Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, Lifting words, 2011, acrylic on perforated canvas, 180 x 150cm. (14537)
Some of us as children in the tropics would remember the pleasure of dropping stones or sticks down deep wells, relishing the time it took for the object to make the passage to the water's surface. Time seemed to shed its inexorable tyranny, becoming impossibly elastic; an object of play. We were time-benders, or time-piercers for those moments. In an especially deep well, the only evidence of the object's arrival would be a dull plop or an echoing splash, depending on the circumference of the well and the weight of the dropped object. The diagonal of sharp-etched shadow beyond which the sun never quite gathered up the courage to venture would abruptly swallow up the receding stone or stick. I am not sure we realised it fully then, but we were consigning things to oblivion: nobody would ever see this stone again. They were being cast off the edge of human sense and into another world, as though through a time-portal and into another hidden universe that existed under the reach of even the most tenacious fig saplings grimly clinging to the walls of the well, as far down as the sun could boast. Though Savanhdary Vongpoothorn spent her early childhood in Laos and I grew up in India, there is this memory that we share, though neither of us would have known even of each other's countries at the time.
What were we as children so thrilled by? And why does the memory thrill us still, thousands of miles from those homelands? Leaving aside for a moment the ire of grown-ups worried either about the drinking water being dirtied, or afraid that the kids would fall in, I think the excitement consisted in the living out with all our being the moments it took for the object to travel down, and for the sound to travel back to us. Nothing else existed in that seemingly interminable silence, and we felt time with our skin, with our eyes, noses and ears all at the same time.
Now in October 2011, as I listen to Savanhdary's father puncturing stretched canvas with a hot solder iron in her studio, a frisson of those memories comes flooding back. He is a soft-spoken and incredibly gentle man whose precision amazes me. He has drawn a 1 centimetre square grid in pencil in a diagonal pattern on the canvas that is gently stretched on an improvised piercing frame. He heats the soldering iron, gingerly feeling it with his fingers to make sure it is hot enough and then proceeds on his work, poc-hiss-toc, poc-hiss-toc, poc-hiss-toc. The iron pierces the canvas, there is a hiss of heated metal colliding violently with stretched canvas, until the iron meets the plywood base. He has a mesmeric rhythm once he gets going, methodically piercing every junction in the grid. "Dahry wants this pierced fine", or "Dahry wants that with the big needle" says he. His labour is as much part of the finished work, even when Savanhdary irons some of the canvases to make for a level perforated painting surface. And there are times that she chooses to leave the piercings evident in relief, relegating her linear design to the primacy of the jagged edges of her father's piercings. Punctured canvases with geometrical patterns have become Savanhdary's metier as seen in her previous solo exhibitions.
Savanhdary's daughter Rashmi at play completes the circle across three generations. Rashmi's coloured blocks and tiles with their interlocking structures litter the floor of the studio in a shared creative space. We glimpse a (temporarily) abandoned mother-daughter experiment draped on a child's easel. Having her child in the same studio with herself and her father has created another kind of trans-generational space for Savanhdary Vongpoothorn. This has also entailed another kind of freedom. We have three generations working alongside, but not on the same grounds. One: Mungsamai Vongpoothorn, the gentle patriarch, reads his books, makes his songs, and pierces canvases in a meditative cadence when needed by his daughter. Two: the artist, working in her own rhythm of painterly engagement with pattern, texture and colour, works in her own abstraction. Three: the child playing with her coloured blocks that form their own and infinitely variable grid of meanings on the floor introduces her own counter-narrative of improvisation.
In the midst of these three lies the crux of Savanhdary Voongpoothorn's current work. An exploration of childhood comes together with a meditation on time and memory in a body of work that may well presage the artist's future directions. Painterly form has taken a back seat to whimsy in a series of paintings that is less austere and more playful than anything the artist has allowed herself before. Voongpoothorn's current body of work represents an interim statement as she continues her search into the tentative relationship between geometric abstraction and personal narrative.
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