I met the artist Sriwhana Spong in 2011 when I lived in Auckland, New Zealand, which is also her hometown. Today, she lives in London, and that’s where she spent the lockdown period. When we spoke from our respective lockdowns on a video call, Sriwhana was sporting an amazing high ponytail à la Ariana Grande and big headphones, as if she was a musician in her own recording studio. Sriwhana had sent me some links to her films to watch before the call and I formulated the questions below.
In her video This Creature (2016), the artist touches natural and architectural surfaces of London’s Hyde Park with one hand, while recording these actions with an iPhone in the other. To see Sriwhana’s bare hand in contact with things during a pandemic made me uncomfortable — I couldn’t help but think of masks and gloves. Despite the occasional post-COVID discomfort, the following conversation was a welcome chance to reacquaint myself with her artistic practice, after having admired some of her most recent exhibitions from afar, such as Ida-Ida (2019) at Spike Island, Bristol; a hook but no fish (2018) at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth and Pump House Gallery, London; Oceanic feeling (2016) at Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore and Mother ’ s Tongue (2016) at Neu Kirche Contemporary Arts Center, Pittsburg.
We spoke of many things: how to stay open during a pandemic, the feeling of being “far” from home no matter where you are, her peculiar personal history split between New Zealand and Bali, and how that created the conditions for the choreographic making of her filmic, sculptural and performative work. The following transcription alights on Sriwhana’s interests in animal bestiaries, performance as conduit to other dimensions, and the language of the ancient Christian mystics. Couched in the same refrains and legacy, hers is a language that could possibly re-enchant the post-pandemic world.
CR: You are spending the lockdown in London, but you work a lot with New Zealand, your motherland, which calls for a different time zone, understanding its accent as well as the nation’s own phases of COVID-19. How are you doing? Can a human function as an artist during these complex times?
SS: It’s definitely been strange keeping up with all the different lockdown phases in the UK and in New Zealand, where the approach has been vastly different. New Zealand is 12 hours ahead, so I’m often waking up to messages that have come in throughout the night. It definitely felt like I was mentally accommodating for two different time zones when the crisis first began. Lockdown has been a very introspective time, and the last months have brought so many urgent and pressing issues to the fore, so my mind has been in overdrive — there’s a lot of processing that needs to happen before I can focus on a new work. For me, one of the best parts of being an artist is the many gradients of activity it involves, so I’m still functioning as an artist, even if it may appear slower and less productive.
I was thinking about structures that create fear — fear of the future, fear of the other — and also the idea of prophecy as a possible alleviation of fear.
CR: I was watching this amazing image from a performance you did at Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Zealand as part of your solo show, a hook but no fish, in 2018 . You are crouched on your elbows and knees in a sand-coloured bodysuit with scales drawn on, holding a microphone while reading a script on the floor in front of you. All the while, an arc of actual fries appears to protect you. I love it. Tell me what’s going on there?
SS: It’s Tasseography of a Rat ’ s Nest , a performance I developed while on a DAAD residency in Berlin. When I first arrived, I noticed this large rat curled up on the windowsill outside my bedroom, and my first response was a feeling of revulsion as I wondered how to get rid of it. It slowly began building a nest, sheltered between my window and a curtain of ivy. We were almost sleeping side-by-side every night, both curled in a foetal position, separated by glass. It became a companion of sorts.
Around the same time, a family member, who happens to also be a fundamental Christian, sent me an email about the end-times, warning me to take any money out of the bank and put it under my mattress. So, I was thinking about structures that create fear — fear of the future, fear of the other — and also the idea of prophecy as a possible alleviation of fear. My performance is a divination of a possible future by reading leaves from the rat’s nest, the same as you would tea leaves in a teacup. Whenever the rat left its nest, I’d put on gloves and extract a leaf and photograph it, then write a prediction based on its shape. The costume is actually based on the rat’s tail, which I was surprised to see that it was scaly, like rows of tiny fingernails. The fries are based on daily offerings put out by my family in Bali — so yes, they are marking, as you say, a protective space like a nest. In framing my performance, they open up a dimension between myself and the audience in time and space, just as offerings open up a dimension where the sacred meets the profane.
CR: There are so many amazing threads in your work. I feel animals are often there as conduits in your own making of a bestiary: snakes, dogs, bats, birds. Do animals give you (or your narrative) superpowers?
SS: It’s something I never really thought too much about until I found myself in a unitard painted with scales, because I’ve never considered myself an “animal” person. But snakes have been a recurring motif in my work; rats and bats, more recently. One of my first film works was called Muttnik , which is the nickname the United States gave to the Sputnik projects during the Space Race. The Soviets sent stray dogs — Laika, Strelka and Belka — up into space because they felt that strays could best endure the harsh conditions . The animals that have found their way into my work can be seen as peripheral creatures: snakes, rats, stray dogs and bats. The costume I made for Tasseography of a Rat ’ s Nest found its way into my new film, castle-crystal and has entered into my stream of thoughts in relation to a new performance commissioned by David Roberts Arts Foundation (DRAF) in London that will be staged next year. I feel like it’s becoming something that I keep returning to — a character or a persona, or as you nicely put it, a conduit.
