The mystic, according to de Certeau, is one who must somehow use language to point to something that language is unable to hold.

— Sriwhana Spong (1)

Sriwhana Spong’s multidisciplinary practice ranges across a variety of artistic modes, often drawing on her experiences as a dancer to situate embodied experience at the heart of her work. In many of her filmic works, in particular, Spong considers the relational site of connection that exists between the body and language, often incorporating the spoken and written word alongside meticulously composed visuals and soundscapes. These multi-sensorial elements work to build a viewing experience which is at once cognitive and bodily. In returning to her 2017 film a hook but no fish numerous times, these elements—the bodily and the cognitive—slide endlessly across one another, reminding us that the brain, too, is flesh.(2)

Language forms the conceptual foundation of a hook but no fish, which spirals out from the figure of Hildegard Von Bingen (b.1098–d.1179). A mystic and visionary, Hildegard lived much of the first part of her life cloistered in a monastery, transcribing the visions she received from God into language and song. For Spong, through the French priest and philosopher Michel de Certeau, the figure of the mystic is imagined as a conduit, a bodily site of translation between the intangible and the visible.(3) These medieval women who heard the voice of God and translated it into sound, song and language become a site of elision between worlds, and across systems of understanding the world. Rooted in the experiential, the writings of women mystics offer an attempt to transcribe their visions, to describe the inexplicable, and to bridge the gap between internal experience and explanatory language.

Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota—or 'unknown language'—acts as a conceptual point of departure for Spong. This constructed language comprises a list of over a thousand words, predominantly nouns, designed to be inserted into the syntax and structure of High Latin. Including a word for hook, but none for fish; a word for plough, but none for the oxen required to pull one, Hildegard’s glossary is both idiosyncratic and expansive.

The sprawling trunk of a large tree set in a verdant woodland.

Sriwhana Spong, a hook but no fish (2017). Image courtesy of Michael Lett, Auckland.

Shot largely in the abandoned ruins of a Benedictine monastery in Disibodenberg in Germany, where Hildegard spent almost forty years of her life, a hook but no fish opens with a long passage composed of landscape imagery. The camera’s static frame captures monumental tree roots pushing down through crumbling walls, ancient stacks of rock teeming with mossy vegetive life, and dense forest glimpsed through abandoned window apertures. In almost every shot, the fecund chlorophyl green of the forest seems to subsume the abandoned structures: walls are dwarfed by trees, truncated columns risk being overtaken entirely by vegetation. Spong then moves us through the monastery walls, presenting us with a proxy Hildegard. Named as 'H' in the closing captions, this figure is one of several bodies we see over the course of the film, though hers is the only face we are shown. This H becomes the imagined body of a historical figure, the filmic ground upon which language is literally overlaid. "H received an unknown language," the captions read, written in white sans serif across the screen’s lower edge. "But this cannot be! Historians put her in her place. An arbitrary, groundless invention. A compensatory response to a lack of education. Its audacity is immodest for a virgin." The act of italicisation renders the words quotation, a chorus of disapproving historical voices speaking in opposition to Hildegard’s body as a site of language. As her vocabulary forces its way into the language of the church, of the patriarchy, of authorised speech, it disrupts a tightly encoded rational system, infecting it with multiplicity.

A view of grass with fallen, rotten apples. The subtitle reads 'Oirclamisil!'

Sriwhana Spong, a hook but no fish (2017). Image courtesy of Michael Lett, Auckland.


The Lingua Ignota seems to demand to a body in which to dwell. Laid upon the page, its consonants seem to pile, recklessly, upon themselves. They demand to be spoken, their clustered consonants sitting in the mouth of the speaker, pushing forth from between the lips and forcing the tongue to rest on the roof of the mouth. Pom zi az. Pomziaz. Apple. "She takes a bite out of Latin and inserts her song, offering new names for the Life that sparks in the gaps, a life that crackles—ZzzzzzzzzzzzzssssssssssssS."(4) Pomziaz, Hildegard’s word for apple, is first introduced to us overlaid upon a sequence of shots of fallen apples. The bruised flesh of the discarded fruit litters the ground. Spotted with brown, the fruit’s over-ripeness softens their edges as they decompose into the earth. Here the camera’s frame is pointed down, filling the entire field of vision with the earth, the ground. Again and again, Spong's camera returns us to the earth—apples scattered on its grassy surface, marked with the furrowed trace of a plough, or seething with worms. In a hook but no fish these layered references to bodies, to land, and to language become a mass of regeneration. Our relationships to these things—our bodies, to the language we use to form our world, to the land that we stand on—are metabolic and infinitely transmutational.

A black cat lays on concrete; the scene is saturated with a bright red hue.

Sriwhana Spong, a hook but no fish (2017). Image courtesy of Michael Lett, Auckland.


Spong observes a plurality in Hildegard’s acts of naming, noting her tendency to assign numerous translations to a single word. "Hildegard puts the Latin word viriditas, variously translated as 'greenness', 'freshness', 'vitality', and 'growth', to a variety of uses within her cosmology that frustrates any attempt to pin it down to a single meaning. The Lingua Ignota, with a pointlessness that does not allow it to possess, seems designed to soak up this viriditas, the earth’s sweaty excess —to speak what overflows."(5) H, draped in a transparent veil, holds an egg in her hand, referencing a vision in which she saw an entire cosmos contained within the form of an egg. As the camera cuts from H holding this egg-universe in her hand to that of mounds of earth and manure, piled up at the side of a field, the screen is infused with a burst of colour. The screen flares red to yellow and burns magnesium white. These burning flares of pigment seem to speak what overflows, an excess of light searing the material of the film like an abundance of life. It is perhaps this sweaty excess, this evasive overflow of meaning, that lies at the heart of a hook but no fish. Built upon the scaffold of the Lingua Ignota, a language that writes beyond the constraints of the governing rules of authority, a hook but no fish begins with Hildegard, but expands far beyond her.

