The titles of Loeum Lorn Lorn’s works – Everything is Connected, Constant Flux, The Non-Self – offer a handy insight to their significance for the artist. “My work has a very close connection with the dharma and with Buddhism,” Loeum Lorn explains, “and the dharma is like a natural law to me.”
Although they may appear to the casual coffee-drinker at Java Café & Gallery simply as pretty, abstract images, these works are in fact invested with an astonishingly complex array of religious, philosophical and personal meanings.
In a series of 13 photographs printed on canvas, along with a short video, the exhibition Yesterday, No More is a quietly rapturous celebration of chance and impermanence.
To make these works, the artist pours paint down a melting block of ice: a metre-long slab of it, the kind that can be seen at any market in Phnom Penh.
As the colours drip and flow and the ice cracks and melts, Loeum Lorn photographs the results.
Of course, he must work quickly under the heat of the Cambodian sun. This surprising and captivating process is documented in a short video included in the exhibition.
Loeum Lorn has often done this publicly with a live audience, adding an element of performance art to his ambitious practice.
He is one of several Southeast Asian artists who use melting ice as a symbol for life’s swiftly changing nature, but his work is unique in focusing on the fine detail of the process.
“When I start shooting, it just draws me into the depths of it,” the artist explains. “I always try to look for those small details and creations . . . and I see these very deep, mysterious stories inside of it.”
The images are then enlarged and printed in archival ink.
The effect is so delicate – vividly coloured but softly edged – that many viewers will mistake these photographs for paintings. This is a neat inversion of the more common “double-take” that a photo-realist painting might provoke in its audience.
Some of the works have, in fact, been retouched very slightly in metallic gold paint. The effect is beautiful but unnecessary, and detracts from the “magic” of making photographs appear like paintings.
Drawn to Buddhism’s emphasis on transformation and impermanence, Loeum Lorn sees in Yesterday, No More a kind of parallel to the cycle of life. “My photographs are what’s left behind, like a memory,” he suggests, “and this I think is the connection between my work and the dharma.”
Perhaps the religious content in these works will not be apparent to many viewers, but their subtle, warm colours and gentle, organic forms will still be entrancing.
But for Loeum Lorn, there is a bleak side to the work, too.
Born in Battambang (where he currently lives and works) in 1982, the artist shifted to the Thai border in the 1990s to escape the Khmer Rouge’s continuing terror.
“Those nights were very cold,” Loeum Lorn plainly states. With his art, he says, “I try to remind myself about all those memories.”
It’s not clear how this chillingly sombre and deeply personal side to the work connects with its Buddhist philosophy or its exquisite appearance.
Even after six years of working in this manner, the artist has plenty more thinking to do if he is to successfully synthesise the complexity of his ideas, the spectacle of his working process, and the seductiveness of his prints.
Yet this is an impressive exhibition which richly rewards repeated viewing and is as intellectually stimulating as it is visually stunning.
Yesterday, No More confirms Loeum Lorn as a major figure in the growing field of photo-based and new-media contemporary art in Cambodia.
Roger Nelson is an independent curator and art writer from Melbourne, Australia currently in Phnom Penh on an Asialink residency.
Yesterday, No More will be on display at the Java Cafe & Gallery, 56 Sihanouk Boulevard, Phnom Penh, until May 13. It is open daily from 7am to 10pm.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roger Nelson at [email protected]