Vipoo Srivilasa creates mischievous-looking little creatures with bulbous shapes, flower eyes, stubby legs, and buoyant designs. One set combines Mexican and Japanese references, another is inspired by Chinese ceramics, and many draw on Thai and Australian culture. They’re joyful small sculptures that deal with weighty issues like death, isolation, and cultural transmission.
Srivilasa is a Thai artist from Bangkok who left for Melbourne in 1996 to study at university and has made a home there since. His work often combines facets from both cultures like Aussie football players and local animals or Thai elements from Buddhist temples and traditional dress, and migration is a central issue in his art. “Through my work, I examine how two cultures can co-exist and be represented together,” he explains. Sometimes the same image can mean different things. In one series, he explored this through the use of the lantana flower, which is used to pay respect to teachers in Thailand but is viewed as an invasive weed in Australia.
To create a piece, Srivilasa sketches the idea out and then models it in clay. Then he decorates it and lets it dry, which can take four to six weeks. Next, it gets fired in a kiln, glazed, and decorated again, then thrown back into the kiln. Then he’ll paint gold luster with 12 percent gold suspended in a liquid medium like pine oil resin. “It’s the brightest of them all,” he gushes. This requires one last firing in the kiln, which occasionally take a couple of tries to make the color and gold as bright as possible.
The gold in Srivilasa’s work gleams in contrast to the creamy whites and matte blacks and is a regular element of his sculptures. His recent Shrine Of Life exhibit focused heavily on it, drawing out its deep roots in Thai culture. He was inspired by the Lak Mueang shrine in Bangkok, which he visited just before leaving his homeland. “As I left Thailand for Australia for the first time, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a home and finding a new one,” he says. Lak mueang are golden pillars, usually housed in shrines, that are erected before the construction of a city and represent the soul and identity they strive for. The Bangkok lak mueang is one of the most ancient and is protected by five deities, which he reimagined for the project. He hopes the series will encourage the residents of his new home to find appreciation for the diversity of cultures and beliefs across the world.
Srivilasa’s work is ebullient, intent in its focus on positivity and joy. It’s positive thinking in physical form. But he doesn’t shy away from trauma or despair. He provides an alternative instead; a sense of joy and comfort to focus on during times of distress. The extensive lockdowns and marathon stints of isolation across Australia crystallized these needs. He lost many friends due to COVID, depression, and overwork. “It was a difficult time,” he explains. “Grieving was especially hard, and it took me a while to come to terms with the loss.”
Through his Hungry Ghost series from last year, Srivilasa learned how to view loss in a more positive light and to accept death as a part of life. Thai culture depicts ghosts and spirits as frightening, angry, or sad, but he wanted to explore what a happy ghost would look like. “Imagine if my friend’s ghost was visiting me, how they would look? It was my way to come to terms with the loss of my friends and find solace and peace in the face of this tragedy.” Through the series, he discovered cultures that celebrate death, such as the Day of the Dead in Mexico and stories concerning oni demons and yurei ghosts in Japan. This also builds on his larger goal of creating a sense of unity and connection by featuring diverse characters interacting in a friendly manner. “No matter how difficult the situation is, I’m always able to find something positive in it.”