Essay about New Zealand artist Sriwhana Spong’s exhibition Beetlejuice. Published in ‘Column 2: 2008 Biennale of Sydney Critical Response.


To pinpoint one’s place in the world today is not easy. One reason for this is that we can no longer be sure where anything comes from. An MP3 player, for example, is designed in the USA, made from components manufactured in Malaysia, assembled in Indonesia and is available for sale in all three countries at very different currency rates. A simple cup of coffee may hold the story of a journey across several continents. Everything in the world can be said to bear traces of something else upon it. Increasingly however, these traces – marks telling us how a thing was made or what a place is – are being obliterated or replaced by multinational branding.

Perhaps this is why we have trouble recognizing ourselves in our surroundings, particularly in large cities. People, more so than places and things, are hugely impressionable. When we live anywhere for any amount of time, we leave traces that are quickly swept away – someone else inhabits the house you’ve sold, hairs in the sink of a hotel room are cleared, even graffiti gets painted over. In contrast, places leave their mark on us for much longer, in the form of experiences, memories and relationships.

Sriwhana Spong’s Beetlejuice pays close attention to these traces that we accumulate and carry within us as we move through the world. The exhibition was developed over a 5-week residency at Gunnery studios, and reflects the artist living and working in a new city (Spong is Auckland born and based) for a relatively short period of time. Traces of the artist’s past, present and imagined memory are embodied in installation, videos and objects. The exhibition becomes a landscape that describes how memory works, or what Li-Young Lee, in a poem entitled ‘This Room and Everything In It’ called ‘the art of memory’:

I am letting this room
and everything in it
stand for my ideas about love
and its difficulties.
I’ll let your love-cries,
those spacious notes
of a moment ago,
stand for distance.
Your scent,
that scent
of spice and a wound,
I’ll let stand for mystery.
Your sunken belly
is the daily cup
of milk I drank
as a boy before morning prayer.
The sun on the face
of the wall
is God, the face
I can’t see, my soul,
and so on, each thing
standing for a separate idea,
and those ideas forming the constellation
of my greater idea.

Materials and their meaning form an important part of the works. Spong uses two materials that are considered archaic and nearly obsolete – Super 8 film and Lac compound. One is employed to create images, the other objects, but the main quality of both is their texture. They are sensitive materials with their own language and evocative history. Lac, for example, is harvested from an insect known as Kerria lacca. The beetle draws the sap from a colonized tree, which is then secreted as a scarlet resin. Up until the introduction of vinyl in the 1950s, Lac was used to manufacture 78rpm phonograph records. It is said that if you find an old record pressed from Lac, dissolving it in a jar of spirits will yield a furniture lacquer of extraordinary density and beauty (not to mention musical provenance). Spong casts a six-pack of drink cans out of this dark beetle’s syrup. The cans, a banal fixture of consumer life, then sit on the floor like solidified shadows, at once recognizable, yet strange.

Lac, a natural polymer, bears so many traces of its own physicality and constitution (the color and smell, for example) compared to the industrial plastics of today. Super 8 film shares that quality. Even as it registers the light to form an image on each frame, it imparts the texture of its own emulsion to the image, making it grainy and marking it with countless little flaws. In a work bearing the same title as her exhibition, Spong plays with the actual materiality of the film by punching a series of tiny holes into each frame. The resulting film is a large circle of light with jagged edges, skipping within a black square. What began as a gesture that left little traces of absence is transformed into a rich, ambiguous image that could be a moon, or a portal, or a hole in the sky, while the movement is a trace of the human irregularity inherent in the very gesture that created that image.

Incidentally, movement is also central in Spong’s show. Imagine a sheet of tracing paper placed over an image. Now take your pencil (or your finger) and place it on the point you wish to begin tracing. You’ll see that every trace requires movement before it can exist; a trace is the evidence of movement having taken place. In contrast to the frenzied movement of Beetlejuice, Still Life records a barely perceptible motion that occurs intermittently, like a flicker of the eye. Also shot in Super 8, it depicts an array of objects balanced in layers on top of each other, like a strange shrine or altar, or perhaps a shop display. It seems, for all intents and purposes, a completely still image, except that every now and then, the corner of a sheet of paper in the stacked arrangement flutters as if blown by a breeze. The motion is greatly slowed down, which makes the paper seem heavy. This faint, belabored movement could mean two things: one is that the whole image is wishing to deny the passage of time – it wants to be still; conversely, it is trying to resist death by moving against stillness – it wants to come alive. Still Life points to the heavy half-life, half-death of memories, and makes the dancing void (created from absence, remember!) in Beetlejuice seem almost exuberant and full of possibility.

As if forming a bridge between those two extremes of movement, a wall fan is placed high up in the middle of the room with strips of newspaper attached to it. As the fan moves languidly from side to side, the paper strips follow the direction of the blowing wind, and the trace of this movement can be perceived from anywhere in the room as a soft rustle. Movement in real-time – that is, the present – occurs somewhere between the weighty past and heady rush of the future.

Memories seldom have neat edges telling us where they begin or end. They crowd inside us, close together, and each one seems to affect those next to it. In a similar manner, all the elements in Beetlejuice are fashioned and arranged in ways that interact with and inform each other. An oversized draught stopper stitched from sequined fabric coils around the foot of a beam underneath the revolving fan, lying there like an extruded snake that has fashioned itself out of all the little black dots cut from the making of the Beetlejuice Super 8 film. It doesn’t stop any draughts, but looks formidable enough to smother any movement in the room if it so chooses. Its lurking presence on the floor forms a counterpoint to the vertical arrangement on the far wall, which begins with Still Life at the crown and ends with the Lac casts of drink cans at the bottom. Sandwiched in between is an autograph that Spong collected on a piece of scrap paper and then transferred to neon. Although we are not told where this signature came from, it glows gently in the dark like a warm thought remembered. Stuck to the wall are also sheets of magazine paper carrying a faint image advertising LG’s latest PRADA cell phone. This vertical stack of subtly transformed objects becomes a personal totem in which layers of meaning and memory are balanced on top of the other, perhaps as a way to make space for movement, or other things.

Walking around the space of Beetlejuice, a landscape emerges where something else is always at the corner of your eye, no matter where you may be looking. This multiplicity of associations is embodied in the evocative, yet ambiguous title itself.

‘Beetlejuice’ brings many things to mind – foremost is probably Tim Burton’s cult 1988 comedy about two ghosts and a free-lance bio-exorcist. Betelgeuse (the film’s alternative title) is also the name for the ninth brightest star in the night sky, a red supergiant. And betel juice refers to the common custom in south and southeast Asia of chewing betel palm seeds. These names nestle comfortably beside each other, and make ‘Beetlejuice’ a word rich with supple meanings.

Sriwhana Spong’s Beetlejuice is a beautiful, sensitive collection of gestures, impressions and images that evoke an intimate engagement with one’s surroundings, and the effort taken to locate one’s self in it. We may not leave lasting traces on the places we have been, but we carry them inside us wherever we go. In these global times of market-driven delocalization and instant communication, we become the world’s meaningful places – it’s the only way to determine where we come from, and where we’re going.

Sriwhana Spong’s exhibition “Beetlejuice, 26 Oct – 17 Nov 2007 at Artspace Sydney.