The Nation on Sunday December 16, 2012
Vipoo Srivilasa's blue-and-white ceramics are far more than pottery. Always visually informative, they employ plenty of symbolism in humorous yet satirical ways. A favourite image is the mermaid Supanmatcha, wife of the monkey god Hanuman in the Ramayana epic.
"Supanmatcha is a daughter of the demon king Totsakan and a fish goddess but becomes a wife of the opponent monkey god Hanuman. She lives in both the giant and human worlds. She is my alter ego as I'm also a man of two worlds - the East and the West," says Vipoo, 43.
As a Thai living in Melbourne, Vipoo's art inevitably touches upon his identity and the cultures of his two homes. Back in Thailand for his third solo show, this time at Chulalongkorn University' Art Centre, he invites other expats to create sculptural objects for his interactive ceramic art installation to represent what they miss most about their hometowns.
A community project initiated by Sydney's 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, "Thai Na Town: Little Oz" aims to explore the different minority Asian cultures whose vibrant presence is changing the face of the city's original Chinatown. Vipoo went round the area's Thai restaurants, asking Thai expats to create a sculptural memento of their experience migrating to Australia. The question he posed was simple: "What do you miss most about your hometown?"
"I normally work solo in a studio but this time, I worked outside and interacted with people. I found we shared many of same experiences but the participants didn't miss the kind of things I expected. Their answers were not typical," says Vipoo, who earned his master's in ceramic art from the University of Tasmania.
Vipoo first asked the participants to write their answers then helped them to make the objects in blue-and-white clay. They were then requested to write a note to a friend or relative in Thailand, which was included in the box with the statue and mailed. The recipients were requested to send the works back to Bangkok's Art Centre to be part of the exhibition.
"From about 70 pieces, we got just one piece back. It's a clay sculpture of a radio that a participant remembered from his parents' home," he says.
In Bangkok, he held a clay workshop at the art centre with Australian expats, Australian alumni and the general public. They too were asked to create a clay object to reflect what they missed most about Australia.
"Those who had never been to Australia thought about typical symbols like the Opera House or the koala bear, but the expats or alumni surprised me with things like Tim Tam biscuits, eucalyptus, cherries and fish n' chips."
Vipoo's works always have hidden surprises and agendas. Look carefully at the ceramic works on the red display platform and you observe several transparent boxes underneath. Inside each box is a note written by the participants in Vipoo's projects describing what they hate most about their hometowns.
Ask Vipoo what he misses most about Thailand, and he points to a telephone ceramic and the porcelain of human hands with figurines on top of the fingers.
"I miss chatting on phone with friends, their jokes and their hospitality," he says.
Besides addressing the two cultural narratives, Vipoo's works also offer a satirical narrative on contemporary society, political issues and environmental concerns.
In China for a residency programme at the Pottery Workshop, Vipoo demonstrated his sadness at the conflict between red and yellow shirts by inviting 50 Chinese volunteers to help him paint portraits on 125 porcelain spoons then write the word "red" or "yellow" on each spoon.
The spoons are now displayed on lotus stands made by Thai volunteers, each of them representing people who lost their lives in the conflict.
"These spoons are installed like a cemetery. A spoon typically represents making a living for prosperity. Is poverty the reason of conflict? I preferred to ask non-Thai volunteers to take part in the project because they are neutral," says Vipoo, who has given the project the name "The Country I Missed".
He has also created two giant vases titled "Nai Nam Mee Pla" (There's fish in the waterways) and "Nai Na Mee Khao" (There's rice in the fields), reflecting a Thai saying about the country's prosperity. Images of herbs, flora and fauna, rice seeds and fish are juxtaposed with the words "red" and "yellow".
In Buddhism, all things are inherently subject to change and we should not be distracted by outside factors. Vipoo takes a dig at contemporary society by presenting several tiny figurines on lotus stands adorned with the logos of luxury fashion brand names as well as international currency symbols.
In his second solo show here, 2009's "Colonies", Vipoo presented coral-inspired porcelains adorned with quirky images to address global warming and its effect on coral reefs. This time, he has collaborated with his Facebook friends, inviting them to send him blue-and-white discarded objects and has turned these a series of small blue-and-white coral sculptures. In this way, the blue teeth of a comb, the white hair of a doll and a shirt button have become a wild ceramic work that warns us to stop messing up the ocean.