Going against the grid: moving art away from the Khmer Rouge

Going against the grid: moving art away from the Khmer Rouge

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 A rattan and bamboo grid from In Spite of Order (L). Sopheap Pich (R). Photograph: Alex Crook/7Days

 A rattan and bamboo grid from In Spite of Order (L). Sopheap Pich (R). Photograph: Alex Crook/7Days

Artist Sopheap Pich grasps both corners of his latticed sculpture, a glossy, intricate grid of signature onyx-hued rattan, bamboo and beeswax.

The linear, wall-bound piece is a big departure from the style of his previous internationally-acclaimed works: twisting, looping, curvaceous organ-like figures, giant buddhas and buildings that were interpreted by critics as subtle symbols of Sopheap’s experience as a child under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, representative of displacement, memory and the body.

“I have no idea where my work is going,” he muses, “It tells me what it wants to be, it asks me to change its course… it tests what I know… right now it’s going black.”

The detailed grid we are gazing at, along with a larger, two-by-two metre gritty amber grid, were two pieces that didn’t make the cut in a collection that the sculptor has just shipped off to Bangkok for his immanent solo exhibition, In Spite of Order,  opening at the city’s edgy H Gallery next week.

The two pieces were not ready, he says, and made him feel conflicted, but would be ready to show in New York next April, along with retrospectives in Singapore, Malaysia and Milan.

A wide range of his work will be featured in another solo exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in February next year.

Perhaps one of the country’s most internationally successful artists, Sopheap has shown his work in Singapore’s 2011 Biennial and the country’s Institute of Contemporary Arts,  the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Tyler Rollins Fine Art in New York, Saudi Arabia, Japan and the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane in 2009.

Sopheap seems almost surprised by his shift to a darker, moodier aesthetic, and emphasises the change in direction is not symbolic of delving deeper into the trauma and brutality that Cambodia suffered in later 70s under Pol Pot, but rather a move away from it.

“Black is just really working out for me… I am very happy right now, really I should be painting pink!”

“Memory did infuse a lot of my previous work -I had an installation in Queensland, Australia, for the Asia Pacific Triennial that was called 1979 so of course was about my experience under the Khmer Rouge.”

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Sopheap, now 41, was born in Battambang and endured the entirety of the Khmer Rouge  rule, leaving for a Thai border camp in 1979 and, later, Massachusetts in 1984.

“The thing is…I was a child then and I don’t believe I went through or saw the trauma others did. I don’t have an adult reading of it - I still grew up as a kid playing. Sure, I was skinny and hungry but I helped my father make pots and pans and toys- he was a metal smith - I was lucky... I lived through a terrible tragedy but wasn’t tortured, I don’t feel that trauma,” he says after a reflective pause.

Sopheap says his recent collection, smeared with moody shades of dirt from far flung provinces: Rattanikiri, Modulkiri and Sihaoukville, is not about guilt.

“There’s all of this focus on being the voice of that generation and it’s completely unfair. You know, you’re supposed to speak about the ‘Cambodian experience’ and many (Cambodian) artists seek to have this be reflected in their work, and I really wanted to reject that… I don’t feel guilty at all for not making work that speaks for a whole history of Cambodia - that was someone else’s experience, my life wasn’t like that.”

Sopheap said he was more traumatised and displaced throughout his refugee experience in America.

“I was an outsider, a rebellious kid, I played poorly and loudly in a heavy metal band,” he says.

In Spite of Order was coined by the exhibition’s curator, Brian Curtin, and Sopheap says he will change its title to Drifting in Restraint for the subsequent exhibits.

It was natural and cyclic to have his sculptural forms evolve into a tangible grid shape, as his sculptures have always been weaved precisely into small webs, or grid-like pieces, he says.

“The structure looks so orderly and limited and restricted but you also see through it, and find possibility,” he says.

Sopheap has a team of seven artisans working with him, casting and shaping the bamboo and rattan in a cavernous studio flanking the Mekong, on the north-western fringes of Phnom Penh in Prek Leap village, just past the gilded Wat Kien Kleng.

He has a confident swagger but his language is peppered with snippets of self deprecation.

The artist has crafted himself an enviable, peaceful life, a tranquil respite from the relentlessness of the city centre.

Guarded by a placid, licking Doberman and an assortment of other mongrels, an impressive chicken coop has been erected by his “metal smith,” along with a palm-shaded pier, replete with hammock, by the water’s edge.

He’s just renovated the kitchen and purchased a $600 island bench, entertaining guests regularly with leisurely lunches, one of which was a catalyst for him to shift to the smeared, darker sculptures.

“We tried to cook with it and it was lighting up like fireworks… I thought f**k this, I’ll grind it up and use it as pigment, and then I thought of the jars of dirt that I had collected and were on the shelf… and I realised the charcoal could give it some depth. There is something beautiful in such a basic, accessible, simple material,” he says, also alluding to the irony of art aficionados romanticising materials such as exotic Cambodian dirt.

The sculptures are somewhat skeletal, natural and organic and the erection of the bamboo and rattan is painstaking, taking a number of expert hands and days.

“My assistants have stuck with me and it’s a learning process. Now a few of them instinctively know what I am trying to achieve and what to do without me uttering a word, especially Vichit, who has been with me since my very first sculpture, when I moved from painting to doing this in 2005. We’ve developed very strong bonds.”

All materials used are local, with bamboo and rattan sourced from Kampong Cham and sometimes hand cut by Sopheap and his team close to the studio.

He uses burlap, gleaned from used rice bags and then soaked in the waxy, pigmented broth to achieve texture and earthy tones, attaching scraps of the material to the back of the structure.

Beeswax is sourced from Rattinikiri and resin is from tree sap in Phnom Penh, boiled and bubbled down in copper pots in the studio kitchen and mixed with the pigments.

The repetitive pieces are sub-consciously metaphorical, he says, a symbol for the Cambodian refugee experience and the search for independence.

“That’s why I came back, in 2002, I wanted to be without pressure or dependence.

“I think everyone changes as a refugee. But there’s this undercurrent of dependence - on the conventional Cambodian way, on being a success, academic, marriage, children… be Cambodian wherever you go, don’t lose that, don’t lose that tradition… I had no interest in that,” he says.

“To find myself I had to come back and deal with that. To be poor. To be independent. That’s the hardest thing to find. That sense of independence. Most of my (refugee) friends back in the states don’t have that.

“I think I’ve just reached a point where I don’t really care what the final meaning is, I’ve let that go, so what, if people get it or they don’t get It, I’m comfortable with that.”

Sopheap’s first studio in Phnom Penh backed on to the infamous Boeung Kak Lake, his workshop wedged next door to another artist, Seckon Leang,  by the French Embassy and fishing communities. He would draw inspiration from the striking, vibrant sunsets and still waters outside.

It’s now the site of one of the country’s most controversial human rights abuses: In 2007, the government awarded a 99-year, $79 million contract to Shukaku Inc to fill in and develop Boeung Kak, and Sopheap joined around 4000 families evicted from the site, most without any compensation.

When asked whether the country’s array of political issues inform his work, Sopheap shrugs.

“You know, it did for such a long time. But not anymore, I’m tired of that now. I’ve moved away from that. These issues have been present for decades, there are a lot of issues going on in the world. I guess having some success gives you the ability to try things out without the stress of payment, paying rent…it can allow your work to evolve more naturally.”



To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]


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