Artist slash architect Thang Sothea says an understanding of architecture helps him to craft artwork that can enhance the aesthetic value of the spaces they occupy.
In the study of a big house on Phnom Penh’s Riverside, Thang Sothea is poring over 3D concept designs on an apartment’s bedroom on his MacBook, part of a collection of mock-ups he did for a home renovation project a few years back that he hopes will give him inspiration for an upcoming project. Turning off his laptop, he grabs his tools and starts to chip away at a sculpture he is preparing for an upcoming local exhibition.
When the multitasking 35-year-old architect and contemporary artist feels stressed by his work, he usually retires to TINI Cafe to relax and recharge. The pint-sized café near the Russian Market, which he co-owns and designed himself, is popular with locals and expats for its specialty coffee and splash of greenery. But it also serves as an art gallery, showcasing Sothea’s paintings and sculptures, including his hemp and metal-fashioned sculpture Devata, which was previously displayed at the Alliance Française in Bangkok.
Sothea’s life, like his café, is the eclectic mixture of architecture and fine arts.
But where he inherited his talents from still baffles him. There had never been an architect or artist in his family, or much inspiration in the small town where he was raised in Kampong Cham province. As a kid, Sothea was a prolific doodler and would draw and paint in school, but there was little hint that his future would lead in this direction.
“I always wanted to become an artist, but my family and I agreed that it would be very hard to make a living from that career,” he says. “So I decided to study architecture, which is quite similar to my passion, at Norton University.”
Sothea was attracted to the discipline because of its requirement for artistic skills and an understanding of aesthetics. After graduating in 2007 with high marks he accepted a journeyman position at a French architectural firm, and plotted a move up the corporate ladder.
But he never felt comfortable sitting in an isolated office, and within three years had left the company to devote more time to self-training as an artist, experimenting with visual depictions of his personal encounters and experiences. His passion for contemporary art grew, and he soon began to develop a name for himself on both the local and international art circuit.
One of Cambodia’s most recognised emerging artists, Sothea has held a number of solo and joint exhibitions. His first collection, Happy Together, came together in 2009 after the owner of a new resort hotel in Siem Reap was impressed by one of his paintings and commissioned him to paint six more to decorate the suites of the hotel. Local exhibitions attracted wider attention, and soon his paintings and sculptures were on featured in international galleries, including the Orenda Art International Gallery in Paris.
Despite his success in art, Sothea insists architecture still plays an important role in his life and he is still accepting design projects, mostly renovations of old apartment buildings, on a freelance basis. He says knowledge of architecture assists him in crafting artworks with a strong connection to the structure.
“A mutual cooperation exists between architecture and fine art, and the two fields are almost inseparable,” he says. “Architecture is mainly about integrated concepts, which is reflected in my artwork. Meanwhile, my artwork is intended to give the structure it decorates a life, an actual aesthetic value.”
“Through my experience in architecture, painting and sculpture, I better understood how one relates to the other,” he continues. “I now continue to focus on installation artworks to discover more about myself, the different forms my inspiration can take, and to experiment with new choices of materials.”
One example of this is The Forest, currently on exhibit in the garden of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh. The mixed-media composition comprises 12 tree-like sculptures made from over 6,000 aluminium beverage cans, each hand-cut to take the form of leaves along the length of a flexible metal stem that sways freely in the wind.
Other notable works by Sothea include Under the Water, a fish sculpture now being shown on a wall at Knai Bang Chatt Resort in Kep, and The Branch, a sculpture displayed in the Tuol Tompong branch of Brown Café.
Sothea says he is passionate about the process of creating new things, whether architecture or fine art. He says his art has always been about fulfilling this passion, rather than focusing on financial return, and architecture gives him an additional medium to express his artistic talents.
“Artists are rarely obsessed with profit,” he confides. “While I do not have huge ambitions as an architect, I am always excited and happy when someone gives me a project.”