Kirsty Baker

Unruly Resistance: The Films of Sriwhana Spong

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This essay was selected by judge Chris Krauss as one of two runner-ups in the 2022 Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize.

Commenting on this essay, Krauss, made the following comments:

‘Unruly Resistance’, runner-up Kirsty Baker’s sensitive and detailed essay on the films of Sriwhana Spong, examines Spong’s medieval sources, Margery Kempe and Hildegaard von Bingen, to better understand the work. Baker describes how Spong stages a dialogue between herself and Kempe in her film 'This Creature'. Just as Kempe’s writings are multivocal and elusive, Baker writes, ‘Spong pursues a similarly disjunctive path in her impossible desire to access the 15th century from the 21st.’ As Baker notes, Spong’s films write their own kind of language. Through her various attempts to merge with her medieval subjects, she succeeds in freeing them.

Unruly Resistance: The Films of Sriwhana Spong

I begin then to compile an archive of my body, an activity that from the start feels discomfortingly intimate. Too intimate and too bewildering an undertaking, because like all other bodies mine has become so many things over time, has changed dramatically through forces both natural and social. I am also, it must be noted, a person whose body has been broken and maimed many times over …

   – Julietta Singh [1]

My body, like that of almost every woman I know, has been marked by forces which have both broken and maimed it.[2] Were I to compile an archive of my body, it would lie in the space cleaved open between skin, gut, and memory. The memory of a key being turned in a lock to prevent me from fleeing. The gut-fear of a hand around my throat, the bruised and tender ache which violence leaves written in the skin. As the bodily archives of women cumulatively expand ever outward, I wonder whether it is possible to imagine our bodies, and all they hold within them, as ever really being free. In the face of legislative erosion of bodily autonomy and the increasingly vocal expression of misogynistic and anti-trans public discourse, women’s bodies remain battlegrounds. The construction of systems of hard and soft power seek to keep us contained, obedient, compliant. But our bodies and our minds are unruly. They forge ways of seeping free, of bleeding through the lines that are inscribed upon and between us. The concept of freedom itself is perhaps too utopian, too heavily freighted, too brutally implicated in the fetishisation of individualism to be a realistic end point, but perhaps we can glimpse the shape of something like freedom as we attempt to move towards it. The act of becoming is, by its nature, ongoing. It is a process shaped by cumulative acts of subversion and renegotiation, a constant probing at the edges to create an existence that moves away from constraint and towards expansiveness.

The work of New Zealand-born artist Sriwhana Spong has long been concerned with the subversion of systems of constraint and control. Ranging across sculpture, sound, performance and film, much of Spong’s multidisciplinary work seeks to ‘explore the relationship of the body to language, how it is written, and how it exceeds and escapes this inscribing’.[3] Frequently situating the body as a site of both social inscription and resistance, Spong uses the body – both visible and imagined – as a performative site for an exploration of new modes of becoming. Through an examination of the systems which seek to bind and constrain, she articulates existence as expansive and unruly, a tangled mesh of bodily, linguistic and psychic experience.

In the short film Beach Study, made in 2012, Spong performs a choreography built around the repetition of precariously held poses. A beach is tinged yellow through the flare of a filter over 16mm film. Spong’s body strains to hold position. Her toes sink into the sand as she holds her full weight on the balls of her feet, her legs held perfectly straight. She bends forward at the hips and arcs her back gently, her arms hanging parallel to her legs. For 27 seconds we watch her hold this physically demanding pose as the wind tugs at her hair. Though Spong holds this pose successfully, she is never entirely still. Her whole body is marked with the visible strain of muscular tension – failure seems imminent. On occasion she is forced to right her balance, her body lurching as she struggles to maintain the posture.

Failure comes in the following frames as she repeatedly falls from the pose and pushes herself back up again. The work closes with the repetition of a single move. Spong stands facing the camera on a horizontal strip of sand between two sprawling masses of rock. Slowly her body begins to fall laterally, her feet planted still as she tips over diagonally until she reaches the point at which she can no longer stand. Discussing the ideas that informed Beach Study, Spong says: ‘I had been trained as a classical dancer since I was eight and I keep thinking about that structure or philosophy of movement that is now embedded in my muscles and I was wanting to try and escape that structure, if that is even possible’.[4] Again and again in Beach Study Spong falls, she fails, she attempts to break free. The work posits the embrace of an unruly body as a means of breaking free from the structures of disciplined movement embedded in her dancer’s muscles.

Over recent years, Spong’s practice has been increasingly informed by her extensive research into medieval women mystics. These boundary-dissolving figures – such as Margery Kempe (1373–1440) and Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) – expanded the parameters of embodied and linguistic knowledge, utilising the written word as a tool to inscribe their own voices into history. Dictated by Kempe, an English mystic and visionary, and scribed by male writers, The Book of Margery Kempe (1436–38) is a complex document. Written in the third person, referring to herself throughout as ‘the creature’, Kempe’s often contradictory narrative incorporates divine visions and recounts her efforts to challenge authority, all while dissolving the line between fact and fiction. Though it is often considered the first autobiography written in the English language, The Book of Margery Kempe is more tangled and elusive than this label would suggest. Through it, Kempe traces her own

disengagement from conventional female roles and duties … Her attempt to gain personal, financial, and spiritual autonomy is a tale of radical reversal that touches us on many different levels. Margery does what very few are able finally to do, and the fact that she does so as a woman enhances the force of her story – she breaks away.[5]

In This Creature, 2016, Spong takes Kempe’s book as her starting point, weaving a present-day walk within Hyde Park around a multivocal consideration of the ways power is embedded in systems of knowledge. This Creature is a deeply linguistic film – language is both subject matter and material. Spong’s meandering, disjunctive narrative forms the spine of the work, and opens by describing Kempe as ‘a woman of many voices, like a broth, like a potion, like a cure’. This tripartite phrase is repeated several times throughout the film as Spong weaves many voices into her own – archivists, doctors, her mother and Kempe – binding the present and past together. This narration echoes and expands those voices caught within the pages of Kempe’s book, opening a dialogue between Kempe and Spong, between body and language, between constraint and freedom. As this narration plays, we watch Spong’s hand as she caresses the porous stone of a fountain, a gate, a statue. We see from her viewpoint as a sequence of birds flit in and out of the camera’s frame, resting briefly on her outstretched hand to peck at the seeds nestled in the cup of her palm.

