The Shoes Off Your Voice

Bridget Riggir Cuddy profiles Sorawit Songsataya on the occasion of their Frances Hodgkins Fellowship.

Sorawit collected me from my Mt Eden flat, where I waited on the front steps. I would be meeting their mother who was visiting from Thailand. We were taking her for dinner at a cheap but reliable Malaysian restaurant on K’ Road. 

She sat in the front, next to Sorawit who was driving. From the back I could see that she too was beautiful, elegant but understated. I ask a question. She does not answer but corrects me as if by singing their name: “Sor-ra-wit.” High- mid-falling. Long-short-short. “It’s Sorawit.” 

I want her to know her child has a good friend, family, here, in me. But I cannot even say their name. She goes on, teaching me gently as we drive—calling their name for me to call it back. High-mid-falling. Long-short-short.[1]


Their fellowship exhibition will be their most significant work to date. I know this not because of any work I might foresee but simply because of the fellowship’s resource. Along with an exhibition at The University of Otago’s Hocken Gallery, Frances Hodgkins Fellows receive a twelve-month tenancy to a studio on campus and a salary equivalent to that of a full- time lecturer. We talk by video call. Me in bed, Sorawit in their studio—where we always are. I ask Sorawit if there is an artist or artwork they particularly, currently, admire. They cannot, or choose not to answer my question. In the lead-up to exhibitions Sorawit quickly becomes nocturnal and I am lucky if we share a waking hour for talking. When we do, they tend to their materials—sanding stone, pressing flowers, smoothing wool, cleaning shells—only to occasionally look up at me through the screen. It has been some time since Sorawit has lived with me here in Tāmaki Makaurau. They left for Stockholm in 2018 on the invitation of Swedish curator and educator Maria Lind— who, on a whirlwind visit to Aotearoa the year before, suffered severe jet lag and needed to cancel her visit to Sorawit’s studio. Asleep, face-down on an ‘Urban Marae Mattress’, it was on the petition of then-Artspace Director Misal Adnan Yıldız that she met the last artist on the day’s itinerary.[2] Sorawit moved here in 2001 from their birthplace Chiang Mai, a mountainous city in Northern Thailand. They departed soon after opening their first major solo exhibition, Starling (2018), at Artspace Aotearoa. They completed the McCahon House Artists’ Residency that same summer, where the weeks were spent animating the tale of teina Kauri and Tohorā.[3]

As part of the Swedish Government’s funded programme for international artists, Sorawit was a working resident of Stockholm’s art world. Through these months they presented work in the Tensta Konsthalle’s exhibition Soon Enough: Art in Action, curated by Lind, and gained insight into local history and politics through working with Sámi practitioners, sharing with them discourses from Aotearoa. Sorawit then followed curator Berit Schuck to Alexandria, Egypt, to assist on an independent arts programme, before pausing in Thailand to spend time with aunties who taught them the material and gender traditions of Thai kite-making and flying.

With copper wire, brightly dyed merino wool and pressed flowers, Sorawit translated the gendered kite shapes of Pakpao (female) and Chula (male) to sculptural elements in the body of work Jupiter (2019). First shown at Te Uru, instead of instruments of games or sport, Sorawit’s ‘third’ kites were conceptualised as intermediaries or lines between sky and earth—or any dualism that structures our world. Upon Jupiter’s inclusion in the 2021 exhibition The Turn of the Fifth Age by Selasar Sunaryo Art Space and Taipei Contemporary Art Center, Sorawit presented a research conversation with Indonesian kite expert, Zaini Alif. The two shared ideas about flying’s relationship to desire, progression, and ideas of civilisation (as well as the kite practices of their own regions).

Eventually settling in Pōneke after completing the Enjoy Rita Angus Cottage Summer Residency, Sorawit produced The Interior (2019) for the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki North Terrace. Comprised of a chorus of digitally modelled, life-sized birds cast and carved in resin, fibreglass and Ōamaru limestone, it was a sculptural assemblage that brought into the round Trevor Lloyd’s Te tangi o te moa (1907), which depicts forest life mourning the body of its last moa.

Cast in translucent cyan fibreglass, Sorawit’s moa—as if in the process of fading—glowed as it lay in the natural light of the outdoor courtyard. This sculptural ‘cartooning’ of threatened and extinct bird species worked to mediate the gaze from the zoological, categorical other toward our own human feelings of finitude. Like a reanimation of historical extinction, the installation recalled the timescale of death at the species level, prompting us to consider nature, climate and extinction.[4] Elements of the installation were included in the 2022 exhibition Nature and State at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in Southern Germany, which Yıldız now directs.

In 2020 Sorawit received funding to study kōtuku, native white herons, at their nesting ground on the banks of the Waitangiroto River near the village of Ōkārito on the South Island’s West Coast. The white heron is a cosmopolitan bird, found worldwide in tropical and temperate regions. It is still unknown why or how the New Zealand subspecies, which habituates so far from its climatic and geographic range, first came to thrive on our cold West Coast. Returning to the birds in their unlikely home over two years, Sorawit spent days alone acclimatising to the birds’ environment and behaviours—practising a kind of field ornithology that, I imagine, equally observed self at play in the boundaries of place, subjectivity and nature.

Sorawit Songsataya, Unnamed Islands (still), 2023, single-channel digital video with sound, 25 minutes 05 seconds. Courtesy of the artist

Our friendship began in 2015, when Sorawit and I first collaborated, guided by a text describing friendship as an ethical medium through which to navigate the art world. From here we each developed an interest in what can be broadly described as ‘post-human ecologies’, which was at the time emerging in the engines of art thinking, taken from the publishings of global academics. As this particular area of thought provided authority to ideas and worldviews long external to Western reason, I believe both of us, in different ways, finally felt ourselves and worlds alight in contemporary art.

