The art of etching, an old print-making method, was brought to life in a new exhibition opening at Hotel 1961 on Saturday. Contemporary Belgian artist Vicky Gruyters’ collection, Hope and Glory, deals with her impressions of Cambodia, and the “merging of the present, past and future.”
Exhibition curator and Hotel 1961 owner Loven Ramos says he was mesmerised by Gruyters’ work when he was first introduced to it. Vicky and her daughter Loes had been volunteering at the Cambodia Dutch Organisation 30km outside of Siem Reap. Loes discovered the 1961 gallery and brought the two together.
According to Ramos, the inspiration behind the exhibition is Gruyters’ “immersion” in Cambodia, and the striking contrasts she found in the country.“It’s quite ironic that you have really amazing remnants of a powerful empire standing side by side with crumbling societies or people that are just barely making a dollar a day,” he says. “With this exhibition she’s picking up all the fragments of those experiences she’s had, and then suggesting that there’s always the possibility of getting out of this status. Elevating yourself, helping yourself, having a complete rebirth.”
The name Hope and Glory refers to old glory and hope for the future as well.
The exhibition comprises nine etchings, some of which have the look of old-fashioned sketches or book illustrations, and others including photographs, mostly monochrome with a flash of colour. Each picture is made up of two or three contrasting images side by side, such as the faceless Apsara statue next to an image of her face transplanted onto an abstract background.
“It’s all a merging of presents, pasts and futures and that’s why she uses a whole lot of metaphors wherein the face of the Apsara is removed and transferred to an empty space,” says Ramos.
“She plays around with that – the representation of the past, the future and the uncertainty of it. It’s implying that this is the future, where do you go? The idea that we alone hold the key to what our future brings.
“I love that she loves using the abstract against something that already has a visual vernacular like the Apsaras, or Ta Prohm temple.”
One of Ramos’s favourite pieces is Gruyters’ reinterpretation of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, the mythological tale depicted in bas-relief at Angkor Wat. As the story goes, the gods and demons worked together to churn the sea to create immortality. In Gruyters’ version, a giant egg is depicted in the middle of a swirling sea, tiny figures around it pulling the serpent, while underneath a second image shows a fossilised fish looking like something out of paleontology textbook.
“The egg represents the birth, or the origins of the kingdom,” says Ramos. “And then just right below it is the fossil of the fish wherein in the original bas-reliefs there are actually carvings of fish to represent the ocean. So it’s like the origins, the beginnings, and then the end and also right down there with the fossil of the fish, death. Life and death, it’s just a beautiful piece coming together.”
The etching method is a kind of printing process, Ramos explains, whereby the artist sketches onto metal, then uses the metal to imprint onto paper or fabric. Book illustrators have used the age-old method to create intricate designs and pictures for years.
“The process has been around for centuries,” Ramos says. “It’s a medium that she’s comfortable with, she’s had those etching exhibitions for many years – she specialises in it.”
Gruyters has been professor of printmaking at the Media, Arts and Design Faculty in Hasselt, Belgium since 1987. She has exhibited all over Europe including France, Spain and UK for more than thirty years, as well as won numerous print art awards. Proceeds from sales of the exhibition will go towards the Cambodia Dutch Organisation, which supports locals in Phoem Chhuk Village.
“They have a base community that they work with,” says Ramos. “They have a couple of core projects – they help out with education, livelihood building and also sustainability of the community. The great thing is they concentrate on one community which is outside of Siem Reap, which has really no access to these things.”
Hope and Glory will run until mid-May at Hotel 1961.