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Inner landscapes, outer landscapes — Savanhdary Vongpoothorn: All that Arises

In 2019 the Drill Hall Gallery exhibited a remarkable mid-career survey of Lao-Australian artist Savanhdary Vongpoothorn. Exhibition curator Dr Chaitanya Sambrani, art historian, curator and ANU lecturer authored the accompanying book of the same title, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn: All that Arises. The exhibition and the book demonstrate Vongpoothorn’s deeply contemplative work, revealing her remarkable capacity to sustain creative and critical relationships with multiple influences.

Sambrani’s four eloquent essays facilitate important and unique insight into an artist working across cultures in contemporary Australia. Tracing the historical progression of Vongpoothorn’s career he interweaves family histories, international locations, journeys and collaborations, cultural and religious influences. Here we reproduce the second of Sambrani’s essays on Vongpoothorn’s work: Inner Landscapes, outer Landscapes – commencing with the influence of nature, through her time living in Wedderburn, on the materiality of Vongpoothorn’s early work, to the interweaving of multiple influences that developed into an “ongoing fusion of personal experience, cultural hybridity and painterly abstraction.”

Inner Landscapes, outer Landscapes

Perhaps the biggest transformative influence in Savanhdary Vongpoothorn’s early career was the bushland environment of Wedderburn where she lived for the first eight years of her professional career, coupled with the mentorship of Roy Jackson. Meanwhile, the studio milieu at the University of Western Sydney art school left warm memories of a sheltered creative space with talented young lecturers and fellow students. Her works from the early 1990s give evidence of an intense curiosity about the cycles of life and death in the natural world of this bushfire prone countryside with its deeply eroded sandstone geology of craggy ridges riven by the channels and pools of the Georges River. Having grown up in the suburbs of Campbelltown, this was Vongpoothorn’s first immersion in the Australian bush. She collected bush vines, crocheting them into coils that she would use in floor-based installations. She gathered casuarina seeds and arranged them in geometrical grids with a central motif referencing Lao textiles. She attached acacia needles to seeds to give them ‘legs’ and also produced compound floor-based installations using rice flour, edible rice paper and found objects from the natural environment arranged in circular or square configurations.

This was also her first experience of living amongst an artistic community, with people of a different economic and intellectual background than the ones she had grown up amongst. Her relationship with Jackson took her out of the family and community environment and into a completely different world. From an undergraduate living at home, she found herself in the company of full-time professional artists, literally overnight. During her Wedderburn years, Vongpoothorn established an obsessive work ethic, staying up into the early hours with her work; the day starting at noon and ending at 3 a.m. The overt three-dimensionality of these experiments from 1992–94 was subsumed into her textured works on paper and canvas from the mid-1990s onward but has remained an important reference throughout her career. Her most recent work Footsteps to the Nigatsu-Do (2019, discussed in the final chapter of this book) has seen her return once again to a renewed engagement with three- (and indeed, four-) dimensionality.

Out of this environment came a series of casuarina-seed works in 1994 that speak of her fusion of the Australian environment and Lao-Buddhist traditions. Anicca, Nak, Bird and Diamond (all 1994) were made of casuarina seeds adhered to paper in precise geometries recalling not only the weave of handmade textiles, but also fundamental concepts in Buddhist philosophy such as anicca (impermanence, inconstancy), or the way textile patterns evoked powerful spiritual beings such as nak (naga, or dragon-serpent). However, her work was not entirely in the service of the ineffable as Hannah Fink has suggested, but remained ‘a distinctly material account of things drawn from an intimate relation with nature.’1

Visiting her studio-home, Benjamin Genocchio made the following observations: ‘The studio is tucked away in a large tract of bushland at the very edge of the city, the front line in the war against bushfires. Trees rise up to the edge of a makeshift verandah on which are stored paints, brushes and other things. A rusty wind chime basks silently in the afternoon sun…There are seasons in this place, even seasons within seasons for those who really look.’2 Vongpothorn remembered these years living in the bush ‘with the birds and the wallabies, perhaps a goanna wandering past’ as one of undifferentiated time in terms of living and working, ‘The first thing I saw when I woke in the morning was my painting, and this was the last thing I saw before going to sleep at night.’3 The muted colours of the Australian bush and the subtle and dramatic transformations they were subject to through the action of sunlight made powerful sensory impressions, but also reinforced the essential impermanence of all phenomena.

