Sorawit Songsataya: Starling ARTSPACE, Auckland February 2 – March 17 2018

A haphazard pile of shoes at the entrance to Artspace suggests I should slip mine off too. Padding barefoot into the now-carpeted gallery I feel a peculiar blend of vulnerability and wonder: it’s the opening for Starling, the hotly anticipated solo exhibition from Auckland-based artist Sorawit Songsataya, and people are sitting on the floor, occupying the dead-zones between red blood cells the size of beanbags.

Upon closer inspection, the blood cells are delicately hand-felted sculptures, strewn with wispy rainbow banners like strands of DNA (also hand-felted); strings of hearts and flatfish are draped casually over cells like seaweed over rocks. The bodies sprawled amongst them are all attentively watching a film projected onto an immense curved wall. The combination of carpeted floor and a spellbound, cross-legged audience reminds me of rainy lunchtime movies in the primary school library—afternoons glossed with a magic that has only been enhanced by the intervening years.

When I return a few days later, the main space is empty of bodies. Free of the social impetus to sit, I wander amongst the outsize blood cells and around the smooth curve of the screen. The space reveals itself to be a sculptural one, lovely in its sparseness, the immense screen faintly recalling the minimalist sculptures of Richard Serra. But Serra would not have placed his monumental sculptures in a sea of soft felt blood cells, nor would he have projected a film upon them. In doing so, Songsataya collapses these forms into one another, creating a ‘soft-digital environment’ in which ideas shimmer across different modalities to establish endless effects, affects and interactions.

One moment that illustrates the nature of these interactions is catalysed by a ‘scene’ in the film Lovebirds, which is itself more a series of vignettes, some hand-drawn animation, others made in Songsataya’s distinctive style of lushly textured digital animation (fuzzy jumpers and long shining hair all rendered to perfection) while others still are hybrid, combining animation with captured footage. In one such vignette, a flock of animated red blood cells—just like those scattered about the gallery—fly past a glowing, real-world sunset at a beach, swooping and synchronising like a murmuration of starlings. Did you know a group of starlings is called a murmuration—as in a quiet voice, or a heart murmur, the sound of turbulent blood flowing through the heart? Each element included in Starling seems to be linked in these subtle, almost serendipitous ways, gently communicating the message that not only is everything connected, birds, body, blood, heart, sea, sky, but that these connections are evidence of our sameness. At the cellular level, everything is democratised. We all breathe the same air.

It is this sense of harmony and fluidity which lends the exhibition its feeling of guileless calm. But it is also the use of materials, the softness of felted wool and rounded, organic forms—shapes and textures which invite touch, which feel comforting. Songsataya’s interest in soft crafts is not a new one. He has previously shown machine-knitted textiles, such as the tiny jerseys included in his 2015 Window exhibition, Midnight, (1) and the nest of mohair and printed linen cloths in Coyotes Running in Opposite Ways (2016) included in the group exhibition Potentially Yours, The Coming Community at Artspace in 2016. (2) The soft blood cell sculptures which make up Four Chambers, however, are all felted by hand, as emphasised by a permanent making-station set up in an adjoining space, where visitors are encouraged to contribute to felting projects or even attend one of the felting workshops run by Songsataya himself. Each of these workshops begins with Songsataya distributing a text about the bluebottle or Portuguese man o’war, an entity often mistaken for a jellyfish. The man o’war is in fact a ‘colonial organism’—that is, they are made up of multiple animals (called ‘polyps’) who become physiologically integrated so that they cannot survive individually, forcing them to work together to function like an individual animal might. The figure of the bluebottle becomes an allegory for the forms of collaboration emphasised throughout Starling, implicit forms of collaboration which are not necessarily geared towards just one outcome.

There is one final component to Starling which takes the exhibition beyond the gallery walls. Paradoxically titled, non-hyphenated is a text-based project by Robyn Maree Pickens, a Dunedin writer currently undertaking a practice-based PhD in the field of eco-poetics. Her initial text (the first in a five-part series rolling out across different platforms throughout the run of the exhibition) is displayed within the making-space and on posters throughout the city, although I am admittedly yet to see one in the wild. The text itself invokes the ocean and the forests to speak to the ideas of connection and collaboration raised in the fluid space of Songsataya’s exhibition. In doing so, it adds another modality to the list—the same ideas are expressed once again, this time through language, and instead of feeling like a restating of ideas, they work to flesh out those ideas by framing them in a way which is distinctly of Aotearoa. I’m still haunted by the final lines of Pickens’ poster text: I try to love Pinus radiata. Even if it’s not totara, rimu, kauri. We still breathe together—lines describing a hierarchy in which native trees are more lovable than the introduced.

It is strange to me that the exhibition text describes Starling as ‘a non-magical gathering of experiments’ when it left me so enchanted. Starling makes tangible the presence of magic in everyday things: our hearts pumping blood around our bodies, polyps working together to swim and sting, tiny birds becoming huge in formation while the waves lapping at our toes are caused by tides so immense they pull the moon towards us. Moreover, it suggests that this magic comes not from the beauty or usefulness of these things, but from the way they are all connected, collaborating and ultimately one.



(1) See:

(2) See:





Sorawit Songsataya, Starling, Weave Me In, Workshop Space, 2018. Image courtsey the artist and Artspace, Auckland NZ.

Sam Hartnett


Sorawit Songsataya and Robyn Maree Pickens, Starling, What Percentage of the World Is (in gallery), 2018. Images courtsey the artist and Artspace, Auckland NZ.

Sam Hartnett


Sorawit Songsataya, Starling, Four Chambers, 2018, wool and polystyrene, variable dimensions. Image courtsey the artist and Artspace, Auckland NZ.

Sam Hartnett

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Sorawit Songsataya, Starling, Lovebirds, 2018, digital video with sound, 7:03 minutes. Image courtsey the artist and Artspace, Auckland NZ.

Sam Hartnett


Sorawit Songsataya, Starling, Lovebirds, 2018, digital video with sound, 7:03 minutes. Image courtsey the artist and Artspace, Auckland NZ.

Sam Hartnett

Lucinda Bennett is a writer and curator based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand, where she is currently Visual Arts Editor atThe Pantograph Punch. She holds an MA in Art History from The University of Auckland, where she was also part of the curatorial team at Window. In 2017, Lucinda was the CNZ Curatorial Intern in Contemporary Art at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. 

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