As Spong’s hand traces the intricate curlicue of a decorative gate, she reads aloud the transcript of her request to view Kempe’s original manuscript. It is a request laden with bodily longing:

‘I want to hear the creak of its spine as it opens up, to smell that old book smell. To get low and press my nose into the crevice of that open spine, to feel the pages under my touch, to taste their crispness and to know how durable old 15th-century ink is to 21st-century saliva’.

As Spong’s hand engages in a tactile exploration of these repositories of power – the gate, the fountain, the statue – she posits knowledge as something embodied, porous, messy. The proposed encounter between tongue and ink carries a haptic charge, a direct point of contact between these two unruly women. Towards the end of This Creature, Spong says of Kempe:

‘I find you hard to pin down, to locate … You’re like an itch. You scratch at the edges, disrupt borders, and spill over into the nameless, the formless. Like a broth, like a potion, like a cure’.

In this effacement of coherent unity, this pursuit of expansiveness, Spong’s Kempe refuses to adhere to the bounded completion of selfhood which, for women, is never truly free from the strictures of patriarchal control. Kempe’s book is an act of resistance, a means of writing herself free from confinement and control.

Like Kempe, Hildegard von Bingen used language as a site of resistance. Purportedly received by divine inspiration, von Bingen’s Lingua Ignota (unknown language) consists of a glossary of 1012 words, predominantly made up of nouns. The language has no grammatical structure of its own; instead, individual words are inserted into the syntax of high Latin. For Spong, the Lingua Ignota is ‘both a subversive and celebratory gesture where the excluded body inserts itself into the very space it is denied entry, and in doing so creates a new form'.[6] Spong’s 2017 film a hook but no fish, exhibited in Spong’s homonymous first solo exhibition, held at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 2018, takes its title from the Lingua Ignota, referencing von Bingen’s creation of a word for fishhook, but not for fish, nor river, nor sea. Much of the film was shot at the site of the ruins of a monastery in which von Bingen was interred, the ruins subject to the unruly forces of nature’s fecundity. Lingering shots show us roots forcing themselves up through rock walls and trees dwarfing the crumbling remnants of the monastery which once confined von Bingen.

Throughout the 25 minutes of a hook but no fish, Spong layers imagery, sound and language to remarkably emotive effect. The opening passage moves between lush chlorophyll-green forests, moss-clad ruins and plants filmed through a red filter. Sound, like the imagery, resonates through accumulation.[7] Melodious birdsong is given a percussive rhythm through the steady tempo of footsteps striking a stone surface, echoed later in the percussive beat of drums. Water flows, bells chime, leaves crackle, choristers sing. The earth teems with worms, fallen apples are left to rot. The textural density of a hook but no fish, like much of Spong’s work, writes its own kind of language. There is a moment, early in the film, that I experience bodily each time I watch it. An empty stone window cavity is filled with carefully stacked brick-shaped stones, the threshold becoming a barrier. The following frame shows a close-up of gently swaying leaves, the whole image flaring burnt-red through a coloured filter. A sudden blaze of sound flares like a match-strike as the two images are overlaid, the reddened flicker of leaves dancing across the blocked window like a flame. It feels like the blaze of resistance.

The bodies of women appear too, but they are evasive, difficult to pin down. One woman sits in a sparse room, the light cast through the window plays off the transparent sheeting that is draped over her, casting a dance of gold onto the wall behind her. Another woman appears in a set of six contemporary photographs. Tightly cropped, heavily pixelated images of her body are almost indecipherable. Text unspools across the images:

‘it’s impossible to know if it’s really her or not, and even though it might not be her, it still feels like her’.

These women’s bodies exist in precarity, they are at once themselves and substitutes for others: von Bingen, Spong, and ourselves. They become something undefined, unruly and, perhaps, free. Spong’s films are vessels in which the multivocality of transhistorical women’s voices can coexist. As these voices and bodies coalesce, they work to resist the systems of power that seek to constrain them. They begin to slip free, to bleed together, to pulse forth with abundancy – like a broth, like a potion, like a cure.  

[1] Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You, 3Ecologies Books/ Immediations, Montréal, 2018, p 29.

[2] My usage of the term woman is inclusive of all who identify with the term, in the past, present or future.

[3] Sriwhana Spong, Femisphere, no 4, 2021, unpaginated, http://4.femisphere.co.nz

[4] Sriwhana Spong quoted in Katerina Riva, ‘(Muscular) Memory: A Conversation with Sriwhana Spong’, Art New Zealand, no 146, 2013. p 42.

[5] Lynn Staley, ‘Introduction’ in Lynn Staley (ed), The Book of Margery Kempe, Medieval Institute Publications, Michigan, 1996.

[6] ‘Sriwhana Spong in Conversation with Tendai John Mutambu’, Ocula, 6 July 2018, https://ocula.com/magazine/conversations/sriwhana-spong/

[7] Sound design by Frances Libeau.