Sriwhana Spong at the Anna Miles Gallery

By Jenny Ling

It's not often you meet someone who can describe herself as a cultural stray, yet has the self-assurance and sense of humour to see the funny side of it. Twenty-five-year-old Sriwhana Spong does, and carries it off well.

Sitting in the Anna Miles Gallery, home of her solo exhibition Muttnik, Spong doesn't look like a stray, although her Balinese heritage is a constant presence in her work, something she is trying to penetrate through her artistic representations.

Muttnik comprises three video installations and several tie-dyed cloths set up in a shrine-like manner akin to her Balinese theme. Though some of her work is straightforward, highlighting Spong's feelings of cultural disconnection, others are more disconcerting and haunting, stemming from her fascination with space and the unknown.

The name Muttnik comes from the 1957 Russian space project Sputnik, in which dogs were launched into space. Stray dogs were used by Russian scientists in the belief they would adapt more easily to the intense stress of space travel and the unfortunate dogs were given the nickname "muttnicks".

Spong describes her Muttnik as a "mongrel operation. I love things that are still mysterious.

To me Muttnik is a launching pad into queries of the unknown".

The recurring themes of displacement, space, the unknown and the mysterious are like toys Spong plays with. They weave a complex thread, though she never takes them too seriously, emphasising that it's all in the name of fun.

Growing up, Spong had little connection with her Balinese roots. She likes the idea of playing with cultural forms and making them her own. That way she doesn't feel trapped within either culture, and is free to draw on aspects of both.

"The show is like a spider web," she says. "There are little bits of information connecting them." The video installation of sculptures Spong made in tribute to Balinese shrines illustrates this. Made from everyday objects such as bottles, cigarettes, fruit and incense, and named after planets, the sculptures are a point of communication between the Balinese people and their gods. "They are ephemeral, part of daily activity, and have to be done again and again."

Other purely cultural pieces are the hanging cloths surrounding the video monitors which have all been handmade by Spong. Called Batik, the tie-dyed cloths are a traditional item of Balinese culture where melted wax and dye are used to create intricate, colourful patterns.

Spong's work, however, does get a little spooky, which is evident in Zoya and Bermuda Triangle. Zoya, a video installation, shows the artist reading Indonesian from a book. Shot at night, the image gives off a greenish hue and she occasionally looks up from the text, revealing gleaming eyes.

She wears a hooded jersey with a skeleton pattern which completes the haunting scene. That Spong doesn't know the language only adds to the unknown terrain she is trying desperately to understand.

Bermuda Triangle, another video installation, lists the names of ships which have disappeared in the area. Each name appears on screen like a film credit, then dissipates in a ghostly manner. It is a simple but effective piece which mirrors the mystery surrounding the triangle.

Spong's strong connection with video is reminiscent of Fluxus artist Nam June Paik whose video installations and sculptures such as TV Buddha, Video Fish and TV Garden were some of the most important contributions to video art in the 1970s and 80s. "I love video as a medium because it is time-based," Spong says.

"Movement connects the past, present and future better than stills [photography] can."

Perhaps the story that best sums up Spong as a self-confessed "cultural stray" is the one about her name. Named by her mother, she believed Sriwhana to mean "Balinese Goddess of rice" - until a year ago. An internet search revealed her mother had in fact misspelled her name and, as there is no "h", her name means nothing in Indonesian.

"It kind of sums up my whole scenario, really," she laughs, referring to her fleeting moments of connection to her Balinese roots - "almost but not quite".

Exhibition

*What: Muttnik, by Sriwhana Spong
*Where and when: Anna Miles Gallery, Suite 4J, Canterbury Arcade, to Apr 2

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