Spike Island Exhibition, Bristol UK
In a low-lit bedroom in Sriwhana Spong’s ancestral family home in Bali hangs a painting by her grandfather, the artist and tailor I Gusti Made Rundu. It is his last work, and the only one the family owns – although it almost slipped out of their hands. Not long after the artist’s death, Spong’s father was offered 20m rupiahs (around £1,000) by an unknown buyer who had mysteriously heard of the painting’s existence. But he refused to sell it.
This moment in Spong’s family history is related in her new film The Painter-Tailor, which is part of the London-based New Zealand artist’s solo exhibition. Featuring sculpture, film and live performance, the show is a microcosm of her multifaceted practice, brought together by the narrative surrounding her grandfather’s painting. In the film, Spong’s father seems happy with his decision not to sell the piece, saying: “If I didn’t keep it, we’d have nothing to talk about.” We get to see the perspectives of other family members, who are enlisted as the camera crew. A GoPro records the viewpoint of one of their dogs.
The playful familial complicity of the film’s participants contrasts with the outsider gaze of a foreign photographer whose black-and-white images of Bali we see being flicked through. The photographs, from the 1930s-60s, focus on Balinese customs – styles of dress, dances, rituals, art and portraits. At one point, we see Rundu with Spong’s father when very young. The artist’s sister found the image catalogued in the New York Public Library. Spong prompts us to think about the creation and distribution of images – not just about who makes them and why, but about the act of looking and the effects of colonisation in modifying traditions of image-making in Indonesia.
In the gallery, a banner big enough to partition the space draws from Spike Island’s own history to further unpack the baggage of colonialism and its appetite for consumption. In a nod to the building’s original use as a tea-packing depot, the banner’s fabric is stained with PG tips and Coca-Cola, producing tones of flesh-like brown. The artist aligns this idea with a 2006 essay by the American writer and musician Ian Svenonius, The Bloody Latte: Vampirism As a Mass Movement, in which imbibing is compared to bloodsucking within the context of the history of tea, coffee and coca – industries that require the constant supply and labour of the colonised land’s natural resources.
Over the last few years, Spong has been building a personal orchestra of Balinese and Javanese percussion instruments based on the gamelan. Here, she has brought together four of these instruments, designed to embody her close friends. For example, Instrument E (Tina) takes the shape of Capricorn, her friend Tina’s star sign, and features the artist’s cupped hands cast in bronze as the conduits of sound. Traditionally, each village has a different tone for its set of gamelan instruments, creating its identity. At the exhibition’s opening, a group of Spong’s friends and collaborators – Tina included – played the instruments, creating a particular set of sounds that marked out the artist’s own place, her self-made village. Building a sense of belonging can often be a difficult task, not least the bringing together of different kinds of family. Luckily for Spong, her artworks not only resonate with her audience, they also take her home.
At Spike Island, Bristol, until 16 June.