I like the idea of a personal bestiary in the making. I love reading descriptions of creatures in medieval bestiaries, how various birds and animals are translated into beings that are both strange yet familiar to how we see them today.
CR: In your 2019 film, The painter-tailor, you bring us to your ancestral home in Sanur, Bali in Indonesia. The film takes place in the courtyard of your dad’s home and offers an evocative intergenerational dialogue via your grandfather’s painting that was taken out of the house and held by your relatives. Tell me more about the emotional and technical challenges of evoking your family history and how you came up with the brilliant dog-cam idea.
SS: This is the first work I’ve made in Bali, where my father is from. I’d been wanting to make one for a while, but it took time to figure out how to approach it.
I was raised in New Zealand and didn’t visit Bali until I was a teenager, so while my family there are incredibly welcoming, I often feel like an outsider. Growing up, I was constantly asked where I was from. From talking to friends with similar backgrounds, this seems to be a common feeling or experience.
I’ve always been hesitant about what belongs to me and what doesn’t, and while this can be a wonderfully playful space, you also have to be very sensitive and considerate. I am totally aware that by being educated in the West, in a Western art school, I have learned how to frame things based on European ideals of composition and balance, not to mention the inherent problematics of framing — what is included and what gets left out — not just formally but also in terms of language, etc.
I’ve always been hesitant about what belongs to me and what doesn’t, and while this can be a wonderfully playful space, you also have to be very sensitive and considerate.
The first key that really opened the door to this work was talking with a friend about the hesitations I had based on my distance yet nearness to Bali. They suggested that I think about it more specifically — not as a relationship to Bali, but as a relationship to my father. I knew my grandfather had been a painter, but I didn’t know too much about it, so I thought, “Why not make a film about him?” I thought for a long time about how to disrupt a singular framing, my own eye entering and deciding what made it into the frame and what didn’t.
My father and family are all interested in photography and all have their own cameras. My sister and her partner actually have a wedding photography business, so I decided to ask them all to help me film. We also attached a GoPro to our dog Alaska’s collar. His footage is my favourite, not only because there’s this real freedom of roaming, with no thought to what is being “captured”, but also because you have this pink lolling tongue at the top of the frame. And as you beautifully mentioned, you also get to see the unconscious way my family relates to the dog and each other through tender, familiar gestures that would be difficult to capture through a “human” camera operator, because in that set-up everyone would be so aware of the camera and constantly performing for it.
CR: Your relationship to the body and choreography seem to have changed quite a bit since 2012. What guides your decisions these days when working on a project and collaborating with people?
SS: I’ve become less interested in filming or presenting the body performing, and more interested in thinking about the body through material, form, etc. I’ve been slowly working on a method for film-making inspired by medieval mystic texts written by women. These texts — for many historical and contextual reasons, survival included — are incredibly somatic, being based more in experiential knowledge. They also incorporate what we would identify as different genres today — autobiography, fiction, research — into one text. They also break into their own texts with doubts, exclamations of exhaustion, complaints of headaches, cries of joy, and many are laced with an incredible eroticism. While written in a totally different world to my own, there is something there that deeply resonates with me — a form, a style that makes sense to me. So these texts have influenced my recent film-making where I try and bring in multiple approaches, mediums and temporalities onto the one “timeline,” which I’ve begun to think less of as a travelling from A to B, and more as a shimmering space of impressions.
I see my personal orchestra in the same way. It is based on the Balinese gamelan , where traditionally each village’s gamelan would have a slightly different pitch, so you couldn’t take one instrument from one village and play it in another. I liked this idea of sound relating to a specific place, community and experience. And so I decided to write my own “place” through an orchestra. There are about seven instruments so far. Each is named after someone who I’ve worked with, a friend or a conversant. I ask different people to play them — the New Zealand composer Antonia Barnett-McIntosh wrote and performed a score, while the New Zealand band Te Coolies have improvised, and two of the instruments were made to be played at specific times by a gallery staff. With this personal orchestra, as the mystics write, “there is no me without thee”.
CR: Language (words, meanings, idioms, accents, secrets) seems to be a constant ally in your work. I feel you do a lot of listening, in and beyond your work. Can you tell us more about Lingua Ignota (which is Latin for “Unknown Language”), mystic writers and perhaps your love of archives?
SS: My fascination with language has come through a variety of streams. Being raised in fundamental Pentecostalism  (the American strain that came to New Zealand in the 80s) and having to unlearn everything I was indoctrinated to believe has left a lasting impact. That background made me realise the power of language, especially its binary constructions, and how limiting and destructive it can be, how difficult it is to rewrite and thus reframe the way you embrace the world. But most importantly I realised that it is possible! Within this dogma, I also grew up hearing glossolalia , which as a child made me feel like I was standing on the threshold of a great mystery. In the family temple in Bali, I’ve also witnessed people speaking through trance — so I guess I’m open to the idea of the body as being a channel to other ways of speaking.
