BY Cleo Roberts in Reviews | 02 MAY 19
Featured in
Issue 204

Javanese Epics, German Mystics and Colonial Bloodsucking: Sriwhana Spong at Spike Island

Family history, myth and geopolitics intertwine in the artist’s largest UK show to date

BY Cleo Roberts in Reviews | 02 MAY 19

The linguistic flexibility of the title of Sriwhana Spong’s largest UK exhibition to date, ‘Ida-Ida’, is emblematic of the artist’s practice. Conveying meaning in both the New Zealand artist’s ancestral Balinese (denoting a person born into a spiritually elite Brahmin family as well as a colloquial reference to a specific temple-dwelling bat) and as a Germanic girl’s name (derived from an old word meaning ‘work, labour’), the word deftly encapsulates the show’s premise by encompassing both the sacred and the profane.

The diversity of the works on display, however, risks undermining the central role played by Spong’s new film, The painter-tailor (2019), as the nexus of this interplay. Comprising documentary footage of domestic routine at the artist’s familial home in Bali, the work pivots around a framed image detailing a battle scene from the 12th-century Javanese epic poem ‘Bhomāntaka’. Made by Spong’s deceased grandfather, I Gusti Made Rundu, this thin canvas of intricately adorned characters, with searing red eyes and sharpened canines, seems almost to flicker into life under the camera’s scrutiny while family members carry on around it with their daily activities. From snippets of conversation, we learn more about both the painter and the country’s complex history. His work tailoring military uniforms during World War II, for instance – when Indonesia, then part of the Dutch East Indies, was under Japanese occupation – offers insight into the knotty colonized-colonizer relationships inherent in Bali’s past.

Sriwhana Spong, ‘Ida-Ida’, 2019, exhibition view, Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy: the artist and Spike Island, Bristol; photograph: Max McClure 

The show’s eponymous work, Ida Ida (2019) – a theatrical drop of tan-coloured silk hung like stage curtains to enclose a space for a selection of instruments – also takes up this theme. Stained with tea and Coca-Cola – products capitalized upon by colonial trade – the fabric raises issues around consumption and resource exploitation, compounded by Spike Island’s former incarnation as a tea-packing factory. Ida Ida is part of a series of works informed by Ian F. Svenonius’s 2006 essay ‘The Bloody Latte: Vampirism as Mass Movement’, which defines colonists’ voracious appetite for raw products as ‘colonial bloodsucking’.

Inspired by Balinese and Javanese gamelan traditions, in which each village plays at a specific musical pitch, four instruments await activation. Instrument E (Tina) (2019) – a matrix of metal frames, arranged according to the constellation of Capricorn – holds small bronze bells moulded from Spong’s cupped hands; Instrument D (Vera) (2019) comprises rows of irregular chimes, with each aluminium element cast from a French fry; and Instrument B (Vivian) (2016) is a Perspex xylophone. These all cluster around a suspended gong, Instrument C (Claire) (2017-ongoing): a thin sheet of aluminium, framed with sprigs of browning foliage, which is the only object with auditory potential. Pasted with honey on a nearby wall, the score of Cum vox sanguinis (Spike Island) (2019) is sectioned to reflect the museum’s opening hours and features a composition by the 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. The female visionary is further connoted by four demure dresses hanging on an opposing wall: each a musician’s outfit dyed according to Clint Goss’s principles of equating sound frequencies with colour.

Sriwhana Spong, ‘Ida-Ida’, 2019, installation view, Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy: the artist and Spike Island, Bristol; photograph: Max McClure

The themes of mysticism and female icons recur in Mother (2019): a series of four undulating, wall-mounted motifs evoking the shape of the Virgin Mary’s lap as depicted in Michelangelo’s Pieta (1498–99). Each form has a milky wax base atop which rests a porcelain counterpart, compressed by the contours of Spong’s fingers and hands. The motifs change as the porcelain elements dry, curling up and retracting from their waxy bases. However, as is symptomatic of the entire show, it is easy to overlook the works’ depth of references. For just as Spong flits between media, so too does her audience, leaving them struggling, at times, to fully process the multifarious concepts she presents.

Sriwhana Spong,'Ida-Ida' runs at Spike Island, Bristol, until 16 June 2019.

Main image: Sriwhana Spong, Instrument C (Claire), 2017, installation view, Spike Island, Bristol, 2019. Courtesy: the artist, Spike Island, Bristol, and Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland; photograph: Max McClure

Dr Cleo Roberts is a writer and a lecturer in contemporary South and South East Asian art at Sotheby’s Institute. She is currently working on her first book on the history of indigo in India.