A woman in a sheer veil holds an egg. The light is blue hued.

Sriwhana Spong, a hook but no fish (2017). Image courtesy of Michael Lett, Auckland.


About twelve and a half minutes into the film, its visual texture abruptly shifts. Dominated up to that point by rich hues of gold and green, of earth, flesh, stone and forest, this first passage gives way to disconcertingly monochromatic, digitally rendered imagery. Gone are the lingering close-ups of the earth, replaced instead with the grey-white glare of a computer monitor as the sound of birdsong and whispered human voices drops away. A wide shot shows four framed pairs of photographs, each depicting cropped fragments of a body. The image suddenly lurches forward, telescopically pulling us towards the picture plane and back again. For two and a half minutes this erratic scrolling continues. The camera repeatedly zooms in to examine the images as a sustained note oscillates in and out of discordance, increasing in volume until it becomes almost unbearable. As we scroll across the distorted fragments of an indiscernible body, the narrative of their creation unfolds in written language:

Did you hear what happened?

I heard he took some photos of the back of her neck

After they broke up he asked if he could put them in his exhibition

She said no

He emailed and said not to worry

He’d restaged the photos with another woman

She says the strangest part of the whole thing is looking at the images online

Which just become pixelated when she zooms in

So it’s impossible to know if it’s really her or not

And even though it might not be her it still feels like her

Like she’s exposing a hidden part of herself through the body of another woman

The neck we see is stripped back to digital components. The angularity of pixelation reduces flesh down to building blocks, alienating us further from a sense of embodiment. Multiple layers of visual deferral are at play here. A proxy body stands in for a discernibly identifiable one. That body is photographed, the resulting artwork is rephotographed and digitised, uploaded and then viewed through another screen. We watch that screen in almost constant motion as the cursor flickers across the page. The bar at the base of the screen scrolls through its horizontal axis, shifting the camera’s gaze in the vain hope of reaching certitude. By pairing the linguistic narrative with its visual expression, Spong emphasises the alienation that both language and image can enact. While a hook but no fish begins with Hildegard it is, for me, in this moment that its key conceptual questions are posed: can we come to know—or claim—our bodies through vision or language? Can we use language to help us find a home for ourselves in the world?

A woman in a sheer veil faces away from the camera; the light is golden.

Sriwhana Spong, a hook but no fish (2017). Image courtesy of Michael Lett, Auckland.

In the following scenes Spong seems to offer an act of embodied reclamation, an attempt to come back to a body that is known to itself. A figure lies on the ground, surrounded by foliage. Her hair drapes down onto the floor, exposing her neck. In the next frame the same figure bends forwards, tilting her head to so that, once again, her hair falls away from the back of her neck. Where the black-and-white scenes were static with pixelation, these filmic portraits are flooded with the fleshy warmth of colour. The contrast between the digital interface of the computer’s screen is heightened by the tangibility of 16mm film, its rich granularity imbuing the images with a materiality absent in the preceding frames. These filmic self-portraits act as a reassertion of selfhood; here the artist pictures her own body, she is both photographer and subject, eye and body. Though her body is held still it cannot help but move, inevitably, with life. Her ribcage expands and contracts, her shoulder rises and falls. Breath marks its trace on the body. The film, too, is a body on which its own life force is marked; its surface flickers with an occasional scratch, the abrasion of time marking inscriptions upon its skin. Here film is the language through which she writes herself into the world:

She calls to it with a new name



and it returns to her in bloom

This text, written across the screen, is accompanied by a layered chorus of whispered voices, repeating the word Guia—speaking Hildegard’s words back to us in bloom. Much like the grain of the film, this sound is both textural and emotive. In her 2016 film This Creature, Spong utilised narrative voiceover to weave a polyphony of transhistorical voices together, channelling their words through the tonality and inflection of her own voice. This element of spoken language is absent from a hook but no fish, where words are predominantly rendered in written form. These captions reduce language to visual text, rather than embodied sound, ostensibly stripping them of emotive inflection. However, sound retains its physical charge throughout a hook but no fish: rather than spoken dialogue we hear breathing, whispers, and choral song. These bodily sounds are pulled into orchestration alongside the splash of water droplets, the roll of fingers on a drum, and the crisp, percussive impact of footsteps against stone. Many of these aural elements point us back towards the body and to the earth. They build cumulatively throughout the film, gaining melodic clarity through its final six minutes. Notes slide up and down a repeated sequence of arpeggios, enriched by the sound of sustained harmonic tones: muffled church bells, birdsong, the beat of wings in flight, a car engine igniting. Grounded in both the ancient and the contemporary, sound and image bring together a transmutational symbolism that shifts through decay and regeneration, earth and body, vision and language.

A close up of a statuary fragment in dense green undergrowth.

Sriwhana Spong, a hook but no fish (2017). Image courtesy of Michael Lett, Auckland.

a hook but no fish asks us to consider the things that language can—and cannot—hold, to confront its limits and, perhaps more significantly, its generative possibilities for abundance. The process of naming has long been wielded as a tool of power, enacting both definition and confinement. For Spong, though, Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota offers an alternative to this restrictive power. Her new names—pomziaz, guia—act as sites of creation and expansion. They speak what overflows.

a hook but no fish was on view as part of Memory Lines at City Gallery Te Whare Toi in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington from 9 March to 30 June 2024. 

Kirsty Baker is a writer and curator based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. She is the author of Sight Lines: Women and Art in Aotearoa.

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