(Muscular) Memory

If today, we would go about the task of choosing fabrics guided by a clear head before we become engrossed in the spontaneous pleasures that colour, surface, and the “hand’ of cloth give us, our rooms would look uncluttered, spacious, and serene. Anni Alpers, “Habitation is a habit” in Interiors, published by CCS, Sternberg Press, 2012


Sriwhana Spong, Beach Study, 2012. 16mm transferred to HD video, Courtesy the artist and Michael Lett, Auckland

Sydney, Australia

April 13, 2013

I am in town for 13 Rooms, which consists of the same number of projects with a performative focus by international artists, each one is enclosed in purposed room built on Pier 2/3. The viewer queues, enters and gets confronted by a work which is in most cases carried out by a performer.  There is a Marina Abramovic’s nude, a colorful room conceived by John Baldessari painted of a different color as soon as the one paint job is completed, a Tino Seghal verbal pun and more.

On the day, I find out that, unrelated to the programme, there is a performance of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A at the University of New South Wales’ campus.  I jump on a taxi. Yvonne Rainer is not there, she is 79 and doesn’t travel much these days, but a former student of hers from Los Angeles, Sara Wookey, is going to perform it. Sara is one of 5 people especially selected by Yvonne Rainer to transmit Trio A.

The choreography was first executed by Rainer in 1966 as a 4.30 minutes piece and went on to become a cornerstone, revolutionizing the way of doing and thinking about dance. Although it was composed by the artist with the intention  of assembling everyday gestures that could be performed by everyone, Trio A requires a strict discipline in the execution because of its continuous sequence of movements. The artist has declared of using it as a “self-test mechanism”, performed daily over the course of six months, while working in the studio to distill and assemble the phrases that make the choreography.

I have seen the ‘original’ Trio A’s film by Sally Bates (1978) on youtube, in a Rainer’s 2012 retrospective at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne (Germany), reproduced on various catalogues such as The Mind is a Muscle (Afterall Book, 2007) or performed by different dancers around the gallery as a part of a show called MOVE Choreographing You (2010-11) at the Southbank Centre in London.

What happens to the “same work”, and to dance in particular, when represented (through film and printed matter) and restaged (through performance and exhibitions)?

Back in the day, the whole point of Trio A was of being democratic and openly accessible to all. Rainer changed her mind a decade ago after viewing a fifth generation interpretation of her choreography, and was unable to recognize it. Thus she got convinced of the importance of maintaining its legacy and to regard the discipline and rigor that guided its first utterance and the necessity in the year 2000 to pass it on in the appropriate way.

In the 1978’s film of Trio A, Yvonne Rainer appears as tall and slender, and she still is today, Sara Wookey has instead a quite short and muscular figure. Wookey pays tribute to the aesthetic effortlessness of the piece but also admits the challenge to learn it and upkeep it; she revealed how Rainer offers tune ups to the 5 transmitters before a workshop to refresh every time their muscular and non muscular memory.

Trio A demands the simultaneous coordination of gestures and movements pertaining to different parts the body, has no pauses, the gaze is never directed to the audience.

I get a sense of what she means by the demands of the piece, when she starts sweating in time for the third iteration of the dance.

It is an incredible experience, being allowed into the choreography, and Wookey-via Rainer- manages to convey equally the beauty and precision of a language, both of the body and of the tongue.

Most importantly I come away from the performance with the conviction that Trio A  is much more than an artwork, it is something alive that needs care and attention by viewers and performers alike.


The following  interview sheds light on the processes behind some of Sriwhana Spong’s most recent exhibitions, reveals some of the projects she is developing  and offers a chance to look for recurring threads and interests through a selection of her older works. The conversation began by focussing on the genesis of one of Spong’s latest works, Learning Duets, which was presented at the 2012 Bienniale of Sydney and that was filmed on Wahieke Island and choreographed by dancer Benjamin Ord.

Sriwhana Spong: The project started through looking at the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and of his wife Zelda, who both wrote novels that centre around a particular beach in Southern France. I read both books, Tender is the Night and Zelda’s Save Me the Waltz, collating the passages in which they both describe that one place. I subsequently turned this into a script that I then gave to dancer Benny (Ord) as a starting point for developing a choreography.

This all come about when thinking about my involvement in the 2012 Sydney Biennale—the curators originally asked me to collaborate with an artist of their choice to make new work. This proposition made me question the use of collaboration in my own practice and after much consideration I decided to turn down the offer—when I collaborate with people it comes out of a natural, ongoing conversation around shared interests and I felt uncomfortable with the notion of being paired up with someone in quite a strange and largely arbitrary way.

