For his new exhibition, Xilitla, showing at SaSa Bassac until November 29, American artist of Cambodian descent Albert Samreth has made some unusual incursions on the white cube orthodoxy of exhibition spaces. The gallery has been carpeted in a richly hued ultramarine. The same fabric encases irregularly sized rectangles dotted throughout the room and is used as a mount for photographs.
The space is also broken up by chunks of Styrofoam placed around the gallery. All are bare and unrefined, bar one – an uncannily realistic copy of an ancient carving, which Samreth found in the workshop of a man who makes wedding props for a living.
The inspiration behind this irregular arrangement is one far stranger still: an architectural garden of towering surrealist sculptures nestled deep in the heart of the Mexican jungle, created by eccentric British artist Edward James between 1962 and his death in 1984.
It was making the pilgrimage to Las Pozas in Xilitla (the location of James’s garden lends its name to the title of this exhibition) that provided the impetus for the work that Samreth is now presenting.
“Edward James has been the main inspiration for my life for the last couple of months,” the artist says. Getting to Las Pozas in the first place required some determination on his part. The garden is deep inside cartel-controlled territory, and a nine-hour drive from Mexico City along treacherous roads. Few tourists make the trip, but Samreth has returned five times.
As Dali’s sometime sponsor, and having twice been painted by Magritte, James is most often remembered as a keen patron and practitioner of surrealism. But Samreth explains that this relationship wasn’t what drew him in.
“I think [surrealism] is my least favourite thing about it,” he says, adding that the term brings to mind little more than a French teenager with a poster in her bedroom.
He thinks that the focus on surrealism obscures what was most exciting about Xilitla – the architect’s vision of how his work would be altered and encroached on over time, as the jungle set about reclaiming James’s concrete impositions. “He had this idea of making it not quite finished,” Samreth says.
It is this idea of permanent objects altering over time that guides a lot of the artist’s most recent work. At SaSa Bassac, he has chosen to include the Styrofoam blocks for the contradictions they prompt: a symbol of throw-away consumerism, but at the same time a material that takes a million years to decompose. They are an “instant ruin” he says. During the exhibition, Samreth will use a heat gun to carve the dates of visitors’ first kisses into the blocks.
Locally, Samreth has taken this preoccupation with ruins to its most obvious place. Hung from poles along one wall of the gallery are two garishly coloured collages made up of slight variations on an instantly recognisable image – a glowing sun setting over Angkor Wat. He explains that the paintings were mostly bought from tourist stands in the market. He has patched the works together and inserted still more blazing suns into the remaining gaps. “I’m interested in how these images live and what they can mean in their multiplication,” he explains. “They’re generic in their multiplicity, but still hand painted.”
Seen through a different lens, this approach could be taken as a derisive send-up of Cambodia’s obsession with a particular rendering of its most recognisable icon but, with Samreth, the intentions are softer. He wants people looking at the paintings to think about the commonality and differences of the artists’ experiences, set against Angkor’s inflexible outline.
“I’m really interested in these painters sitting around and painting the sunset every day,” he says.
Samreth says that his close relationship with Edward James’s project, and his use of other artists’ work in the sunset collages is not an intentional form of appropriation art. He sees it more simply as the product of working as an artist at a time when any source of inspiration will inevitably have inspired others in the past. “I think it’s really hard to go out into nature and find something no one else has stamped and pissed all over,” he says. “There’s no material that can be sourced that doesn’t have a history. I think that’s what I’m getting at.”