Monday, February 1, 2010
Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers recently visited Sriwhana Spong's exhibition at Michael Lett
27 January - 6 March 2010
Dance has a remarkable ability to exist in the present moment. Blistered feet and hours of sweat soaked practice immediately give way to an instantaneous gesture, the fleeting yet brilliant moment in a performance when the body moves with perfect precision. Similarly, Sriwhana Spong’s latest film Costume for a Mourner offers moments of choreographed enchantment that are underpinned by a range of historical and legendary references. The film’s ballet dance is briefly and enjoyably captivating, but the multitude of conceptual references threaded throughout asks for a more lingering consideration from viewers.
Costume for a Mourner is the centrepiece of Spong’s first exhibition at Michael Lett gallery, Channeling Mr B. The film re-creates a small section of the ballet Le chant du Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale) composed and choreographed by the legendary duo Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine. It follows the performance of a solo dancer wearing a large black and white smock that expands and collapses with his movement. Spong’s beautifully realized film captures the momentary theatrical power of this choreography but also alludes to other narratives.
As the film’s title suggests, a sense of loss or distance from this ballet exists. Without any filmic documentation to work from, Spong has reconstructed Le chant du Rossignol from a contemporary standpoint, a position that can only rely on historical research, legend and anecdote. In this way, she has “re-imagined” a film that never was.
As with Spong’s earlier works, Costume for a Mourner owes as much to cinematic traditions as it does to theatre performance. It seems to sit somewhere in between the two, reminding us of the breathless physicality of cinema and offering a neat manifestation of the term jump cut. In this regard, I was disappointed that Spong had chosen the wall-mounted flat screen of a brightly lit gallery over a darkened cinematic space.
But perhaps that would be too much, too grand a statement. This show is about balance, after all. The hanging sculpture Field Figures finds a careful equilibrium in the combination of its components: circular and diamond steel shapes, blue squares of film filters and lengths of necklace chain. This balancing act is also echoed in the myriad of references Spong presents us with, from Balinese reverent offerings (the diamond and circle shapes which appear throughout the exhibition refer to Balinese visual traditions) to the Hans Christian Anderson parable of The Nightingale. Behind the physical immediacy of Spong’s sculpture and film lies a conceptual mesh of fact and fiction.
What is notable here is Spong’s use and incorporation of referenced material. In an environment where “research” is lauded and workbooks full of edifying clippings are held under the arm of every savvy art student, Spong does not go in for an information overload. Nor does she pepper her work with the ironic allusions or knowing winks of art practices that would have once been described as postmodern.
However, a danger still exists in this play of multiple citations. Spong is at risk of having these references simply bounce about like echoes in a cave without any substance. There is something critically hollow about this practice, but I think Spong has successfully avoided it. A kind of richness is emerging in her work: a carefully considered play of overlapping and interlocking themes. It is what happens when reference, research and citation are taken one step further, when something unique emerges. It is simply good choreography.
Nevertheless, I have a niggling feeling that Spong’s distinctiveness is having its edge taken off. For what it’s worth, Channeling Mr B felt like a “dealer show.” [Even as I tentatively write this statement I’m not sufficiently sure that I can describe what a “dealer show” is. But, this is precisely the point. Its meaning is currently in flux as the traditional differentiation of exhibition spaces in Auckland is changing. The ambition of many dealer shows over the past few years is challenging the standing, aspirations and resources of other galleries. Dealers are keeping up with the ambitions of their artists - as illustrated by Spong’s recent move from Anna Miles Gallery to Lett’s - and this is shifting our context for viewing art].
It was nice to have a breather from Michael Lett’s recent suite of block buster shows (Michael Parekowhai and Fiona Connor were memorable), and yet Spong’s peculiar charm seems a little clipped by the gallery’s tight ship aesthetic. The small photographic collages offering momentary glimpses of Balanchine’s historical legend were a little at odds with their large, gleaming white frames. Channeling Mr B is an elegant and perfectly materialized show, but sometimes greater or more interesting things come from the rough around the edges. It is a tricky balance and I am being a little pernickety here. Spong is on the brink of something great (no pressure!), let’s hope she gets a chance to spread her wings at Basel.