The environment of Wedderburn became a talisman in her ongoing fusion of personal experience, cultural hybridity and painterly abstraction. Sensitivity towards constant change in the natural environment and the sounds, colours and patterns of the Australian bush came together with an abiding interest in the material and symbolic meanings woven into Lao textiles. Vongpoothorn devised an architectonics of abstraction: the surfaces of her paintings perforated in semi-regular grids evoking repetitive gestures of building and weaving. In contrast to the formality of late-modernist abstraction, her work embraced a bodily aesthetic, thinking about her work ‘in terms of being textural, tactile and having this visceral feeling about colour.’4 The interweaving of Euro-American modernism with natural motifs and Lao philosophical insights produced a body of landscape-oriented paintings that were as much about the world without as they were about the worlds within.

In 1998, Vongpoothorn’s work was curated by Sioux Garside into the exhibition Holy Threads: Lao Tradition and Inspiration at the Campbelltown City Bicentennial Art Gallery. Here her work was shown in juxtaposition with 66 exquisite examples of Lao textiles produced for ritual as well as everyday use from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and sourced from museum and private collections in Australia. Acting as a mini-survey, the exhibition included 45 of Vongpoothorn’s works on canvas and paper across a seven-year period (1992–1998). Alongside early experiments with organic materials, the exhibition featured the first of her perforated paper works, Asevana (1995), and five works from the Kasina series of 1995 which used delicate arrangements of fibre washers with acrylic paint on canvas to produce diagrammatic representations of the Buddhist practice of meditation on the elements. Air Kasina, Fire Kasina, Colour Kasina, Light Kasina and Water Kasina were included in the exhibition, while the series also included Earth Kasina and Breath Kasina. Garside observed the relation between Vongpoorthorn’s ‘technique of piercing the paper with thousands of fine holes with a needle’ and the ‘time absorbing and complex work of the weaving process.’5 Vongpoothorn’s early perforated canvases, Before Winter and Yellow Mantilla (both 1998) were also shown, with their organic structures in subtle striations of yellows, pinks, greens, ochres and blues recalling both the fall and pleat of textiles and the colours of the Australian bush. The list in the catalogue reveals that almost all of her 45 works had been borrowed for the exhibition, attesting to her early success in the art market. This exhibition represented the first complete realization of a process of construction and re-connection that became vital to Vongpoothorn’s way-finding between the communities of birth and those of aspiration referred to in the previous chapter. Writing in the accompanying catalogue, Genocchio declared her work free of ‘the angst of dislocation and attenuating nostalgia…[or] the soap-box morality of a postcolonial critique.’ He noted the eschewing of representation in favour of ‘faint approximations of moods, feelings and experiences…a shadowing of things, analogous perhaps to the loss of meaning inherent in the act of writing.’6

Whereas the titles of Vongpoothorn’s works had almost entirely been sourced from Lao and Pali references during the first five years of her practice, 1998 also saw her starting to use secular, English language titles such as Filaments and Thin Line in addition to the two canvases named above. From here onwards, the cultural references and therefore the titles of the works, would move in a more fluid manner, taking in aspects of purely formal concerns as well as a widening geographical range of referentiality. In retrospect, this transition indicated a growing comfort with being in a wider world, welcoming the challenge of experimenting with the hitherto unfamiliar, as indeed she went on to do with Scottish tartans, Indian women’s forehead ornaments and the manicured landscape of Japanese gardens in bindi dot tartan zen in 2002. The process is perhaps well described as a fusion of the artist’s external environment with the world of thought, emotion and spirituality, or as the meeting of the inner landscape with the outer in a sense of acceptance and delight.

