Yasmine Ganley discovers artist, dancer and free thinker Sriwhana Spong is a true renaissance woman. Inspired as a child by a photo of Margot Fonteyn, Sriwhana embarked on a lifelong journey through art, stopping on the way to style Lorde for her video Royals and publish a book before readying herself for her next piece at Carriageworks in Sydney which includes 'a letter, a dance, some sculptures and hopefully a bird or two..."
Yasmine Ganley: You have recently moved to The Netherlands, what instigated this move? Sriwhana Spong: I’ve started a Masters at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. Where did you grow up? Balmoral, Auckland. I loved your dance installation/showing at Auckland Art Gallery. Am I right to say that you have a dance background? If so, what sort of training did you do? (I am interested as I am a trained dancer too). I studied classical ballet for years. My mother had a black and white photograph of Margot Fonteyn as Ondine taken by Keith Money that I was obsessed with as a child. I wanted to become that image~that movement~whatever that image contained I wanted it. Of course I never got there, but I did get to meet Keith Money and chat with him about his time photographing Fonteyn and Nureyev in the 60s. He has this incredible archive of footage which I got to brush up against—the odd image pulled from the archive to show me— but never fully enter, much to my frustration. Sitting in Birkenhead while he told me how he helped Fonteyn smuggle Baryshnikov out of a London hotel room to spend the day at Margot’s mothers house, all under the eyes of the KGB, kind of blew my mind. He very generously wrote a text and contributed images to a publication I made with Clouds and Michael Lett Publishing, before running off with his archive to Ireland. Can you tell us about how this training finds its way into your work, or even your everyday life? It’s an incredibly strict philosophy of movement. You take class every afternoon, six days a week where you rehearse the same exercises again and again, and over time its structure embeds itself into your musculature~especially when you are a young girl and still developing. I think about it as a form that has colonised my body, and I will always be connected to it in this way. My body is a product of this strict and rather archaic practice, but it is also a language of thought and expression that I know how to read. This has helped me when working with dancers on recent projects, and I am beginning to see how a particular way of thinking about space, body and object that developed when I was studying dance crept into my practice and embedded itself into how I think about these things within a sculptural practice. The best thing art school taught you? Learning to have confidence as a young woman in what I did~mainly because in my last year I’d get told to make shit big and out of metal. The ridiculousness of this made me realise the power of trusting my intuition. Any mentors/ teachers that you would like to acknowledge? My art teacher Niki Glasgow at high school was cool. School teachers should get more credit~the really good ones can change your life. Who are you represented by in Auckland? Michael Lett Gallery. What has been your career highlight so far? Watching a performance at the Merce Cunningham studio in 2008, followed by a q&a with Merce himself. I also took some lessons at the studio, and fumbled my way through~it was really embarrassing, but it was an interesting way of learning about someone else’s ideas by physically engaging with them. His technique uses the potential movements of the spine, whereas classical ballet uses it strictly as a support structure—you generally have to keep it straight. Something as seemingly simple as putting a curve in something was immensely difficult for me to achieve. There is a process of unlearning, undoing and letting go that is involved in order to move somewhere new and interesting~this is what my time at the Piet is about too I think. Can you tell us about your involvement with Lorde? My friend Joel was directing her first two videos and asked me to style Ella. I was curious because my friend Justin, who works at Universal, had told me a lot about her. I’m pretty cynical about the music industry, especially the way women are represented. It was wonderful meeting Ella~she’s whip smart, unpretentious and knows what she wants. You know straight away that she’s not going to be pushed into doing anything she doesn’t want to do, wearing anything she doesn’t want to wear. You also forget how young she is; she has a wisdom about her and of course that star quality, that thing that you don’t believe exists till you meet it~an enigmatic quality I suppose that could almost make you believe in destiny. I think she’s a good role model for young women. I love pop and r&b, but there are moments when you stop to listen to certain lyrics or dissect the music videos and the blatant misogyny is so depressing. This makes one so aware of the space of contradiction contemporary living demands: can I critique it and dance to it at the same time? Rihanna’s Pour it Up is a good reminder of how exploited women still are in that industry~that video is particularly bleak to me. So it’s a relief to have someone like Ella step into that arena; I love how she has chosen pop as her medium, she understands it as a format, how it operates and uses that to her advantage~and most importantly she writes a great song. What are you working towards right now? I’m working on a piece for Carriageworks in Sydney. It involves a letter, a dance, some sculptures, and hopefully a bird or two...Sounds fascinating, talk us through it... This new work attempts to translate a letter written in 1919 as the dancer Nijinsky slipped into what is believed to be chronic schizophrenia. The letter is untranslatable from its original French as words are largely unanchored from meaning, rather becoming tools for persistent rhythm and repetition through the use of clanging. I am working with a dancer Benjamin Ord to translate this letter into movement. It explores translation as an attempt, a series of propositions that search for an essence rather than simply the relaying of information. Finding the points of empathy/entry I guess. Do you have fellow artists you love collaborating with, working on ideas/research together? I work a lot with my friend Benjamin Ord who is a dancer and choreographer living in London. I’ve learnt a lot through engaging with him, and it has been challenging opening up my process to a dialogue with another person, another medium. My friend Hanna is an engineer who works for NGO’s getting drinkable water to refugees~ I’ll be complaining about how hard I’m finding working through a particular idea, and she’ll be explaining how she managed to save a village from dying of thirst ~ our friendship really helps me to put everything into perspective. Favourite way to spend a day off in The Netherlands? Napping, streaming tv and catching up on mountains of reading. The first song you listen to in the mornings? Weirdly or not so weirdly being away from home has made me want to listen to NZ music. I’ve been listening to the Chills and the Mint Chicks a lot. On repeat is Drake’s Hold on We’re Going Home. I’m also addicted to Nino Rota’s score for Fellini’s Casablanca. Any plans for your white Christmas? I’ll be back in New Zealand for a few weeks. It’s been hard seeing everyone’s pictures of NZ in the springtime, especially here where it’s grey, rainy and cold. So I’m looking forward to the sun, the beach, eating from my mum’s vege garden, getting to crack into my dad’s home brew and seeing friends and family.