Through dedication and determination, an artist mixes ceramics and a mélange of materials with streams of concepts into art forms beyond the earthy delights
Vipoo Srivilasa is a Bangkok-born but Melbourne-based artist, curator and art activist. Although predominantly known for his works in ceramics by creating contemporary porcelain sculptures exploring cross-cultural experiences, he has recently branched out from humble clay to other materials. His work is a playful blend of historical figurative and decorative art practices with a healthy dose of contemporary culture. Vipoo’s creations often reflect on political and social issues such as the environment, migration and minority, gender and sexual diversity, as well as Australian culture.
He recalls, “During high school at Sathit Prasarnmitr, I didn’t like the regular curriculum. So I went to enrol at the College of Fine Arts at Chang Silp Ladkrabang. There, students are encouraged to create and earn their living through art. I made fashion accessories like earrings from air-dried clay, also composed of bread and glue. But they didn’t last because insects could eat them. I searched for stronger materials like ceramic but I only took one course at this school. Then at Rangsit University, I majored in ceramics in the Faculty of Fine Arts. It was my only choice for the entrance exam and many professors are surprised about my dedicated interest. After graduating in 1994, I designed plant pots at Nattawit Co. whose factory is in Sriracha for production and export.
“Two years later my mother asked me to choose among a new house, a new car, or furthering my education. I decided on the last and went to Monash University, Melbourne, and to University of Tasmania, Hobart. Without much distractions, I really focused on my works and gained a lot of experiences in self-help, studying, doing more and seeing the results. After my Master of Fine Art and Design, I realised that lacking clear directions, there is a gap between student life and real life. So I went to Jam Factory Contemporary Craft and Design Gallery, Adelaide, which works as a bridge in training and marketing my work. Most ceramicists would make domestic and functional pieces and I would do the same. My style didn’t fit the mould. For the Sunday Market, I made teapots and practical things but they didn’t sell as well as eccentric pieces like monsters, which I could sell at higher prices in galleries. This taught me about product placement and real-life marketing experiences. In school, we learnt about techniques, concepts and presentation but here I had to deal with accounting, commission and galleries. I lived there for two years before moving to Melbourne.
He says, “I worked in a shared studio in St. Kilda. During the Sydney Olympics 2000, I showed the ‘S&M Mermaids’ series at Object Store in the Rocks, Sydney. This exhibition launched my career and it began to bring some recognitions. I also entered my teapots at the Teapot Competition at the Inner City Clayworkers Gallery, Sydney. Then I started to talk to some galleries in Melbourne about moving from crafts to creating fine art pieces. In Melbourne, I started at Haecceity Arts Gallery and then moved to Über Gallery, Anna Pappas Gallery and Nellie Castan Gallery. Now I am represented at Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne, Edwina Corlette Gallery, Brisbane, and Olsen Gallery, Sydney.
Vipoo muses, “For each series, I get the inspirations from various interests or some events that really touch and move me. I was concerned about the future of our environment such as the coral reef bleaching before the cause became fashionable. The ‘Indigo Kingdom’ series denotes a discourse about the Thai-Australian cultural relations. The ‘Happy Together’ series was inspired by the events during King Rama IX’s passing. Happiness comes from seeing others happy or from people smiling in their selfies with their fingers in a ‘V’ sign. So I created sculptures with selfies which became the signature of these works.
“My blue-and-white pieces are very popular and receive good immediate responses. I think they peaked at my exhibition at Chulalongkorn University’s Art Centre. My early works used to be very colourful and gay. The ‘P-Bear’ series pared down to minimal lines. Then I decided on blue-and-white because I didn’t want to use glazing which is washed down and polluted the water system. My process became more streamlined by using only cobalt, fewer tools and instruments and no more dirty water. With only two colours and patterns, less becomes more.”