Her mastery over the technique of perforated canvas was complete by 2002. Based on his close observation of the process, Carruthers wrote the following detailed description:

The initial part of this patterning is done with a soldering iron, with which the artist burns through the unstretched canvas to create a myriad of tiny, hard-edged ‘volcanic’ forms on the face. The canvas is then stretched, at which point the artist often lies it face down on the studio floor and applies paint liberally to the back in such a way that it bleeds through the punctures to form Rorschach-like blobs on the surface. The next step is to ‘plug’ the holes with small lumps of paint, thus raising the height of the tiny convex forms and giving the work its beautiful sculptural surface (which has been compared to Braille, knotted silk and knobbly bark). The patterns created by staining from behind form a random or ‘automatic’ element which sometimes inspires the subsequent design of the work, and if not at least provides a starting point.7

By the mid-2000s, Vongpoothorn started introducing narrative into her work, first by way of references to historical texts, and then with her engagement with the flowing cursive script of Lao-Pali incantations as described in the next chapter. The birth of Vongpoothorn and Carruthers’ daughter Rashmi (2007) and son Khanisorn (2009) brought new demands on life and work, but also strengthened the sense of comfort with being in the world and brought another realization of fulfilment.

As with previous periods in her work, exposure to other ways of seeing, making and doing have continued to play an important role in Vongpoothorn’s work during the last decade. In 2013, she was invited to participate in a 10-day workshop with nine other artists from Australia who were brought together with 10 Indian artists in Jaipur.8 Organised by the Australia-India Institute at the University of Melbourne, the workshop resulted in intensive discussions and collaborative work with the 20 artists and one art historian (the present writer) investigating contemporary art and craft traditions through visits to studios and workshops, the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, historical sites, musical performances, and attending sessions at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Local traditions of papermaking, miniature painting and textile printing were perhaps what Vongpoothorn responded to most strongly. She also struck up a professional relationship with Burmese-born British-Indian artist Desmond Lazaro, who was then based in Pondicherry, India. Lazaro’s expertise in Indian miniature traditions ranging from paper preparation to sourcing and mixing natural pigments was of great interest to Vongpoothorn, who followed up on the 2013 experience with a further trip to India in 2014 (with support from the Australia Council), engaging with Lazaro in his studio over an intensive 10-day course.

The work that resulted from this encounter with Indian miniature traditions became the subject of her 2014 solo, All is Burning. Here, Vongpoothorn used colour relationships and compositional elements from Indian and Southeast Asian traditions of Hindu and Buddhist art to reflect on the significance of the lotus in both religious contexts. Born of stagnant, marshy water, the lotus flower stands aloft, untouched by the mud beneath. It is widely used in the iconography of Hindu and Buddhist art to signify enlightenment as well as grace and auspiciousness. The lotus form, variously stylised and abstracted, was coupled in this series with the Buddha’s Adittapariyaya Sutta (Fire Sermon). Believed to be the third of his sermons after the Dhammachakkapavattana Sutta (Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion) and the Anattalakkha a Sutta (Discourse on the Characteristic of Non-Self), the Fire Sermon systematically emphasises how all six of the human senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) and the mental formations that depend upon them, are beset by the fires of greed, hatred and delusion. Vongpoothorn’s paintings in this body of work experimented with novel chromatic relationships, using deep reds, crimsons, yellows, vibrant pinks and deep greens in addition to her more familiar palette of subdued colours. Over the surfaces of the paintings, appearing either as borders or as discrete text panels, she inscribed the text of the Fire Sermon in Lao-Pali script, producing one work on handmade Sanganeer paper from Jaipur for each of the six senses, in addition to another six that used the lotus form as armature for the text, and two large canvases. As recorded by Michelle Antoinette, Vongpoothorn was especially happy with her renderings of the script in this series, attested to by her mother being able to recognise the writing immediately. Antoinette also points out that the period leading to this exhibition was marked by the passing of Roy Jackson (in 2013, while Vongpoothorn was in Alchi, Ladakh, India, admiring the lotus forms at the monasteries there) and suggests that a sense of loss was integrated within the artist’s meditations on the Fire Sermon.9 Again, the fusion between the inner landscape and the world of phenomenal experience was clearly discernible here as Vongpoothorn built on her Indian experience to extend the creative range of her work.

