How dreary Australian culture would be if it wasn’t for refugees. In every generation since the Second World War there have been significant artists who came to this country because of conflict or persecution in their homelands. This is worth remembering at a time in which xenophobia and insularity are making a comeback, aided by politicians who see an electorial advantage in embracing the lowest common denominator.
Savanhdary Vongpoothorn and her family arrived in Australia in 1979, having fled Laos when the government was undertaking summary arrests and reprisals. Savanhdary, who was 8 years old, would adapt quickly to her new home while absorbing the traditional Buddhist values espoused by her parents.
Today she is one of our most distinctive mid-career artists, and the subject of a survey exhibition in Canberra at the Drill Hall Gallery, ANU. Savanhdary Vongpoothorn: All That Arises, curated by Chaitanya Sambrani, is an impressive show: a testament to almost three decades of consistency and inventiveness, from student work to the present day.
To the casual viewer the ‘Asianness’ of Vongpoothorn’s work will be be immediately apparent. The all-over patterns, repetitive forms, and (occasionally fractured) symmetry suggest mandalas, which are aids to Buddhist meditation. There are also strong affinities with south-east Asian textiles, and the frequent use of the Lao or Pali script – a free-flowing calligraphy, as loose and busy as tadpoles swimming in a pond.
This is all relevant, but it’s not the full story. What makes Vongpoothorn so unique is the way she combines eastern and western traditions in her work. She is a hybrid, suspended between worlds, who uses one viewpoint to illuminate the other. Neither tradition is quite sufficient in itself, neither has all the answers she seeks.
In his introduction to the catalogue, Terence Maloon discusses the artist’s debt to the American minimalists, and the way some of these artists in turn were influenced by Asian thought. She has taken the lines and grids of the minimalists and imbued them with both a ritualistic dimension and a sensuousness that leads directly back to nature. Frank Stella’s materialistic motto: “What you see is what you see” is contradicted by Vongpoothorn’s transcendent aspirations, let alone her willingness to use materials such as leaves, seeds, bamboo, even edible rice mats. In later works she becomes fascinated by language, not only employing Pali script, but Vietnamese Braille.
Stella wanted us to see his words as devoid of deeper meanings but Vongpoothorn invites viewers to explore an infinite range of associations. Neither does she make a fetish out of natural materials. Her Kasinas from 1995-96 use washers bought at the hardware store to create rows of perfect circles.
Vongpoothorn may identify as Buddhist but she is not the most devoted of disciples. She can appreciate the religion for its wisdom and spiritual beauty, but her interest is cultural, intellectual and aesthetic. She has no desire to sit for hours meditating, partly because the way she makes art is a form of meditation in its own right. The repetitive, labour-intensive aspect of Vongpoothorn’s work has been there from her earliest years. A work on paper such as Sakala (1996) with its precise geometry, is the simplest of compositions, but on closer examination the surface reveals thousands of tiny perforations.
These holes would become one of Vongpoothorn’s trademarks. They transfigure the canvas as a screen through which we glimpse another reality. In major works such as Incantation (2005) and From plane to plane (2005-06), which have a sweeping, immersive aspect, she would employ her father as an assistant, getting him to burn regular lines of holes with a soldering iron. Occasionally one can see the wall right through the painting, at other times she has squeezed paint through the holes or topped them with another colour, creating a variety of ridges and textures. Even the cover of the catalogue is completely perforated.
Needless to say these holes hardly register in reproduction. All art has to be viewed at first-hand to be properly appreciated (or criticised), but Vongpoothorn’s work defies the camera. A photo conveys only the most rudimentary impression of what it feels like to examine a work in the gallery.
Vongpoothorn could have spent her entire career making elegant, painted grids and no-one would be complaining. Instead, she has continued to experiment with ideas and materials picked up in many different places. She learned how to weave bamboo strips during a residency in Vietnam. She came back from India with a series of delicate works on paper that echo the colours of traditional subcontinental painting. In Japan she pursued an ambitious collaborative project with poet Noriko Tanaka, which occupies an entire side room at the Drill Hall. Footsteps to the Nigatsu-do (2019) consists of rubbings made from the sacred patterns found on the steps of the Nigatsu-do temple at Nara, embellished with Tanaka’s calligraphy and Vongpoothorn’s loose, broken characters.
In a catalogue essay Sambrani describes the way Vongpoothorn borrows from different cultural traditions in a manner that never seems forced or mechanistic as a process of “strategic estrangement”. I’m not sure about the terminology but he is has pinpointed possibly the most remarkable aspect of her work: its ability to avoid that fatal self-consciousness that brings so many artists undone when they start dipping into areas where they feel an attraction but have no real understanding. The classic case is that of oriental calligraphy, forever being interpreted by western artists in terms of creative freedom whereas easterners see it as a discipline.
Vongpoothorn admits she can’t read the Pali script that appears in so many of her paintings, but her use of these “broken sutras” seems entirely natural. Even though she has to copy from texts written by her father one never feels there is a lack of understanding. Sambrani says she has imbibed the meaning of these scripts “intravenously or subcutaneously”.
The idea, perhaps, is that she is so imbued with this culture there is a deep level of identification that is purely intuitive. As she has proven no less receptive to all the other influences that have gone into this show, from American minimalism to the Australian bush, it’s clear that, as an artist, Vongpoothorn displays an unusual degree of sensitivity. She may not consider herself a good Buddhist, but she has found a way of suppressing the dreaded ego, bypassing fashion and ideology, to make art that feels utterly timeless.
Savanhdary Vongpoothorn: All That Arises
Drill Hall Gallery, ANU, Canberra, 16 August – 13 October, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September, 2019