Dogma Radar: on Sriwhana Spong


Art News New Zealand, Spring 2018


These are the facts: in 2017 artist Sriwhana Spong travelled to the ruins of Disibodenberg monastery in Germany. She had three days to film her new work. “I didn’t know what to expect but I quickly realised the site had become a place of pilgrimage.” Busloads of women arrived each day. Like Spong, they were there to wander the grounds of the monastery where Hildegard von Bingen – a 12th-century Benedictine abbess, a visionary mystic and composer – had lived for nearly 40 years.

On Sunday a priest walked across the frame, interrupting Spong’s carefully composed shot. He was conducting a choir in the ruins. Spong had taken her sister along as her assistant and another day a group of four women from Japan asked her what Spong was filming. Her sister replied, “She’s making a film about Hildegard.” The women were excited. Spong’s sister later said, “I think they’re expecting a really big documentary.”

Spong’s 25min film a fish but no hook (2017) is not a documentary. It is, instead, a piece of mysticism in and of itself. Hildegard, like the other nuns, at Disibodenberg was enclosed in a small cell or ‘tomb’ in a confined area away from the monks. a fish but no hook begins with the clipped sound of footsteps across concrete, followed by the strike of a match: a deep-set stone window is summoned into view. The window onto the world is just a horizontal line like the slot of a letterbox. The footsteps on the soundtrack quickly move outside where the forest is presented in its lushness, alive with birdsong, but the cloistered tone has been set.

“Are you a mystic?” I ask.

Spong has just returned to London, after completing her two-month residency at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The Govett-Brewster is the second venue for her exhibition also titled a hook but no fish, which first opened at the Pump House Gallery in Battersea in January 2018.

“No. The more I look into these so-called medieval mystic writers, the less I actually know what a mystic is,” she said.

Spong’s interest in Hildegard grew out of her research at The Warburg Institute Library in London and her video This Creature (2016) is about the Christian mystic Margery Kempe who is widely considered the author of the first autobiography in English. This video features in an upcoming group show at the Dowse Art Museum.

a fish but no hook, Spong’s first solo museum exhibition in New Zealand, has been expanded at the Govett-Brewster.

Downstairs, a fish but no hook is projected alongside her earlier film having-seen-snake (2016). On the mezzanine is Scaurin Ranzgia (night tongue) (2018) a series of cryptic sculptures of horse bridles embedded in wax;  the looped bridles resemble signs or half-formed letters. A gate Design for a Horse Bit #2 (2018) fences off her elegant watercolour series Sigil Design (Rothschild’s mynah) (2017); a sigil is a symbol said to possess magical power and the series is named after an endangered Balinese bird. Cum Vox Sanguinis (2018) is a musical score attached to the gallery wall with honey that determines when one of the three instruments on display including – Instrument C (Claire) – will be struck during open hours by the gallery invigilator. The score is based on one of Hildegard’s hymns.

“Do you have faith?” I ask.

“Well, I was raised in the Pentecostal Church so I’ve been given a first-hand experience of the controlling power of language and also how quickly it can be broken up, or subverted, and that is exactly what the female mystic writers do.”

“Have you ever spoken in tongues?”

“No, my mother does though and I remember asking her how to do it. I could never do it. My ‘faith’ wasn’t strong enough. But I’m fascinated by it.”

The phrase ‘speaking in tongues’ comes from the First Corinthians in the New Testament: “If I speak in the tongues of men or angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” It is sometimes known as Glossolalia, a phenomenon in which speakers go into a trance state and communicate in unknown ‘divine’ languages.

Glossolalia is also a useful analogy for understanding Spong’s multi-disciplinary approach to art.

“My method – often rather frustratingly – has been to wait until I chime with something,” she recently told the show’s curator, John Tendai Mutambi, in an online interview.

Her exhibition at the Govett-Brewster also includes Bad review (2018). Just before Spong’s opening in New Plymouth, a male critic published a review of her Pump House exhibition accusing the works of impenetrability and shallowness.  Spong cut and pasted his ‘bad review’ into a fragmented poem and presented it hanging from the gallery stairwell like a scroll. The work is lit bright red.

“I have a dogma radar that quivers at any suggestion of morality or dogma,” Spong said. She was talking about religion, but the male critic’s review could be considered dogma too.