In my research I became conscious of the power dynamics that occurred between Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. Apparently Zelda completed her book while Scott was struggling to write his; and although they were writing about a shared experience, he asked her to edit out big chunks of the manuscript. I was ultimately drawn to these two different subjective interpretations of one site and how that idea could translate into movement.

I gave the script to Benny and we talked over ideas of translation through movement. After spending time with the text, Benny felt it was making his gestures too prescriptive, too descriptive of the text, and the movement was becoming secondary in the choreography he was developing. So together we decided to get rid of the text altogether but to retain the idea of focusing on one site: the beach.

We discussed the idea of a linear choreography, a movement that could have stretched as long as we wanted, almost like text—a choreography that considered the length of a beach rather than the closed box of a stage. I was also interested in exploring everyday gestures—relaxing, reading, lying, lounging on the beach. Examples of actions that occur, not during hours of production but during moments of leisure or of ‘time-out’. These largely horizontal actions became embedded in the choreography.

The next step was finding the beach. Benny grew up on Waiheke and I spent my childhood summers there because my Grandad owned a batch there—so we both have quite a personal relationship with the island.

The beach we chose for the filming of Learning Duets is public but only accessible through private land. We managed to get permission to film there from the woman who owns the surrounding property. We only had one day to film, which meant we had to work very quickly and instinctively.  Benny had prepared a choreography but he was also interested in being intuitive to the site and so the piece became a mix of his set choreography and an interpretive response to the terrain, to the surrounding nature of rocks and sand. It seems ridiculous now but at the time I hadn’t anticipated the role wet sand would play on Benny’s body and clothes and as the day progressed he got filthier and filthier, and I got more and more stressed out because the gathering wetness and sand was not something I had imagined when thinking of the piece. This accumulation of the site onto the body is now my favourite part, but learning to accept it was a huge lesson in being open to process.

Caterina Riva: It’s funny because to me the role chance plays in the film makes it even more powerful and enjoyable. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced your video reveals how filming outdoors really operate in a similar way to a live performance in front of an audience, the possibility of editing heavily in post-production is drastically reduced. The filming is truer to the performative time and on top of that you get some bonuses from nature,  things you couldn’t have directed, but that occurred, like the sudden and dramatic light changes that give the piece a distinctive painterly quality.

SS: Yes, chance for sure! I had been thinking about John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Like the bird that crosses the sky at the exact moment Benny launches himself horizontally off the sand—these moments you don’t get when you are performing in a studio. Through this work I learnt to be more open to process, site and the contingencies linked to both—a process of letting go I guess and giving the work a chance to surprise you.

CR: I would like to hear more about how you came to collaborate with Benny Ord. He is in a few different works of yours and I am curious to hear how your working relationship has evolved over time.

SS: It is a working relationship that I am really grateful for. The first time I worked with Benny was for my video Costume for a Mourner (2010). I had the idea of reanimating this artifact, a costume, and needed a dancer. I was contemplating doing it myself and then realised I was being lazy, that the work would benefit from using a professional.

I first met Benny in 1999-2000 when I was living on K’ road; he wasn’t dancing at the time. He only started dancing at 21, which is really quite late, and then I heard he had gone on to the Royal NZ Ballet. I first approached him simply because I needed a dancer—I hadn’t anticipated that he would contribute to the work in such an active and challenging way. Because of the nature of the project, and having never worked with anyone in this way before, I had imagined that he would perform a role as dancer and choreographer, similar to a commission without too much negotiation. I’ve now worked with Benny on three projects and we are about to embark on our fourth.

He has this ability to understand where I am coming from, he thinks of dance quite conceptually.

CR: What do you mean by that?

SS: I think it’s because he didn’t have the strict technical ballet education from an early age; he also has an art history degree, so I think he considers dance more conceptually, not only as a means of expression but also as a set of ideas within a particular structure that needs to be questioned constantly. It’s a dynamic that works and one that is incredibly fruitful for me and I hope also for him. Benny always challenges me—when working on Costume for a Mourner he was always bringing me back to the original idea, questioning the choice of music and other decisions I was taking for granted. That was great, because it kept me on track where I tend to go off on tangents and forced me to really think through the ideas in the work.

CR: I’d love to hear now about Beach study, which happened around the same time as Learning Duets and at a nearby location, but in it a few things change, mainly because this time you are in front of the camera rather than behind it. What was the reasoning that brought you to that decision?

