Vipoo Srivilasa: Will my heart remember?

Aaron Bradbrook

28 May 2021

Aaron Bradbrook presents a project by Vipoo Srivilasa to reincarnate objects relinquished by residents of Warrnambool.

Holding a pen, Kate’s hand trembles as I place a disclaimer on the table in front. I notice her eyes are swollen as she looks to her right, breaking eye contact, attempting to corral tears.

It was mid-morning during a warm February. Sitting in my office at the Warrnambool Art Gallery located along Victoria’s rugged oceanic coastline. I am interviewing a donor. She tells me of the enduring heart-break this shattered ceramic bowl represents of the deceased. I listen, tight lipped, and nod in acknowledgement of a story, a life, an impact one can leave upon another. In pieces, this object becomes embodied; a container, its contents – invisible.

With the signing of this disclaimer, at this moment, her ownership is relinquished. “Are you ready”, I ask? The pen lowers slowly, a deep breath – gone.

In the months preceding, the esteemed Thai-born, Melbourne-based artist and ceramicist Vipoo Srivilasa and I spent countless hours developing a multi-stakeholder, collaborative project. The idea: request donations of broken or damaged ceramics from residents of Victoria’s southwest.

Through an application process, seven objects of sentimental value will be accepted. Applications will be assessed by myself based upon the guidelines prescribed by the artist. These being: in reading the sentimental description in conjunction with the broken object, an emotional response of one or a combination of sympathy, hate, fear, sadness and/or joy must be evoked.

She, this ornament was always an angel, now on letting go I can see she could be a faerie on a leaf.

Successful applicants (donors), will undergo an interview with myself at the time of physical delivery to verbalise their emotional connections and sign a disclaimer – thus shifting the process into somewhat of a performance. From here, I personally transport the work to Vipoo and undergo a rigorous interview with the artist. I discuss my decision-making upon transferring possession of each object to the artist which then enters into a process defined by the artist as “restorative happiness”, whereby he will faithfully create a new artwork from the damaged object for exhibition, adorning it with his esteemed and joyous artistic approach.

In exchange and upon exhibition each donor is given the opportunity to reconcile any emotional bonds with the object as it transitions into a symbol of joy for greater audiences. Professionally photographed, each donor will receive a framed and signed limited edition A5 print as a memento.

For more than 20 years, Vipoo Srivilasa has produced work that engages in cross-cultural socio-political dialogue, often centring on autobiography including experiences of migration and diasporic identity.  The collaborative exhibition Re/JOY at the Warrnambool Art Gallery involved a departure from his familiar materials and techniques. Instead, he was engaged in an emotional exchange: the vulnerability he often references shifted to someone else’s. The stakes are increased, not only through his want of presenting a high calibre exhibition, but one that delivers upon his promise – to faithfully restore the object’s happiness.

One of the stories I share with Vipoo while sitting in his Melbourne studio is from Beryl.

Passed down through generations, her broken porcelain figurine rests in the palm of my hand. Beryl, sits in my office side-by-side with her daughter, Rachael. The passing on through generations ends at this moment.

I read her application aloud, as a combination of sympathy and joy are aroused.

“She, this ornament was always an angel, now on letting go I can see she could be a faerie on a leaf.  She has travelled far and wide with my three children and I, lived in many houses.

She is a memory, one of few possessions, a link to my childhood.  With a lot of my past forgotten due to my brain being damaged in an accident.  When there is no memory, I listen to my heart speak…”

“I feel childhood and a certain peace and warmth, even though I am not exactly sure where she came from.

It is the love in my heart that remembers.”

Regional galleries are commonly supported by a profound community, often dissimilar to an urban context. With historical collections representative of a place and an identity, often with familial connection. Alongside ongoing, intergenerational community participation; ownership and custodianship feel shared. This can enable an environment of artistic experimentation, risk-taking, and community engagement to exist and be supported. Re/JOY delved into the unknown and took a risk and ensued a model which is bilateral – whereby in supporting and artists practice, the artist reciprocated by supporting the emotional healing of a donor.

Exquisite in appearance and complex in concept, each story and object were nurtured and enshrined by the artist.  At the exhibition’s opening night celebration, I spoke with each donor, all of whom overwhelmed by their object’s transformation. Leading me to believe that Vipoo delivered upon his promise.

Albeit, when the exhibition closes and the objects disappear, I can’t help but wonder, like Beryl, if hearts can remember?

Vipoo Srivilasa Re/JOY Warrnambool Art Gallery 1 May 2021 to 20 June 2021

About Aaron Bradbrook

Aaron Bradbrook is an Australian based curator of contemporary art with national and international experience. Currently the Curator, Exhibitions and Outreach at the Warrnambool Art Gallery, he has held roles at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Italy; Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth; and Alcaston Art Gallery, Melbourne. In 2019 he was named by Australia Council for the Arts as the Venice Biennale Emerging Arts Professional for the State of Victoria. He currently sits on arts advisory and assessment panels for the Australia Council for the Arts and The City of Melbourne. Trained in the Creative Industries at Edith Cowan University, he gained a Masters in International Development Studies at the University of Melbourne (2018) with research concerning human rights, gender and the political economy. During his tertiary studies he was awarded numerous academic scholarships to pursue international research at Arizona State University, USA; Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Bangladesh; and University of Indonesia.

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