Artist Yim Maline’s new exhibition responds to the rampant destruction of Cambodia’s natural heritage
Yim Maline was 10 years old when she first heard talk that a “drawing school” was going to open in her hometown, Battambang. From then on, she kept a keen eye out for any unexplained development in the area, and was devastated when the construction site next to her family home turned out to be just another residential property.
By the time the long-awaited “drawing school” – the now famous Phare Ponleu Selpak – finally opened in 1995, Maline was 14. She signed up on the first morning of registration, and spent the next eight years as a part of the first cohort of contemporary art students, specialising in plastic arts (three-dimensional art – sculpture, for example).
It was not always an easy ride. Her parents tried to remove her from classes on three occasions, insisting that art was not an appropriate career path for their daughter. “But I was very stubborn,” Maline says.
Her tenacity has paid off. At the age of 33, she counts the celebrated Cambodian sculptor Sopheap Pich and the curator and art adviser Khiang Hei among her long list of prominent fans.
Now a new solo show at Sa Sa Bassac gallery is bringing her mainstream recognition as well.
Having a Hole or Empty Space Inside is a mixed media exhibition that showcases Maline’s confident style. The intricate graphite drawings on show are instantly recognisable as products of the artist’s quirky imagination: many shapes are over-sized, enigmatic and slightly magical. As is typical of her work, they are often in some way tied down or constricted.
But her prior fascination with illustrative, whimsical drawings of childish figures in surreal and claustrophobic situations is gone. Instead, the large drawings show nature that is struggling to breathe – trees so big that only their sides can be glimpsed on the paper, the trunks suffocated by tightly bound chains.
On the floor of the gallery are gnarled sculptures that look like lumps of charcoal. Emerald green vines poke out from the barren, lifeless stumps.
Maline explains that the move away from human subject matter has been the result of her own shifting preoccupations. “In the past my work spoke a lot about my childhood – the difficulty of the time when I was young,” she says. “Now it’s about what I see in my country, so the work changes.”
And what she sees in Cambodia has not been good.
“Everything is worse than before,” she says with feeling. “Nature is gone. We let people come in from other countries and dig up the ground. Now we have no forests. We don’t protect anything. My work speaks about this.”
Maline presents a vision of nature as choked, or in some cases snuffed out entirely, by the greed of mankind. “Carbon is something with no worth – it is just what is left after burning,” she says, gesturing towards the hunks of burnt wood on the floor.
“It’s like the body with no blood.”
Whether she is making art about her memory, or about broader themes, Maline’s outlook is rarely upbeat.
“It’s always about sadness,” she says of her output, adding that when she was making the charcoal sculptures she was “talking shit about the country” to herself the whole time. “The woman who was working with me was very surprised,” she admits.
Anger is an emotion that Maline sees as fitting. “An artist isn’t someone who wants something tranquil – it’s someone constantly provoking to try and show something with their work,” she says.
She points out that even becoming an artist has been an uphill battle for her. Maline is one of the few women succeeding in what remains a male-dominated contemporary art scene, and her family still struggles to accept the path she has chosen. Her mother, now in old age, is just coming round to the idea of attending one of her shows, while her father died last year having never seen her work.
And as an early contemporary artist in Cambodia, finding role models – male or female – has been hard. “We only knew of Angkor Wat. After that, what was there? There was nothing,” she says of the Cambodian cultural landscape. “We didn’t even have contemporary art until five years ago.”
In the absence of local predecessors, Maline has looked abroad for her inspirations. The artists Kiki Smith, Pierre Soulages and Anselm Keifer number among her major influences. In a way, it’s an eclectic list: Smith works in delicate monochrome, Soulages slashes angry hulks of abstraction, while Anselm Kiefer’s work is busy and energetic, but often opaque.
What these artists do share is a talent for working in both sculpture and 2D composition, often in the same space. It’s a talent that Maline exercises with judicious maturity in her new show. The delicacy of her drawings on the wall contrast with the heft of her sculptures, but the two are clearly unified by their colour palette of charcoal and green.
Maline says that while the themes she addresses will continue to diverge from her early, biographical style, her underlying approach remains consistent.
“It is still about my experience,” she says. “I grew up in society and this is what has now become of it.”
Having a Hole or Empty Space Inside is at SaSa Bassac Gallery, #18E2 Sothearos Blvd until June 6.