet itself. I think now [it’s] always difficult to talk about the soul of the human being and the soul has become not an important thing. When I made The Planet A Lament, everyone said “if you make this performance in a situation like the pandemic, what is the function of the timing of The Planet?” and my answer is so simple:

Sometimes we need only 70 mins when use of our soul to say to the environment that we love the environment, not only [that we are] thinking [about] and exploring the environment and the function of the environment, but we love the environment with our soul and the environment is part of our soul.

And this way the humanity perspective is important in the performance of The Planet. All the movement, all the songs are part of the soul and environment itself, the way they walk for example. The way they express and everything is developed between the soul, the body, and the environment itself.

CC: You’ve spoken about the experiences you’ve had with natural and political disasters, I was wondering, nowadays what sort of impact does the environment have on your life outside of theatre? Whether that’s something that you do to connect back to the environment or whether that’s the environment affecting you?
GN: Now in between state and everyday life, has become mixed together. [For the] majority [of the time] if I make something, like film or theatre, then what happens onstage becomes part of my everyday life and this is the problem. When I came to Australia it [was just the start] of the pandemic and two members of my choir [had relations in Indonesia taken to the hospital because of Covid] even though it had not happened [here in Australia] yet and when I went back to Indonesia I had to go [for] some small operation in hospital and [so] then pandemic came together [with] when I was in hospital in everyday life.
But I always have experienced that work onstage is always part of my everyday life. When I made the Opera Jawa (the producer is Peter Seller from the United States) [for the] opening [of] the 250 years of Mozart Anniversary by coordination and produced by Peter Seller [Note: The film Opera Jawa was commissioned of Garin by the government of Austria for Peter Seller’s New Crowned Hope Festival to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth]. I made the Opera Jawa and I said that so many things in Java will be lost and at the end of the film, after the screening of the film, then the earthquake came, even in my home for example.

Sometimes onstage is part of my everyday life because creativity is part of the soul itself and if the soul is developed with the environment, then it will become part of your life because the soul is [part of] the environment itself. And if creativity is part of the soul it will [just] happen like that.

CC: Do you have any current projects that you’re working on at the moment that you’re able to speak about? I know we’re all in the middle of a pandemic, but whether there’s anything going on?
GN: Yeah I have a festival: the Performing Arts Festival. And we use the streaming online and I will be mentoring. We open proposals for all Indonesian communities of performing arts. Now it’s the fifth year and I think everyyear we have about 400 proposals and we choose about 14 performing arts communities and give them the mentoring because the majority of them are young people who are running the community. And everyday Saturday and Sunday they are performing and touring online for all Indonesian people with 14 performing arts that we choose from 400 open proposals. The second thing is that I’ll still make the new musical for young people about the history of [the] environment in Indonesia that from the revolution of technology [global warming is increasing from] from 1.0 to 4.0 [degrees]. It always is about how they try to explore expiration of the environment itself. It means politics is always about how to bargain with the environment and [that’s what] I make the musical theatre for young people [about] now.

CC: Is the idea that it will tour around Indonesia [in the future], or will it be online as well? Is it a long term kind of thing?
GN: It will be online on 5th Dec for the musical theatre, next month. And the festival for performing arts is always running until the end of the year, until January on Saturdays and Monday for the community of performing arts in Indonesia.

CC: Is there anything else you’d like audiences to know about from your show?

GN: I hope the audience likes this performance because Melanasia is one of the important political and cultural geographies. And in this pandemic era, I think to hear the lament as the soul that comes from the body of society and the environment, is an important time for us together.


The Composting Costumier

The Composting Costumier is a Melbourne based Costume maker. After gradually witenessing the amount of waste the industry produces, she decided to start transitioning her own freelance design work to be more sustainable, utilising upcycled and reclaimed materials. Through her interviews, she hopes to meet likeminded people and inspire others in the industry to implement the simple changes we could all make to ensure our work leaves a positive legacy for the future of our world. She can often be seen leaving her work's compost bucket in the cloakroom of theatres before seeing a show and her hobbies include meditative compost mixing and regrowing vegetables from kitchen scraps.

The Composting Costumier

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