SS: After Learning Duets, I kept thinking of Cactus Bay, also on Waiheke Island,  considered by some to be the perfect beach, and right next door to the beach Learning Duets was filmed on, creating a nice side by side intimacy with that first piece. Cactus Bay used to be a publicly accessible beach but when the land was sold by the Auckland Council, access was cut off and the only way to get to it these days is by boat. One of the triggers for Beach Study was the desire to work with 16 mm—I wanted the chance to be as experimental with film as I was being with the movements on the site. People consider the use of 16 mm or 8 mm in my work as some sign of nostalgia which is not what I am after at all. It’s more about the film itself..

CR: It’s about the materiality of the 16 mm, isn’t it?

SS: Exactly. And what I like about film is that you can’t see the results until a week later, so you have to accept any mistakes. And I wanted to use color filters to make that process somehow even more complicated. I asked Louise Menzies to film it. I wanted a woman and an artist—someone who could think on their feet about the ideas in the work. So the process of filming became quite collaborative.

I had tried to get access to the beach through the land but I hadn’t been able to get permission, so we got a fishing boat to drop us off and we landed on the beach at sunrise. I had prepared a choreography that I wanted to use which had been conceived in my studio for the site. Once we filmed what I had prepared, it just didn’t feel right, so we started looking around and Louise focused the camera on this large cactus that gives the beach its name. I then thought why don’t I try some of those gestures from the choreography next to the cactus, and so I did and it just clicked. I broke up the choreography and performed it on the various terrains of the beach–sand, rocks, grass… The choreography revolved around ideas of holding or falling, of precariousness. I had been trained as a classical dancer since I was 8 and I keep thinking about this structure or philosophy of movement that is now embedded in my muscles and I was wanting to try and escape that structure, if that is even possible.

CR: My impression is that often your work is read in relation to a canon and in a rigid and prescriptive way but I think it could be useful to go back to a structure that is more open to irony and slippages, which seem to play a part in your journey to make a work. For Beach Study you were talking about the idea of film as materiality, I see some similarity with older works, in which you employ a sharp curiosity for materials. You seem to challenge how materials are used to construct a space and to create a tactile experience, through texture and color.

SS: I studied film at Elam School of Arts and my work has always been video based, the reason I started to make sculpture was because I wanted to touch things again. When you are working with film, you realize how removed it is from the body. So I developed this need to make and to think through making. With the films you have to plan very much in advance, it’s nice to have a way of working more instinctively.

When I make sculpture I always find it is with the space in mind, it was the case for the show The Purple Blotter at Michael Lett (2012), I like to think about the viewer looking not just with his/her eyes but also with their body.

CR: That’s great because it seems like you are applying a filmic structure to thinking about sculpture.

SS: It took me quite a while to articulate that, I used to think there was something wrong with me; I have always struggled with group shows, especially with sculptural pieces, since I find it so difficult to think through the singularity of an object.

For the show at the gallery The Purple Blotter every object, every gesture echoes in another work although the materials and processes are quite different.

CR: Can you tell us a little bit more about the new work you are developing for Sydney’s Gallery of New South in July of this year, upon the invitation of curator Anneke Jaspers?

SS: I will be sharing the space with Australian artist Agatha Goethe Snape  and I am working on some sculptural pieces to be accompanied by a choreography which will be performed by Sydney based dancer Yahna Fookes. I worked with Yahna for my Sculpture Terrace commission at the Auckland Art Gallery. This work was called Actions and Remains (2012) and was a project that brought object and performance together as a means of deliberately decentralising the work.

CR: Could you expand more about what you mean by “decentralising the work”?

SS: I was thinking about the edges of things and how you could make the territory of a work porous, malleable, mobile. So that rather than taking up a fixed area in a dominant way the work could bleed into the world that surrounded it. I made objects that were based on props used in the history of dance—a stone sculpture for the Bejart ballet, a set of stairs and a volleyball used by Yvonne Rainer. As forms they resided in an ambiguous position between object, prop and sculpture, but all originally designed to be accompanied and completed by the body. Yahna choreographed a piece that wandered through the gallery, into the exhibition space and out again, with gestures and movements based on the objects in the space. In this way part of the show is always outside of the exhibition, the choreography travelling in the body of the dancer, never always present with the objects. The volleyball was an interesting part of the work, as it was used a lot by the public quite unconsciously—sometimes when I visited people would be dribbling it or passing it to each other, creating movement in the absence of Yahna’s choreography. The volleyball was always rolling around, being placed in strange relationships with the other sculptures, and often ended up in the park outside the terrace.