Though this discourse is now a well-established genre in global exhibition making, Sorawit has maintained a practice that ever evolves its fundamentals. In the process of becoming established as an artist—by receiving more funds and time for projects, the ability to stay and think in place— Sorawit has developed an approach to this knowledge that is particular, personal and embodied.


Nirun, meaning eternal in Thai, is the title of Sorawit’s exhibition at the Hocken. It comprises a series of large limestone sculptures and moving-image works—an installation environment that I imagine collapses and shifts between microscopic and memory worlds, scientific and poetic senses, and the ideas of place as geographic and belonging.

Having now worked with limestone for three years, Sorawit’s view of the sedimentary rock—a skeletal composite of sea organisms—is as a body of bones, and they work by considering the material’s transformation through history, or the genealogy of land itself. Limestone in Nirun, as with the previous exhibition, Stilt House (2022), is used to reference old temple columns or the foundations of traditional Thai houses. In the material (limestone) and symbolic (column) union of two different homes (Aotearoa and Thailand) the sculptures express an unlocatable and transitory belonging, what Sorawit names ‘the third place’ of their gender and diasporic identity.

It was through limestone that Sorawit first learned of the sensitivities and protocols of working with natural materials; processes they have been able to wholly realise during their time in the Otago region by seeking permission from, and building relationships with, three different rūnaka: Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou, Te Rūnanga o Moeraki and Kāti Huirapa Rūnaka ki Puketeraki.

Nirun’s moving images are scored by musical compositions created by Sorawit, who has experimented with digital sound (and digital translations of traditional Thai instruments) to develop a language for conversing with geology: for talking back to the land. In one work, digitally painted symbols of Thai vowels appear and disappear amongst footage of Otago schists, what they call “an attempt to reconfigure oral sound and language with the land.” This is the first time they have directly approached the issue of language—written, spoken or symbolic—as a boundary in their work.

Sorawit Songsataya, The Interior (detail), 2019, fibreglass, polyester resin, acrylic lacquer, Oāmaru stone. Commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and supported by the Chartwell Trust and the Contemporary Benefactors of Auckland Art Gallery, 2019. Private collection, Auckland. Installation view, Listening Stones Jumping Rocks, Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, 2021. Photo: Ted Whitaker
Sorawit Songsataya, Shoulders of Giants (installation view), 2023, single-channel digital video with sound, 45 minutes 05 seconds. Photo: Justin Spiers

Vietnamese American author Ocean Vuong ‘takes the shoes off his voice’ as a means of deliberately and carefully approaching language. By the simple acts he practised as a child in a Buddhist household—acknowledging ancestors before leaving the family home or removing his shoes before entering a temple—he learned to “enter place [and practice] through a relationship of care.”[5]

As an invited speaker for the MoMA Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives seminar Transversal Orientations (2021), Sorawit opened their address by foregrounding their ‘third place’ in the colonial bicultural context of Aotearoa:

As I immigrated to New Zealand, Te Tiriti binds me as a by-product of the British colonial project … Thailand was never colonised, though it was westernised … I have had to learn to be held accountable as tauiwi, as a foreigner to indigenous here.

In her ongoing enquiry into pākehā/tauiwi psychology and identity, academic Alison Jones argues that these positions are ones of relation—to Māori, to colonial histories, contemporary injustices and Te Tiriti. To obfuscate this relationality is to be uncritically ‘a New Zealander’, but to welcome it is to move beyond a monolithic, illusory nationalism and toward knowledge of self and others.

It is hard to get Sorawit talking, let alone answering facile questions they know I have the answers to. “I have no interest in being put in some sort of historical moment,” they tell me, “no interest where I, or my legacy fits.”

Contemporary art, for Sorawit, is anything but a commodity market. Their practice attends to place, people and materials in a way that both forms their world and moves them through it: the outcomes we see as their audience plotting a process in which doing and being are synonymous with making. Unaccustomed to the artist’s framework as a relationship of care, it is difficult for us—as viewer, as listener—to reciprocate.

“Sor-ra-wit.” High-mid-falling. Long-short-short. “It’s Sorawit.”

Header image: Sorawit Songsataya, Unnamed Islands (still), 2023, single-channel digital video with sound, 25 minutes 05 seconds. Courtesy of the artist 

[1] Thai words are predominantly monosyllabic. The language makes use of tones to distinguish between otherwise identical words. There are five distinct tones in Thai: mid, low, falling, high, and rising.
[2] The Urban Marae Mattresses were made by the artist collective Suite 7, comprising Natalie Robertson, Shigeyuki Kihara and Ani O’Neill in 2007. Artspace now looks after the mattresses, and lends them out for community use.
[3] “In Te Ao Māori the story of the whale and the kauri places trees and whales in their environments. The tohorā asked the kauri to return with him to the sea, but the kauri preferred the land. Tohorā then suggested they exchange skins, which they did. This is why the bark of the kauri is so thin, and as full of resin as the whale is of oil.” Bradford Haami, ‘Whales in Māori tradition’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
[4] Robyn Maree Pickens, Life in the Interior—Sorawit Songsataya (Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery, 2019).
[5] “I want to make my words deliberate; I want to enter—I want to take off the shoes of my voice so that I can enter a place with care—so that I can do the work that I need to do.” Ocean Vuong, interview with Krista Tippet, ‘A Life Worthy of Our Breath’, On Being, podcast audio, 16 June 2022.

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