As part of the Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City. Masterpieces of the Musée national des arts asiatiques exhibition at the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM), Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich was commissioned to come up with a new work.
Named Ordeal, the bamboo, wood and metal sculpture, draws inspiration from the Ordeal tree (Erythrophleum suaveolens). Used in Singapore for landscaping, the tree is actually native to Africa - with its bark used by African tribes for making arrow poison and medicine.
Drawn to the juxtaposing uses and how Angkor and Singapore are in constant negotiation between our past and future, Pich invites visitors to interpret the work through their own personal perspectives.
What’s the process of creating a commissioned piece such as Ordeal? What are some considerations do you bear in mind?
My first consideration was how my work would fit the theme of the show – that of a historical exhibition on the ancient art of Cambodia (at the Asian Civilisations Museum). And I thought about my own language as an artist, as a sculptor – in that nature having been a big inspiration in my practice. I thought to contrast the religious preoccupation of the ancient sculptors with what I feel is still relevant as subject matter in contemporary art.
Recently, I have been making smaller sculptures of the Ordeal seed pods that I collected in Singapore. So for the show I thought I would make one as large as I could given the time and space concerns I was given.
What’s the biggest work you have made so far, scale-wise?
My biggest sculpture to date would be one that I have just finished: two 20-foot shipping containers titled Cargo which will be shown later this year at the National Gallery of Singapore.
What are the techniques you use to create your works?
I use simple but intensive manual labor with mostly simple hand tools. The technique is also basic, relying on the grid to form shapes. In other works, I combine dirt, charcoal, beeswax and used burlap to give it color and texture. Ordeal required a metal frame as the work had to be disassembled into many pieces. Some people think that I “weave” my bamboo and rattan but I overlap them in a grid and tie with metal wire.
Is there a difference in the ways of working when natural materials are used, such as rattan and bamboo, versus man-made materials, like metal?
Metal holds its shape in a more predictable manner. We use it when it’s necessary. Most of the natural materials I use were things that I was attracted to and collected from early on and with time, they began to show in my work. From a physical standpoint, both have their own challenges.
Does the placement of a sculpture within the museum matter? How so?
I think that is relative. The work reaches a certain kind of audience. It is different to placing it in a park or a commercial gallery. I’d like to think that people would read the work in relation to what else is showing at the museum at that moment.
We understand that you had a background in painting. Does your knowledge and practice in painting inform your practice now as a sculptor?
Definitely. I was trained in painting and drawing. Drawing, for me, has always been a tool that is indispensable. I don’t think I’d be making my work this way if I was taught differently.
My sculpture, in a way, is a drawing as well. My rattan and bamboo are lines (drawn) in space.
Fundamental elements to drawing and painting are the same in sculpture for me.
Share with us your relationship with Cambodia.
I have a strong memory of my childhood. During the Khmer Rouge, my father was a metalsmith and he taught me how to make things with tin and wood. We even cast and made aluminum objects together. He taught me to make toys, fishing poles, hook, traps and weaponry. As a kid, you make all these things for survival and to play with. There is also a physical memory where the way I make things now takes me back to that time. These days, I try to make works that resonate with what Cambodia is now, its difficulty and its aspirations.
How has the Cambodian art scene evolved?
Many young artists here are now exhibiting all over the world. It seems there’s possibility now that didn’t exist ten years ago. Technology has a lot to do with how people make art now. Photography, performance and video are very popular as mediums. I am almost on the opposite of this spectrum - as someone who is kind of anti-Facebook and social media I belong to the old way of making art. There’s a lot of looking and staring involved in what I do.
Then in this day and age, do you think concept triumphs the final product? Or the final work should be more important?
I’m not really sure. I don’t know if it’s a matter of one over the other. And I should only speak for object-based art. For me, a work that holds my interest for a long period of time is the kind that holds a kind of mystery. Like I’m not sure what it really means but I can’t pull eyes off of it or my mind to forget it after I have seen it. It’s a very intuitive response. It’s an experience that I don’t get from other media like music or film. I am a believer that the making of something mindful is bound to change the maker of that thing.
With social media, it is so easy to look something up, present something and call yourself an artist. What is your opinion on the term ‘artist’ being used so loosely?
Well it cannot be helped. People will do what they will do.
There’s a lot of responsibility with being an artist. To be fully invested - to make it a career, to make it a part of our way of life… It relies on a whole lot of conviction.
When I was in school, I saw a lot of young people claiming they were artists. I tend to shy away from seeing myself in that way. I consider myself a student of art and art history. When you look at it from that viewpoint, you realize you don’t know much at all.
Is art political in nature? Even pop culture?
I think all art is somehow political. To be an artist is a political stance as well. You are always saying something when you make something. You are adding something to the discourse, to the discussion. What matters is how effective you are doing it.
With regards to pop culture - every generation has its own pop culture. I supposed if it’s pop, it allows more accessibility to a wider audience.
There is some element of politics in my work too but perhaps not as apparent as some people want to see. I am something like a poet in a cave, not a politician.