Yahna has quite a different approach to choreographing than Benny Ord, so it took me a while to negotiate this difference, which was at first quite hard but it has already been very productive. It has also forced me to acknowledge that I am working with a very different medium, i.e. dance, that brings with it a different language that has to be navigated to find that point where the work can begin.

Both Agatha and I want to use only the natural light of the gallery—the daylight coming through skylights above the space. Funnily enough we both came to this idea separately during our individual site visits. This lack of internal gallery lighting has provided the trigger for the works that I am making. Maybe they operate like the figures in Beach Study and Learning Duets—forms constantly moving and shifting in the changing light of the day.

CR: In a conversation about your work, the names of John Cage, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham can get mentioned. I would like to ask you about your heroes, the inspirations that help you when thinking of a work. So far we have been looking at more structural and practical ways of addressing and making a work, I would like to hear about the literature or the books that might help you spark a beginning for a work.

SS: It is hard to think about heroes but I have this love for Rauschenberg especially the works he made in collaboration with Merce Cunningham. I think what most interests me is the dialogue that happened between Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham and John Cage. I’m very attracted to that. And then of course Yvonne Rainer who is incredibly important to what was happening around dance and sculpture at that time. She is an ongoing inspiration.

I went to see a performance of Merce Cunningham’s company at his studio in New York in 2008 and only because a friend e-mailed saying that I had to see it. I went along and it was one of those moments when everything clicks.

CR: It was the same for me when I went to see Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A.

SS: You are so lucky to have been able to see it performed! I’ve seen it only on youtube. The use of banal or everyday gestures that Rainer incorporates have been very influential in how I think about movement. What I love about Trio A is the pace—apparently each gesture is done at a pace natural to the body performing it, so each dancer who performs it gives it a different duration. I would love to be taught this piece—the idea of being able to carry the work in my body, rather than ‘owning’ it. This inspired the choreography in Actions and Remains, where the choreography is listed as a material in the work, but its part of the work that lives in Yahna’s muscle memory traveling from the terrace and out into the world with her. It’s a part of the work that can never be bought. It can be transferred from dancer to dancer, but it’s a part of the show that remains fluid and unfixed and uncollectible.

I get a lot of ideas through literature and movies, as well. Antonioni is at the top of the list for his treatment of the body and its relationship to space, architecture and objects. On the one hand, there is a sense of alienation from and through objects and architecture but also the necessity to touch, to be close to these surfaces and forms—he always has women mournfully staring at nothing with their cheeks pressed against walls which seems a little funny and dated now, but I get where he’s coming from.

In literature I am influenced a lot by Virginia Woolf, partly because of her ability to create an atmosphere, an almost impressionistic sense of figures that are never separated from their environment and their surroundings. I also love the way her narratives—take Mrs Dalloway for instance—seamlessly shift from narrator to narrator, managing to create the sense of a story shared, yet made up largely of subjective and private experiences and thoughts. My work takes a cue from this.

CR: Do your think you have an obsession with drinks featuring in your works? Through them, are you referencing ordinary gestures or do you have something to say about society at large?

SS: It is definitely about the everyday. In my early works I was looking at Balinese offerings that specifically employ everyday materials available in Bali.

I was attempting to translate these in my own assemblages made in New Zealand, where I ended up using fruits, cigarettes, Coca Cola bottles—objects that were close at hand. They expressed a modulation between the personal and the general, and humour was an important part of that.  Now when Coca-Cola and Fanta are used in my work it is no longer the object being used but it’s actual content. In using these liquids to dye silks they employ a material that many people are familiar with, and have experienced not just visually but through actually ingesting it into their bodies. As a material they have a physical memory of it as something they’ve tasted and imbibed.

CR: The other aspect that strikes me in your work is the thorough and constant research for images that capture a movement or a gesture, which keeps coming back in your collages and is documented in your publication entitled Nijinsky. Have you been creating an archive of images you can go back to?

SS: I have a collection of ballet books from when I was performing that definitely left an imprint on me. I was given a set of books by the photographer Keith Money and I think they were my first introduction to aesthetics and the compelling nature of images—long before I discovered art. Money photographed the most prominent dancers in the 1960s and I had always assumed he was British. But when I was working on my Nijinisky publication I discovered he was living in Birkenhead on the North Shore so I got in contact with him and we started a dialogue. We would sit in his house and he would tell me all these incredible stories about Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Michael Baryshnikov and the KGB. He also had this amazing archive in his garage that nobody had seen full of photographs, negatives, 35mm films…

He generously agreed to write something for the publication and gave permission for some of his images to be used in it too.


(Muscular) Memory [appeared on Art New Zealand 146]

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