Evam me sutam (thus I have heard) is the refrain at the beginning of many verses in the Pali Canon. This provides a sense of the significance of narration, especially oral narration, in the Theravada tradition. Believed to have been concretised through the recitations delivered by the Buddha’s disciple, cousin and attendant Ananda (who is said to have been blessed with an impeccable memory), the Pali Canon is held to embody an exact recollection of the original utterances of Gautama Buddha. Passed down across generations and over distances through recitation, this tradition now finds written expression in a number of translations and transliterations, including in the Roman characters used in English and other European languages.10 The fact that the Pali Canon underpins an unbroken tradition since the time of the Buddha — with nothing added and nothing removed — provides an interesting counterpoint to Vongpoothorn’s practice, informed as it is by a multitude of references across different visual and literary traditions. While her returns to foundational concepts from the Pali Canon are partly motivated by a sense of belonging within this tradition as a born Theravadan, they are equally markers of a subjectivity that seeks grounding in a composite space that stretches across an inner landscape of recollection and faith and an outer landscape of intellection and analysis. This is not always an easy balance to achieve. However, it contributes to a productive tension between the ‘closed’ scope of Theravada and the ‘open’, avid nature of Vongpoothorn’s intellectual pursuits. Importantly too, the paradigm of ‘stretching across’ allows for a ‘but-also’ position that is more fruitful than the usual ‘in-between-ness’ that is so widely applied to the work of postcolonial/diasporic artists.

  1. Hannah Fink, ‘Rythmic [sic] Air: the fine art of Savanhdary Vongpoothorn’ in Art Asia Pacific, Issue 24 (1999), p. 78.
  2. Benjamin Genocchio, ‘A Shadowing of Things: Savanhdary Vongpoothorn’ in Holy Threads — Lao Tradition and Inspiration, exhibition catalogue. Campbelltown, NSW: Campbelltown City Bicentennial Art Gallery, 1998, p. 12.
  3. Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, artists’ statement in Alice McCormick and Sarah Rhodes, The Artist’s Lunch: At home with Australia’s most celebrated artists. Sydney: Murdoch Books, 2008, p. 117.
  4. Ibid., p. 118.
  5. Sioux Garside, ‘Introduction: Holy Threads — Lao Tradition and Inspration’ in Holy Threads — Lao Tradition and Inspiration, exhibition catalogue. Campbelltown, NSW: Campbelltown City Bicentinnial Art Gallery, 1998, p. 4.
  6. Benjamin Genocchio, ‘A Shadowing of Things: Savanhdary Vongpoothorn’, Op. Cit., pp. 18, 14.
  7. Ashley Carruthers, ‘The Art of Savanhdary Vongpoothorn as Métissage’ in Savanhdary Vongpoothorn: bindi dot tartan zen. Exhibition catalogue, Richmond, Vic: Niagara Publishing, 2002, p. 4.
  8. See Purnima Ruanglertbutr, ‘Nurturing intercultural dialogue through art’, 30 July 2014, available at:–dialoguethrough-art-245081
  9. Michelle Antoinette, ‘Fire and Light — Recent works by Savanhdary Vongpoothorn’. Exhibition catalogue, Paddington, NSW: Martin Browne Contemporary, 2014, n.p.
  10. As a contrast, consider the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, which is technically untranslatable in that it is only recited in Arabic.

Thanks to author and curator Chaitanya Sambrani and artist Savanhdary Vongpoothorn for permission to reproduce this essay. Installation photos by Rob Little.

The catalogue is available to buy here

Hardcover, 168 pages, 20.5 x 26.5 cm.
Published 2019 by DHG Publishing.
Essays by Chaitanya Sambrani, with foreword by Terence Maloon. Edited by Tony Oates.
Designed by Ricardo Felipe.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.