Spong’s film a hook but no fish is inspired by the Lingua Ignota (Latin for “unknown language”) a language first described by Hildegard. This language has a 23-letter alphabet and exists as a glossary of over 1000 nouns but has no verbs or adjectives. Historians can only speculate on its use. And Spong’s film speculates too.

In subtitles, Spong narrates the mysterious life of ‘H’. A young woman in a beneath a transparent veil acts as a conduit for Hildegard. (Spong told the fabric shop assistant, “I need a veil for a time-travelling, mystic, futuristic nun.”) The film asks whether the Lingua Ignota was a prophetic language, predicting an apocalyptic future in which all animals have become extinct, outlasted by tools and technology.

Spong’s imagery is fertile (a field of fallen apples), spooky (dirt writhing with worms), and discordant (iPhone footage of herons on an urban dumpster). The soundtrack by musician Claire Duncan is an intense build of church bells and feminine whispers. The film sparks adjectives – her colour gels cast frames in sudden bolts of blue, Fanta-stained oranges and fallow yellows. This suspenseful work utilizes horror tropes: non-linear sounds, underexposure, abrupt colour changes.

“The colour gels are totally a throwback to Suspiria,” Spong says. I should have known she’d be a fan of Suspiria; the cult Italian supernatural horror film is about a ballet dancer. Spong initially trained as a ballet dancer from the age of seven until 16, and ballet is a recurring theme in her work.

“Why did you stop?”

“I had the arms but not the turnout,” Spong says.

“What’s the turnout?”

“The flexibility that you need in the hip socket to turn the legs out. I had terrible, terrible turnout.”

But her art career has had good turn out. In 2012 her exhibition Fanta Silver and Song, was shortlisted for the Walters Prize. The work included the film’s Costume for a Mourner (2010) and Lethe-wards (2010), both of which reimagined a Sergei Diaghilev ballet originally performed by the Ballets Russes. The ballet costumes were designed by Matisse, but only photographs of the performance remain. Spong’s Costume for a Mourner recreated the dance from the original score and was performed by Benjamin Ord, who wore a liturgical robe Spong created in homage to Matisse’s originals.

“Ballet has its own rigour and dogma. In some ways it runs parallel to Pentecostalism.”

Raised in Balmoral, near the KFC on the corner (“I was obsessed with KFC”) Spong attended a Pentecostal school. Her Father is Balinese, so she grew up with his Hindu practice “on her periphery.” On an earlier trip to Bali, she also recalls her sister leaving out a plate of French fries as a daily offering, “So the spirits know we’re here.” After Spong graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts in 2001 her early works like the super 8 film Muttnik (2005) riffed on translating Balinese daily offerings into an everyday New Zealand context.

In 2014 she undertook her Masters at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. A turning point arrived after she designed a set of capes for the graduating year ahead of her. Costumes represent “a moment of transformation… it’s a shift, you become the character, you enter this space. As a performer, you’re in charge of the energy that is created in that space.”

The Govett-Brewster exhibition is also the first assembly of Spong’s evolving Gamelan orchestra. Gamelan is an indigenous Balinese orchestra that consists of percussive instruments tuned to and by each specific village. Spong’s instruments include Instrument B (Vivian) (2016) a metallophone, and Instrument C (Claire) (2018) a bell plate, which are tonally matched to the painted dresses NZ Dress B and HZ Dress C (2016-18). Her new work includes Costume for Instrument D (Vera), a silk dress dyed in Coca-Cola, (Spong has also previously exhibited fabrics dyed in Fanta) and Instrument D (Vera) (2018) is a set of chimes made from aluminum French fries. Each instrument in Spong’s orchestra is named after someone key to her.

“I wanted this moment when these instruments moved from being silent to speaking,” she says.

Spong invited Auckland Band The Coolies to play for the opening. “At one point Stefan (from The Coolies) picked up the chimes on wheels and just started banging them on the ground. For about 20 seconds I was worried about all the aluminum French Fries spinning off into the space. But I think it was a striking moment of transition – from quiet sculpture to activated instrument.”

Later Spong performed an extended version of her earlier work Tasseography of a Rat’s Nest (2018). A tasseography is a divination or fortune-telling method usually used to “read tea leaves.” Dressed in a unitard painted with fish scales, Spong spread a semi-circle of French fries on the gallery floor. “The chips have become this personal reference, a marking of place.”

What does the future divine? In 2019: a solo exhibition at Spike Island in Bristol.