Politics to pagodas: An artist gives back

A USB stick was gifted to Than Sok at Wat Samakiram, in Brooklyn, where the artist lived for two weeks while taking part in Season of Cambodia.
A USB stick was gifted to Than Sok at Wat Samakiram, in Brooklyn, where the artist lived for two weeks while taking part in Season of Cambodia. NICK STREET

Politics to pagodas: An artist gives back

His new exhibition might be titled "Promotion", but artist Than Sok is humble when he talks about his work. The word refers to the sometimes honourable, sometimes questionable, act of giving.

“It’s just about giving and receiving things,” he said, speaking a week into the two-month run of the exhibition at Sa Sa Bassac gallery.

Some 30 objects, from everyday household goods like toothpaste and soap, CNRP and CPP caps and T-shirts, to orange monk’s robes, are lent their own Warholian glory, each recreated on thick, cream watercolour paper and a blank white background.

They were gifts, given to the 30-year-old painter during two very different, though concurrent, periods in his life: one brief stint as a monk in the US, and another as a political campaigner in his homeland.

A curled, saffron sash from a monk’s robe forms part of the "Promotion" collection.
A curled, saffron sash from a monk’s robe forms part of the "Promotion" collection. NICK STREET

Born in Takeo province, Sok spent four years studying art at Reyum art school in Phnom Penh after moving to the capital with his family in 1996. He is now an architecture student at Norton University.

But his inspiration for "Promotion" came in April this year when he was one of 125 artists flown from the Kingdom to New York to take part in the Season of Cambodia arts festival.

The Cambodians were given the chance to work with foreign artists on residencies and study the galleries, as well as show their own work.

But amid the first-world hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, the memory of his time as a novice monk at his childhood pagoda in Takeo stirred a different inclination in Sok, and he decided to spend two weeks living as a monk at Wat Samakiram, a Cambodian Buddhist pagoda in Brooklyn.

“This was a golden chance to be involved in another place as a monk,” he said.

During his stay, he created a large Buddhist alms bowl made from steel wire, where passers-by could drop food and other gifts for the use of the pagoda.

“When we opened our final exhibition, the citizens came to put money and other gifts in my bowl.”

Both foreigners and Cambodians donated. Gifts ranged from towels, bedsheets and toothpaste to a USB flash drive and the 25-year-anniversary edition of a book on Scandinavian design.

But the most significant gift, Sok said, was a set of orange robes from the monks at the pagoda.

Artist Than Sok, 30, in front of his exhibition at Sa Sa Bassac gallery.
Artist Than Sok, 30, in front of his exhibition at Sa Sa Bassac gallery. NICK STREET

Simply having such a gift “promoted” him, he said, as if passing over some of the respect given to the monkhood.

When he returned to his home country, the political campaign season ahead of July’s election was in full swing.

He joined rallies of both major parties, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and found that in doing so he was showered with gifts of a different sort.

These included more T-shirts, hats and raincoats bearing party logos, as well as sarongs and riel-notes.

He started to paint the gifts. In doing so, he embarked on a path well-trodden by generations of artists before him: the quest to make the ephemeral concrete. The real things and their meanings are destined to decay or be lost, Sok said. But these paintings, which show them in their true light and colour, he added, will last on paper as art.

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