Hildegard’s  Lingua Ignota was compelling in this regard. She believed she had “received” a secret language. What exists of it today is a list of around 1000 nouns, with no adjectives or verbs. Apparently she inserted her “received” words into Latin sentences, borrowing its structure, grammar, etc. Latin was the official language of the church at the time and was spoken by priests, but women were generally not formally taught it. I love this idea of Hildegard breaking into the “high” language of Latin with her own words, creating this rupture within a classical form with her own private language. It perhaps creates what Michel de Certeau calls an “erotics of language” : an intrusion of the private into public language, disrupting it along the way.
My own narrative around this is of Hildegard’s desire to speak regardless of her position, exclusion and hesitations, and finding a way of speaking on her own terms. It’s fascinating reading through her list of words, because she’s naming things close to her, things she sees and touches and things of her world (including God and angels) — but mainly everyday things. There are a lot of words for plants, items of clothing, birds and parts of the body. So you end up having a very intimate and clear impression of the things around her and what she privileged. In a hook but no fish, I was interested in this idea of renaming and what that might do, how it might allow you to see an object differently. Read this way, Lingua Ignota seems like an act of adoration for all the things that made up Hildegard’s world, from a hinge to a horsetail. It’s almost a re-enchantment of the world that I think is much needed today.
Having to unlearn everything I was indoctrinated to believe has left a lasting impact. That background made me realise the power of language, especially its binary constructions, and how limiting and destructive it can be, how difficult it is to rewrite and thus reframe the way you embrace the world.
CR: In your 2019 film, castle-crystal (16 mm transferred to digital video), you use an artificial intelligence (AI) clone of your voice as the narrator. What prompted that decision and what did the outsourcing of the technology entail? Would you do this again?
SS: Coming from New Zealand, using a voiceover can be a complicated thing to navigate. Whenever I saw video work in the “main centres”, until fairly recently, the accents always tended to be predominantly British or American for obvious reasons. Using a New Zealand accent can seem instantly locatable, so I like to play with this. For This Creature , I deliberately picked an English accent that reminded me of the kind of accent I was often hearing in video work. Because the film was set in Hyde Park, where public access depends on the “grace and favour”  of the Crown, I wanted to use the voiceover to embed an accent that to me, coming from New Zealand, one can’t disassociate from colonialism.
With castle-crystal I was going through a process of making the film while reading Teresa of Ávila’s  Interior Castle . The text describes her soul as a castle made of glass or crystal, where her sisters can enter, unwatched by their supervisors, able to “revel” at any hour. I decided to make a clone of my own voice using a simple computer programme to create something that sounds like both flesh and glass, organ and metal, a sense of closeness and a distance, as well as an echo coming back to me from deep within the interior — in this case, the interior of the Internet, which carries its own mystic connotations. I had to record myself saying 100 sentences which were then turned into a voice that can speak anything — echoes here of Hildegard’s 1000 nouns, perhaps?
There were many more dogs — at least 57 — that were sent to sub-orbital and orbital space flights by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s. Most survived, however some died due to tech-nical failures. Laika became the first living creature in orbit onboard Sputnik 2 in 1957, however she did survive the flight due to overheating.
Gamelan is “the indigenous orchestra type of the islands of Java and Bali, in Indonesia, consisting largely of several varieties of gongs and various sets of tuned metal instruments that are struck with mallets. The gongs are either suspended vertically or, as with the knobbed-centre, kettle-shaped gongs of the bonang, placed flat.” The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Gamelan,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 19 August 2011, https://www.britannica.com/art/gamelan
Pentecostalism is a “religious movement that gave rise to a number of Protestant churches in the United States in the 20th century and that is unique in its belief that all Christians should seek a postconversion religious experience called baptism with the Holy Spirit.” J. Gordon Melton, “Pentecostalism,” Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pentecostalism
Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is a phenomenon in which people speak “utterances approx-imating words and speech, usually produced during states of intense religious experience. The vocal organs of the speaker are affected; the tongue moves, in many cases without the con-scious control of the speaker; and generally unintelligible speech pours forth.” iThe Editors of En-cyclopaedia Britannica, “Glossolalia,” Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/glossolalia
St. Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine mystic and philosopher who lived in the 12th Century. Her manuscript, fully titled Lingua Ignota per simplicem hominem Hildegardem prolata, is a glossary of 1011 words in this so-called “unknown language”.
Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, Volume One: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), trans. Michael B. Smith, 146. https://archive.org/stream/MichelDeCerteauTheMysticFable/MicheldeCerteau-TheMysticFable_djvu.txt
Used to refer to property owned by the sovereign that is granted free.
Saint Teresa was a Carmelite nun and mystic who lived in 16th Century Spain.