Than Sok’s The Shapes of Water – or Kbach Teuk in Khmer – is a series of 18 compositions in acrylic paint on canvas with repeated motifs in blue, green, yellow ochre and gray backgrounds meant to represent water’s mobility and the transformations it has undergone from the ancient past on through to the modern age.
Sok has earned international recognition for his artwork and he recently exhibited the series of paintings in Laos, Singapore and France.
Aside from his paintings, Sok is an artist that works in a variety of mediums including drawing, painting, installations, videos and even live performances wherein he “conjures doubles, replicas, re-presentations and likenesses of materials, spaces and rituals related to Cambodia.”
He has done solo and group exhibitions both locally and internationally in countries such as Australia, Japan, Poland, Myanmar, Singapore, Laos, Germany, Thailand and many others.
“I studied at Reyum Art School from 2002-2007 in Phnom Penh. I was trained in kbach’s exacting lines, proportional rules and compositional applications, while also learning representational painting in both the perspectival and flat traditions. I extended the foundational studies towards contemporary art practice in the first and only Reyum Art School Workshop from 2005-2007,” Sok tells The Post.
Back in the day, Sok says that language, the marketplace for art here and his own living conditions were the three main challenges he faced as an artist.
He says he rode his bicycle for seven years while at Reyum studying and that he’d arrive to class covered in sweat, but that didn’t matter to him.
“Over the years, I was exposed to – and often participated in – Reyum’s rich ethnographic research and exhibitions. I also got to learn with associate and visiting scholars, artists and curators. That experience – combined with my education abroad in the early 2000s – was unique, especially at a time when the internet remained mostly inaccessible,” he says.
While studying, he started drawing at the night market to earn some pocket money – but he says it was all worth it to get the education Reyum provided.
“I gained critical insight into notions about and practices of cultural traditions and the importance of continuity, which deeply influenced my own thinking and I started to find myself interested in conceptual art,” the 38-year-old artist says.
From his art school days up until now language has been a difficult hurdle to overcome, Sok says. He says he can only understand a little bit of English and it’s hard for him to communicate when he does exhibitions in other countries.
Reminiscing about his time studying, Sok recalls that back then the market for art in Cambodia was quite narrow and the current market for contemporary Cambodian art is still a relatively new phenomenon.
And, he says, while he was in school it was difficult for him to do conduct research because the internet wasn’t available very much in the Kingdom and social media like Facebook didn’t really exist until around the mid-aughts, so whenever he needed to do research on Kbach Khmer or any other classic Khmer art tradition he’d need to go to places like the palace, temples or museums directly.
After graduating from Reyum, Sok then pursued architectural studies at Norton University in Phnom Penh, thinking that architecture is also creative and an art form in its own way, but wasn’t really the type of art that he desired to create in his heart and in the end he focused once again on drawing and painting.
“To be frank, there were moments when I was hesitant to continue. I understood that it’s rare for any artist to become rich from their artwork, but I guess every artist has in their heart the passion and love for it that drives us to keep going regardless of the money. In my case, I have exhibited many times but only every once in a while have I sold any artwork,” Sok says.
One thing they did have in Cambodia back in those early days was art galleries which served as places for artists to gather and they started doing group exhibitions locally, which then lead to group opportunities abroad as well and that opened the door and gave hope to his generation of artists when they were in their youth, he says.
Although he’d been creating art for many years already, Sok considers the year 2009 a turning point for his art career. He began to take it more seriously and he investigated topics like religious and spiritual beliefs and rituals while experimenting with different materials and mediums like sculpture, installations, videos and performances.
“Because I’ve encountered a lot of different spiritual beliefs over the years I am always curious to find out more about how beliefs differed in the past from today, how they changed over time and why or in what context.
“So I would say most of my inspiration is from when I have encountered something that is unusual or breaks the ‘rules’ in art that I had learned previously – and those instances become new lessons that I share with my audience,” the Phnom Penh based artist says.
Kbach Teuk was painted in 2018 and the series debuted in Laos at the Elevations Laos group exhibition as drawings on paper just a little bigger than standard A4 size. Since then he’s been developing the concept and presentation of the mobility of water at shows in Singapore in 2019 and France in February, 2022.
“Kbach, in the Khmer language, has many meanings, referring to specific gestures in dance and theatre, like kbach robam, or to particular techniques in Khmer boxing like kbach kun, as well as a vast vocabulary of ornamental forms that decorate objects and architectural surfaces – often related to the divine – throughout Cambodia.
“In the case of Kbach Teuk I am referencing the design on an ancient water vessel that I saw repeated again and again elsewhere in Khmer art, and I am continuing this repetition today,” he explains.
Each of Kbach Teuk’s eighteen canvases are saturated in monochromatic or blended colour variations, with a dominant colour suffusing each composition.
While some colours reference the artist’s experience with different bodies of water – from the red-brown of the muddy Mekong River in rainy season to the blues of the sea and greens of marsh-waters or yellow-browns of mangrove wetlands.
Other colours pay homage to water as found painted in Cambodia’s temples – sometimes aged and faded, but in some cases vibrantly restored or newly created.
“I wanted to create something new, taking one step at a time, until the last variation exhibited in Paris at Batia Sarem gallery, where the series comes to an end, having been explored from its roots to its branches,” he says.
Sok overlays each colour – each body of water – with delicate and rhythmic lines, infusing each with a unique character, drawing inspiration from the interdependent life forms found in each kind of water – plants such as water lilies and hyacinths or animals like frogs, snails and snakes, in addition to the unseen forces that move water and give it form like waves and tides.
On each of its 18 separate canvases, Kbach Teuk contains a complete composition with an immersive pattern, but one that shifts based on the viewer’s position and proximity to the painting, just like water itself, which is always in motion, whether perceptible or not.
“I don’t know what the future holds for my art but I just know that I’m going to keep working on it because I will never leave something that is this dear to my heart.
“All I want is for Khmer people to be more open and understand what the arts can do. I hope the younger generation – either students or university students – will take up the challenge, especially by creating contemporary art, because there will be many opportunities that await them ahead,” Sok says.