Sopheap Pich on Rattan, Sculpture, and Abstraction

5:29 | Published on April 2, 2014 | 376 Views

Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich and June Yap, curator of No Country, talk about the origins and context of Pich’s practice. The artist describes the centrality of childhood memory to his work and its move from painting to sculpture. He also explains his use of rattan, his increasing interest in organic and abstract forms, and the place of his approach within a country over which modernism never exercised a significant influence.

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June Yap: Sopheap Pich is an artist from Cambodia. His family moved to the U.S., where he grew up, and where he studied art, during which time he thought of himself largely as a painter.

Sopheap Pich: Two years after graduating from Chicago, I felt that my work has to do with the memory of childhood in Cambodia. And so, I just felt that I needed to go back to Cambodia to find out what that’s about.

June Yap: He was trying to figure out how his contemporary art practice that he had acquired, you know, and absorbed—all the cultural and aesthetic information that he had—how that would integrate into Cambodian contemporary practice. And I think, for him, he found painting to be a slightly incongruous sort of medium to be working with, within Cambodian society.

Sopheap Pich: I felt that there was always something lacking to me, in painting. It seems like painting, as an activity, is a bit of an abstract activity. You are basically creating something on a flat surface that wasn’t there before, unlike photography, or some other medium. I just happen to love painting as a medium, but I didn’t know what I was doing with painting. So, kind of by accident, I started making sculpture out of rattan.

June Yap: The rattan is a very common material in Cambodia. It is something you would use to make ordinary objects—you know, baskets, tools, fish traps. And so, it was something he was quite familiar with, as well. I think he found a lot of pleasure in just the physical manipulation of the bamboo, being a very rigid plant, but at the same time malleable, if one was patient with it, if one was willing to engage with it, to try to understand what it could do.

Sopheap Pich: It felt right—the activity of making a sculpture felt more real to me than painting did. It feels like there’s a progression—you start here, and then you end up here. And during that timespan, there’s a certain emotion that was involved, in terms of making this object. You’re in another world; you’re in another space. And the only thing that you worry about is food and sleep.

June Yap: He started out working on a lot of biomorphic sort of forms, more organic forms.

Sopheap Pich: And I started making a pair of lungs, because I felt that these body organs were sort of anonymous—kind of like me as a person, as an anonymous person in the society. So, it didn’t have the expression, didn’t have eyes, it didn’t have mouth, it didn’t have teeth. You can’t read anything into it other than what it is, so. I was having fun with just making form out of these kind of symbols—you know, the body organs as a kind of symbol for something. And there is the learning process of what that sculpture wants to be. I think I don’t lose track, or lose the sense of where it starts, but the sculpture becomes something else. And then you move on. It started to move outside the body, into nature, into abstraction.

And people always say that the Cambodian art has never modernized. It didn’t get modern. But in fact, if you’re talking about abstraction, this is a kind of modern thinking, isn’t it, you know? And so, I saw an exhibition at a place called Reyum, which is a research center, and when I saw this exhibition on ornamentation, I realized, “Oh, there’s a lot of abstraction that’s already there.” Our forefathers have discovered this, or have concluded that. But we have a kind of disconnect, in terms of, you know, the modern history, and the old history. We never have Abstract Expressionism, because we never had a chance, because we had war.

June Yap: That doesn’t necessarily mean that the absence of, perhaps, particular types of movements in relation to Western art history represents some kind of ignorance, or some portion that’s missing in South and Southeast Asian art history. I think it’s kind of like a window—a way to organize the aesthetics, and to talk about it. But it’s not the only way. So, I would not actually really read Sopheap’s work in terms of any kind of modernist movement. And certainly some of his later works would easily fit into something like that—for example, the works that he produced last year, which was shown at Documenta. They are these grid forms, which is a grid that he has been using all along.

Sopheap Pich: Morning Glory was the last work before these abstract grid paintings—so-called “paintings.” I mean, I actually applied, more like I attacked it, with paint. The new work that I do now, has dirt and wax, and resin, and burlap, and plastic, and still under my, sort of, restrained way of working, but it’s more added on. But it’s also abstraction, which is also reductive, in the sense that you take out the subject matter. And it’s sort of revisiting painting again, and also, relating to other painters that I have loved, and you know, inspired me, you know, before.