In 2019, inspired by the approval of same-sex marriage in Australia, Vipoo has lawfully wed his partner of 20 years, whom he met in Hobart. He clarifies, “In the ‘Marriage of Sang Thong’ series, I want to interpret an LGBTQ issue of same-sex marriage without showing sex or nudity, activism, fighting and depression. From different angles, I selected Sang Thong (Thai folk literature) as a foundation to recollect the story of a striving for undefeated love. The crux of the story is when Rojana, the youngest of seven princesses, throws the garland to Prince Sang Thong in disguise as a sign of betrothal. The couple had to go through extraordinary lengths and endure many trials and tribulations to prove their love which contravenes social conventions to gain acceptance. Flowers and garlands symbolising relationship become a recurring element. Mirroring this situation, communities of LGBTQ in Australia and other countries have to fight for social acceptance. Thus this is a celebration of love, a declaration of victory and joyous expression of ardour. I am very proud of this which is perhaps my most personal series but the best is always yet to come.”
Having won several art prizes and contests, he states, “Although quite successful, I still find hindrances. First, I don’t like maths. So it’s hard for me to do bookkeeping for GST report. Second, I always have self-doubt before the exhibitions. I worry if it’s good enough, if the audience would understand it or what they would think about my works, etc. Third, it’s the technical challenges because I have to get better. I should not be caught in my comfort zone and should think out of the box to take more risks. Having reached my mid-career, I sought mentorship by Sakarin Krue-On, a multi-disciplinary Thai artist, through the Skill and Arts Development Grant from the Australian Council for the Arts. This is in order to develop and create new interactive ceramic works for exhibitions at Edwina Corlette Gallery and S.A.C. Subhashok the Arts Centre, Bangkok.
“Khun Sakarin encouraged me to explore new materials as a way of extending my practice and using my Thai background to address global issues. I work mainly with ceramics but for this exhibition, he suggested that I work with new materials and collaborate with highly-skilled artisans who work in bronze, glass, and wood. The more I collaborate, the more fulfilling it becomes. This show includes a series of white-and-gold porcelain figurines adorned with flower petals made in Arita, Japan, wood sculptures carved in Chiang Mai, clear glass figurines cast in Canberra, bronze bas reliefs from Melbourne, commemorative porcelain wedding plates about why we got married and six sculptures combining bronze and porcelain. The pieces with the mixture of bronze and ceramic refer to antique European ceramic flowers with bronze stems and leaves. For me, bronze, a robust and permanent medium, symbolises the strong concept of marriage and a solid commitment. He also advised me on how to install my works in various space and how to maximise it. The glamorous figurines are displayed on a long table like a Sydney Mardi Gras parade. I used to like maximalism but now I prefer to minimise with just good lighting.
“The bronze bas-relief vignettes individually interpret 10 important incidents in world history that have contributed directly, or indirectly, to the acceptance of same-sex partnerships, and led Australia to pass the same-sex marriage law in 2018—the law that has allowed me to have my equality wedding.
“I’m also interested in performance by combining food, ceramics and mood. I created ‘Roop, Ros, Ruang’ (Taste-touch-tell) at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, and then in Korea and the US. Marije Vogelzang, a Dutch “food” or “eating” designer, consulted on ‘Love Lab’ and the afternoon tea with the six colours of the Pride flag. ‘Love Lab’ is an interactive performance art that explores many aspects of love through food and flavours whether one is straight, gay, bi or others. It’s about one’s identity and energy of yin and yang—femininity and masculinity. Love can be sweet, spicy or whichever characteristics of the ideal partner that one chooses. Once selected, the choices translate into ingredients of toppings on crackers. Then one will finally know how good or bad love tastes.”
Vipoo concludes, “In the near future I want to evolve towards community-based projects in art, sculpture, food and performance with more interactions. I have gathered and developed my skill sets in moulding, modelling and designing in years and finally used new materials. I have identified and applied my style and personality in the works but don’t want to be stuck with some symbolic clichés.
“My mother has never doubted me that I will be good at this. She believes that I will succeed if I have the commitment. At first, I wanted to study traditional Thai dance but when I went to apply, no admission officers were there. Then I picked up the registration form for visual arts at the College of Fine Arts and studied Ceramic. It must have been my destiny as well as my determination. So when I watch Khōn, I imagine myself how I would dance on the stage.”