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Classical sculptors meet conceptual art

A student of the workshop finishes off a mould of a liquor bottle.
A student of the workshop finishes off a mould of a liquor bottle. Eli Meixler

Classical sculptors meet conceptual art

One man’s trash becomes another’s objet d’art as two French artists teach Cambodian students to look past traditional techniques and find inspiration in the every day

French artist Chloé Jarry has a clear sense of the particular talents of the young Cambodian sculptors she has met. “They are very good at reproducing and copying things,” she said this week, unwinding after her afternoon workshop in the Royal University of Fine Art’s only sculpture studio.

Along with her partner and fellow artist Adrien Guigon, Jarry had just finished leading a two-day moulding workshop for students on RUFA’s sculpture program, organised as part of the couple’s two-month artistic residency at the French Institute. The theme of the workshop was “still life”, but its content was more unusual than the lacklustre fruit bowls and flowers that the term evokes – the students were making casts of rubbish they picked out of the bin.

Chloé Jarry and her partner Adrien Guigon held a moulding workshop as part of a two-month artistic residency at the French Institute.
Chloé Jarry and her partner Adrien Guigon held a moulding workshop as part of a two-month artistic residency at the French Institute. Eli Meixler

On the table in the centre of the studio were the end results – more than a hundred replicas of bottles, half-crushed plastic cups and condiment jars. Guigon explained that the plaster mixture was prepared with varying amounts of cement, so that when viewed en masse, the objects are softly gradated between shades of grey. The assemblage will be shown alongside the French artists’ own work when their exhibition The Silent Life opens at the French Institute this Thursday.

The project was a relatively straightforward application of Jarry and Guigon’s artistic vision. Both artists’ work revolves around transforming symbols of everyday urban life into works of art, either by resituating them in unusual shapes and settings, or by casting them in ceramic to reveal their sculptural dimension. For one joint sculpture in 2011, the artists made replicas of chewing gum by chewing 300 pieces of clay between them. “After a while, you get used to the taste,” Guigon said. 

Jarry explained that the workshop was designed as a novel, more conceptual application of the students’ talent for making detailed reproductions. She smiled as she recalled their reaction:  “I think they were thinking: ‘but we know how to make these beautiful things.’ And there we were asking them to reproduce things that you find in the bin,” she said.  

After the initial shock, the students adapted, and started bringing in objects of their own to cast. Their choices reflect a particularly Cambodian take on throw-away culture: alongside assorted cups and jars are a series of ornate tissue dispensers, and a soy sauce bottle cast in plaster. “They really did very well,” Guigon said. “It was interesting to see, because these reactions were in the moment and very sincere.”

A mould made to replicate a salt jar.
A mould made to replicate a salt jar. Eli Meixler

Despite the warm response, they discovered that some habits die hard. “There was one student who tried to include a Bayon head,” Guigon said, laughing. “We found it hidden in the middle of the others.”

The workshop came at the end of a two-month residency by the French artists, which saw them transfer their fascination with symbols of everyday life to the Cambodian context. Jarry became interested in the prevalence of fake wooden surfaces and rattan objects, some of which she has cast using techniques almost identical to those used during the RUFA workshop. Among his many projects, Guigon has made a painting of the White Building using an unusual technique. On a matt white canvas, he has painted the building using white gloss paint, meaning that the shape only reveals itself when light reflects off it at the right angle.

One of the last students to leave the workshop on Tuesday was Samut Vatha. While he waited for his final sculpture of a mayonnaise jar to set, he shared his thoughts on the class. “It’s good, because you use things you think are rubbish, and turn it into art instead,” he said. Samut has been a sculpture student for well over a year, and this was the first time he had made anything other than classical Khmer sculpture. But the disjuncture between the two approaches became clear when asked whether he would consider working with similar concepts in the future. “Not really,” he said, “In plastic, you can make use of [these objects], but now that they’re in concrete, you can’t use it. I’d prefer to buy the real thing.”

Despite his personal reservations, Samut was clear that the new approach did have marketable potential. “You can sell this here,” he concluded, “but only in tourist shops.”

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