The Guggenheim’s Nisma Zaman asked Sopheap Pich about his background, creative influences, and the impact of various settings on his work.
How did studying in the United States affect your identity as an artist and influence your practice?
Well, basically all my education took place here in the U.S., and I first took a painting class during my sophomore year in college. It was a condensed schooling—two years in the undergraduate program, one year in France, and then two years in graduate school. I guess I got thrown into art at a later stage of my life. I went in with my heart. I loved most of what I saw and that inspired me to continue studying it. But my knowledge was limited, in terms of art history and world history, because I had never really studied it until that point.
I was fortunate to have lived and gone to school in Massachusetts, and we actually came to New York for trips quite often. Professor Jerry Kearns used to take us. He would take us to MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum. We also went to some very well known artists’ studios. The student works I made in Chicago had to do with memories of childhood in Cambodia; I couldn’t get the memories out of my mind. That probably played a big part in my need to return to Cambodia in 2002. My education opened my mind to a world of art that was large and full of possibilities.
In what ways do you think you have influenced, or would like to influence, the next generation of artists?
When I was in school, I would have liked to know someone from my country who had broken through the barriers with their work—shown in certain international galleries or museums. There wasn’t anyone at the time. So, obviously, when you’re young, you are going to be affected by that in some way. I would imagine it would have opened new windows or possibilities in my mind.
Even here in the U. S., a lot of my peers say, “Well, I can’t go to college.” I say, “Why? It’s a beautiful time. Go to college.” I encourage them to try their best to go do what they love, and that’s the most important thing. It’s a lot of fun when you find it—it makes you feel alive. I found it when I first touched art. And it made me feel alive. So there must be some truth to that. You just need to trust that things will build on themselves. One of my favorite artists, Richard Serra said something like that in one of his interviews.
What aspects of Richard Serra’s work do you admire?
Well, he’s a hard-nosed guy; I mean, he’s strong. And when you see his work, it exudes that energy and seriousness. To me, his work is both heavy, and light. There seem to be always some elements of play and experimentation. There’s a wonderful show of his early works at David Zwirner Gallery. I enjoyed walking around and observing those early works in one place. It makes me happy to be there, in that room, and just see the kind of adventure that he was going through.
Can you talk about the difference in impact in displaying your work in a natural setting, as you have done with your Buddha sculpture, versus in a gallery?
Before, when I didn’t have a gallery in which to show, I used to show my work in people’s backyards. This sculpture was not “shown” in the landscape. When we made the Buddha, we had two days before we had to pack it up to send to New York. So, I thought, “You know, it’s such a nice day. We should just bring the Buddha out, and have some fun.” We had to take some photos of the work as well. So, that was the original intent. It became like a breather for people, and I can imagine seeing it outdoors.
Some people have read different things into the image of the Buddha sculpture when it’s out there in the landscape or when it’s positioned among other stone Buddha sculptures. My interpretation of Buddhism, which I take to heart, is that it is about living with nature. It’s about understanding suffering and desire. The philosophy of Buddhism that I get is that it teaches people how to understand that they are human, and that there are obstacles. I’m not Buddhist, in the sense that I don’t go to temples and pray and chant and all of that, but the philosophy is quite beautiful, and necessary.
Can you talk about the most recent work, A Room?
A Room is a kind of a departure in that I wasn’t thinking about making an object but rather an environment within a given architecture. The atrium of the Indianapolis Museum of Art is a modern architectural space made of steel and glass with very high ceilings. So I wanted to build something that complimented or contrasted with that. I wanted the bamboo to have its own identity. I wanted also to experiment with casting the bamboo strips in other materials as well—in this case, aluminum and colored plastic. I’ve always considered myself an object maker, so it was a new experience for me.
Any last thoughts on having Morning Glory become part of the Guggenheim’s collection?
It’s a great honor to have this work in this great museum. The Morning Glory sculpture for me embodies so much memory of my childhood. It was the main source of nutrition when I was growing up in Cambodia in the ’70s, but we still eat the vegetable today, and I’m sure for Cambodian people who lived through the Khmer Rouge time, this vegetable is a reminder of that life.