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Temple lions roar again

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Czech sculptor Michal Blazek and his team, from left to right: Chhatna Tour, Mon Kim Ling and Venerable Eng. Photo by: MICHAEL SLOAN

Fist fight

MICHAL Blazek is a controversial figure in the tight-knit world of Czech sculptors. He shot to prominence two years ago after punching a rival sculptor during the unveiling of a restored statue of American president Woodrow Wilson in Prague. The fight set off a melee that also saw Blazek hit a journalist who tried to intervene. The incident marred what was a prestigious day for the sculptor, who won the competition to restore the statue, demolished by Nazis in 1941. According to news reports, the scuffle erupted at the opening ceremony when Blazek called fellow competition entrant Oldřich Hejtmánek a “thief who stole the head of the president”.

FOUR years after their funding ran out, an unlikely team of temple restorers comprised of a Czech sculptor, a high school student, a Buddhist monk and a third-generation stonemason, are engaged in a project to conserve 60 stone lions and elephants at one of Cambodia’s lesser known temples.

Enclosed within the Angkor Thom gates, Phimeanakas, or “celestial temple”, was the site of an Angkorian palace and royal temple, according to sculptor Michal Blazek, who is supervising the Gopura II Project, a self-funded restoration effort to restore 50 decorative lions and elephants that line the building’s parapets.

Reassembling the lions from broken pieces found outside the temple, Blazek has spent the past four years painstakingly constructing silicone and polyurethane moulds of their missing parts in his Czech studio, and then returning to Siem Reap to see the restored lions put back into place.

Blazek told 7Days he began working on the Phimeanakas lions while heading up a two-year training and temple-surveying project funded by the Czech government, between 2005 and 2007.

“All the big temples are being restored by the big countries. The Czech Republic has a very small budget for conservation, so we chose one of the smaller temples. But it is a historically important one, because Phimeanakas was a palace built in the middle of a forbidden town surrounded by walls, and this was done 200 years before the Forbidden City in China was built.”

Phimeanakas was constructed during the reign of King Rajendravarman in the 10th century. It was used as both a royal temple and palace, until it was remodelled by King Suryavarman II 100 years later, who transformed the palace into a three-tiered Hindu temple.

As well as the makeover, Suryavarman II installed 60 stone lions and elephants along the temple’s parapets.

These are the lions which Blazek had been restoring with funds from the Czech government. But when those funds dried up in 2007, he kept the project alive.

“The lions are important as a guardian and symbol of the kingdom. In Phimeanakas there are 48 lions in six different sizes along the stairways, and 12 elephants in three sizes. Several of these are in broken pieces around the temple.”

Assisting Blazek in his efforts is third-generation local sculptor Chhatna Tour who sells stone replicas of temple artefacts at Angkor Conservation Workshop.

He said that Blazek asked him to work for him five years ago and he accepted.

“As much as I’ve helped him, he has helped me more. He taught me the way to construct pieces to fix a statue when it’s broken, which I could never do before.”

Chhatna Tour explained that he helps Blazek cast silicone moulds of each broken lion, which Blazek then flies to the Czech Republic in his suitcase to save on the cost of freighting the material. Then, in the Czech Republic he uses the moulds as models and creates any missing parts out of plaster.

“I’ve visited the Czech Republic twice with Michal,” said Chhatna Tour. “The visits and the chance to travel were nice, but I could never live there because it is so cold and they eat bread all the time instead of rice. I had to bring rice in my suitcase the second time.”

After returning the artificial parts to Siem Reap, Blazek has them cast into a second mould, which he and Chhatna use to create replacements in stone that are grafted onto each statue.

After the process is complete, the restored statues are hoisted by crane back onto their original positions at the temple.

On one of these occasions last week, the dynamic duo were accompanied by Hun Sen Siem Reap High School student Mon Kim Ling and Wat Bo teacher and monk, Venerable Eng, who have both assisted Blazek in restoring his third stone lion at Phimeanakas, a task he has been working on since January and estimates has cost $10,000.

With the assistance of a dozen Apsara Authority workers, the 150-kilogram stone lion was eventually hoisted from the bed of a truck and raised by crane to the temple parapets, following a half-hour comedy of errors where the truck became repeatedly bogged in mud.

During the delay, seventeen-year-old Mon Kim Ling explained that he began working with Blazek after meeting him at Phimeanakas in 2008.

“I’ve been going to study in the morning and then working with Michal whenever I have free time. When I graduate I want to study to be a lawyer but I don’t know if my family can afford it, so it’s good to learn other work skills as well.”

After the nerve-wracking process of watching the lion being hoisted into position, Blazek’s team celebrated before decamping to a nearby restaurant for lunch where the sculptor explained he intends to start work on a new lion as soon as possible.

“I work in the Czech Republic only to have money to come here. I love the food and the city fits my style of life, so as soon as I can I’ll be back working with Chhatna on the next statue.”

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