Savanhdary Vongpoothorn: All that arises. ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Kingsley Street, Acton. Until October 13.
Since 2004, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn and her family have called Canberra home. Vongpoothorn was born on the banks of the Mekong in Champaasak, Laos and arrived as a refugee in Australia in 1979, aged eight, the youngest of four children. Many aspects of the family's Theravada Buddhist faith remained integral to the family life in Australia and Vongpoothorn has remained a devout Buddhist.
Although unspectacular in her schooling, Vongpoothorn was passionate about art and went on to study at the University of Western Sydney. Here she was drawn to the painter Roy Jackson and lived in his studio in the Wedderburn artists' community for eight years. The work or Jackson, Elisabeth Cummings and John Peart is known to all who have followed the Drill Hall Gallery exhibitions over the past couple of years.
In the 1960s, a number of artists in Australia and abroad grafted an interest in bold gestural abstraction to Zen Buddhism and traditional calligraphic art. Over the past 25 years, Vongpoothorn has devised various strategies in which traditional Buddhist meditative traditions and texts have been reconciled with the prevailing international revival in minimalist art. This is the first extended overview of her practice.
The Sydney-based writer Hannah Fink, 20 years ago observed that Vongpoothorn in her art was thinking in English, but dreaming in Lao. In other words, she was making work that in many ways was compatible with popular minimalist forms and aesthetic, but which contained Lao content. Looking at this exhibition, her identity as a Buddhist from the Mekong area has increasingly come to the fore more recently and now dominates every aspect of her art making.
The overwhelming mood that prevails throughout this exhibition is one of serenity and inner peace. It is a cool and reserved sensibility where the artist engages with harmony and tranquility with repetitive rhythms and patterns. Vongpoothorn in her art practice exhibits an unbelievable patience of technique, where art is a process that cannotbe hurried but must be allowed to grow slowly and develop. In many of her early exquisite pieces, including Joti, 1996, or Light Kasina,1995, pattern is established through a repetitive act that is allowed to absorb the energies of the artist and organically adopt an independent life of its own.
In Joti, the paper has been carefully and systematically perforated and the surface has been stained with watercolour, gouache and pencil. It is a quiet, contemplative and lyrical work with an internal rippling quality. Light Kasina probably refers to visual objects of meditation in Theravada Buddhism. There are a number of kasina - earth, water, fire, air, colours, enclosed spaces and consciousness - and as your meditation on them grows you experience a smoky grey light that increasingly becomes white and inwardly luminous. In this piece, the artist has ingeniously employed fibre washers that form a pattern over which acrylic paint appears to luminously glow.
Footsteps to the Nigatsu, 2017-19, is Vongpoothorn's most recent piece at the exhibition, where the artist travelled to the precincts of the Todai-ji in Nara, Japan, taking site rubbings from six of the 53 stone stairs leading to the Nigatsu-do hall. To these rubbings she has added a border of stencil-cut calligraphic forms from Lao-Pali texts and assembled them in a horizontal grid five sheets high and 21 across.
Her collaborator, Noriko Tanaka, has added calligraphy arranged in vertical sections in gold kanji on a burnt umbra background. The work becomes a most impressive almost 18-metre long installation that glows with a slow meditative authority.