beyond the lanai

sopheap pich 3

Sculptor Sopheap Pich lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, working primarily in rattan and bamboo, constructing and weaving organic and plant forms which are at once solid and ethereal. His sculptures – currently installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a disappointingly offhand and rather ragtag display – move between abstraction and representation: the open weave construction allowing the free circulation of air in and out of the forms. Rattan and bamboo are ubiquitous to Cambodia, especially thriving in the wild mountains, where harvesting it is both difficult and dangerous. These natural materials are integral to life in Southeast Asia – from housing and baskets to fish traps and waterwheels – and the artist’s use of such demanding, difficult-to-tame media speaks to a generation that came of age under the Khmer Rouge-led government of Kampuchea. Combining the visualization of a painter with the spatial conceptualization of a sculptor, Pich literally draws in space with these materials, creating three-dimensional objects which consciously evoke the spirit of a very personal, poignant place.

sopheap pich 1

sopheap pich sculpture

sopheap pich 2

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the names of the lost

IMG_9757

There is no escaping the killing fields of Cambodia: conservative estimates say there are some 20,000 mass graves scattered across the countryside, containing the remains of almost 1.5 million people murdered by the Khmer Rouge. It’s almost beyond comprehension until you visit one of the many memorials to the genocide and see the names of the lost – and so many empty faces, silently bearing witness.

the names of the lost

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the return of the apsara

apsara dance

The relatively recent history of Cambodia is horrific. Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge the country was subjected to a radical social engineering project in the 1970’s that aimed to create a purely agrarian Communist society. Around two million people were forced from the cities to take up agricultural work in the countryside. The party controlled what they wore, whom they could talk to, how they acted. Children were believed to be tainted by the capitalism of their parents, so they were separated, indoctrinated in communist ideology and made a dictatorial instrument of the party, given leadership roles in the torture and execution of anyone suspected of being a traitor. And almost everyone could be considered a traitor: intellectuals, artists, minorities, city-dwellers and anyone with an education. In little more than four years the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people – a fifth of the country’s population – through torture, forced labour, starvation, and executions. Unbelievably, one of the many groups targeted were the Apsara Dancers, practitioners of the classical Khmer dance which dates back to the 7th century. (The Angkor temples are festooned with thousands of images of the Apsara. During this period, dance was ritually performed at the temples as both entertainment and as a means of delivering messages to the gods.) Although 90 percent of all Cambodian classical artists perished in the genocide, the tradition of the Apsara was resurrected in the refugee camps in eastern Thailand with the few surviving Khmer dancers. Yes, I had come to Cambodia because I wanted to see the temples, but what I needed was to see this dance: elaborately dressed, performing a slow and figurative set of hand gestures and poses, invoking the gods and enacting epic poems; a testament to the power of art and a point of national pride. (Plus, anyone with even a passing familiarity with The King & I will immediately notice where Jerome Robbins stole his best ideas.) The return of the Apsara augured not only a reestablishment of civil society but,  more importantly, a resurrection of the country.

apsara dance 2

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