In Indonesian New Zealand artist Sriwhana Spong's practice, language, sound, and bodies function as both subject matter and medium. While Spong's earlier work examined histories of the so-called East through the lens of Euro-American exoticisation, her later sculptures, films, and performances have focused on the body and its relationship to history, place, and time, drawing the artist into the orbit of women she refers to as 'mystic writers'.Read More
The ephemeral nature of dance and performance has been Spong's longest-standing interest. Comprising her 2012 Walters Prize finalist work Fanta Silver and Song, the films Costume for a Mourner and Lethe-wards reimagine a lost choreography originally performed by the Ballets Russes—a Paris-based dance company active in the early 20th century. For the sculpture The Stranger's House (2012), Spong returned to the Ballets Russes as subject matter, this time remaking a failed theatrical backdrop designed by Australian modernist painter Sidney Nolan for the original production of Icare—an act described by the artist as 'breaking-and-entering' into the legacy of a canonical white male artist. For her film Fourth Notebook (2015), Spong created a choreographic score from the rhythm of words in a letter written by the celebrated Polish-Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky as his mental condition deteriorated from schizophrenia.
In 2015, Spong began a series of furniture-based works bearing the initials of peers and women of influence in her life, including mystics, artists, and collaborators. Inspired by American artist-poet Florine Stettheimer's Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy (1923), which bears the initials 'MD' around the frame's edge, Spong created VS!MF!TB! (2015)—a set of tables intended as a gift for their namesake to later to work on.
From 2016, Spong has created percussive instruments as part of an expanding 'personal orchestra'. Drawing from the Balinese Gamelan and the tradition in which each village has its own tuning system for producing uniquely pitched instruments, the artist creates records of place and the people with whom she collaborates (Like the above-mentioned furniture series, each instrument is named for someone). Instrument D (Vera)—a set of chimes made from aluminium cast French fries—pairs with Costume for Instrument D (Vera)—a silk dress dyed in Coca Cola and patterned with vegetable oil. Both draw on the use of common food items in Balinese culture as daily offerings, transforming everyday foods into mediums of contact with the sacred. So does Villa America (2012)—a brightly coloured silk banner dyed in Fanta and one in a series of banners inspired by American musician and writer Ian F Svenonius' 2006 essay 'The bloody latte: Vampirism as mass movement'. The essay is a historical account of beverages and their circulation as acts of colonial bloodsucking, but Spong's dyed silk banners and dresses are more than unalloyed reproaches of colonisation and global capitalism as homogenising forces; the works consider the power of collective experience by acknowledging these consumed substances' effect as at once toxic and joyous.
Over recent years, Spong's practice has been informed by a constellation of women mystic writers and creators. These include Margery Kempe (c 1373–c 1440)—the Christian mystic believed to have written the first autobiography in the English language, who is the subject of Spong's film This Creature (2016). Similarly, the Lingua Ignota (unknown language) of Hildegard von Bingen—the 12th-century German polymath—becomes the locus of Spong's meditation on the female body's relationship to language, writing, and notions of the sacred in her film a hook but no fish (2017). The structure of her recent films—moving across time and place—is inspired by these medieval mystics. Her writing, as it appears in her most recent films, slips between fiction and non-fiction, reflecting Spong's upbringing in New Zealand removed from Indonesian culture, where parts of her Balinese heritage 'had to be fictionalised and imagined in order to exist, to take up space, to speak'.
Her work has been included in solo and group presentations at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth (2018); Pump House Gallery, London (2018); KADIST, San Francisco (2018); Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (2016); daadgalerie, Berlin (2016); Carriageworks, Sydney (2015); The Jewish Museum, New York (2015); Art Basel Hong Kong (2014); Art Gallery of New South Wales (2013); Guangdong Times Museum (2013); and the 18th Biennale of Sydney (2012).
Spong currently lives and works in London.
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