Asia Art Archive in America invited artist Sopheap Pich to discuss his practice as well as the Cambodian art scene.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Tonight Asia Art Archive is thrilled to host Sopheap Pich, an artist whom I have known through Asia Art Archive for quite a number of years. Sopheap was born in Cambodia, and presently works in Phnom Penh. He did his undergraduate studies at The University of Massachusetts, and his graduate work at The Art Institute in Chicago. Sopheap is here in New York on the occasion of his exhibition at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, which is his second solo show in the US. His work has been exhibited widely, including such prestigious exhibitions as the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, Australia, and Singapore Biennale, among many others. Thank you so much for coming, Sopheap. We are very happy to have you here.
Sopheap Pich (SP): Thank you, Jane, for arranging this for me. I am honored to be here and to see all of you.
To begin, I would like to tell you a bit about my background. I was born in 1971 in a province called Battambang. My parents were farmers, as was my whole family, and everybody around us. I am the first son of five in the family. In the 1970s during the Khmer Rouge regime, we were lucky that nothing happened to any of us. In 1979, when the Vietnamese soldiers entered Cambodia, we left and stayed in refugee camps along the border of Thailand. By a stroke of luck, we somehow found our way to the United States in 1984. I had my early education partly at the refuge camps in Thailand and the Philippines, where I studied Khmer and a little bit of English. My father was very smart to force me to learn another language right away, so I could speak a little bit of English by the time I was 10 years old. I only started school officially in the 7th grade in Massachusetts in 1984 at the age of 13. I graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1995. I spent a year in Paris in 1994. After two years of wandering around in Miami and Boston, I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for two years for my Masters degree. I always knew that I wanted to go to graduate school. I was a painter, and one of my very influential teachers was Ray Yoshida. The two year [period] after grad school and before I returned to Cambodia was a really low point in my life. After living in my mother’s basement in Amherst and in Boston, trying to hold regular jobs and making art, I figured it was time for me to go back to Cambodia. And that was how my artistic life began. I did painting for about a year and then started to work on sculpture. Now, I would like to show you two slides to begin, which I have rarely shown before.
This one was done during my last year in Chicago. I was really trying to find meaning in my activities, with all the pressures of being a refugee and parents working in factories and all of that. I was making painting. There was a famous book that came out around that time on the Tuol Sleng Prison portraits. I saw that and a lot of memories came back. I actually made quite a lot of watercolors and ink paintings based on those portraits. At the same time, I also did paintings of landscape, but it was all about Cambodia. I was so hungry for images of Cambodia that I always tried to find something relevant no matter whether the image came from Rolling Stone Magazine or some family photos. However, it was really difficult to find images that were meaningful to me. These portraits were so strong that I spent a little over a year, not in the studio, but at home in my little bedroom. I stayed up all night, drank a lot of coffee, and smoked a lot of cigarettes and just drew. Sometimes I did those portraits over and over again, because I was really bad at drawing. I didn’t really know how to paint. So all the portraits tended to look like me. This is one that I did on a bed sheet. I didn’t have much money at the time so I always shopped at thrift stores. I was doing ink paintings on bed sheets, and I think I’ve made three of them.
This is another drawing, ink on paper. I didn’t know that this would become a meaningful drawing for me. It’s an image based on a memory of playing a game I used to play as a child in the camps. At this point I was thinking about going back to Cambodia but I really didn’t know for sure. Finally, at the end of 2002, I decided to return to Cambodia.
Several years had passed. And in 2004, I kind of stumbled on sculpture. I really meant to make a collage painting on a rattan structure as a support, but it happened to be a three‐dimensional thing – it was an image of a pair of lungs which I named Silence. I intended to cover it with cigarette packages I had been collecting from the streets. I had thousands of them, two bagfuls of them. I wanted to make a giant lung covered with cigarette packages. But I didn’t have time to do a giant lung, so I did a small one with rattan that I bought from a rattan shop across the street. As you can see, it’s very crooked – some of the pieces are very small and some are very big, because I was not good at cutting or slicing at the time, so it came out that way. I made it really quickly. My girlfriend at the time was taking pictures of me working on it. I remember we were looking at the pictures some days later and I said, wow, have you ever seen me that happy? And I knew at the time that when I was making it, I was happy, while painting was so much a struggle. This was the first time that I realized it was so nice to make something that wasn’t meant to be artwork, to just play with the materials.
When the director came, I had some photographs and some paintings, but he saw this unfinished sculpture laying on the floor against the wall. I said to him, please don’t look at that, it should not be like this, it’s going to be turned into a different thing. However he found it interesting. At the time I was living with two other artists. He didn’t want to irritate them so he pulled me aside and said, ‘This is the first modern art sculpture in Cambodia I’ve ever seen. I just want you to think about that. It’s fine if you want to cover it, but tonight just put it on the wall and look at it.’ I took his advice and I’ve been making sculptures with rattan ever since. I gave it to him as a gift when he left the country. I think this is the best sculpture I have ever done. He proposed that I spend the next three months making new works for a solo show at the French Cultural Center. I subsequently hired two assistants, one was the son of a family that I know, and another one who used to work in the rattan shop and knew how to shape rattan.
The next sculpture, Cycle,is about four and a half meters long, quite large. I felt that it was so much fun to make sculpture and I just kind of got lost. I started to make a shape of the stomach, and thought it was not enough, so I made another to connect them together. It’s like connecting all different meanings in my head. Is it about family? Is it about mother to child? Is it about old to young? Is it about the interconnectedness of Cambodia? All these things that I had thought about began to make sense, but in the end it was all about the pleasure of making and not thinking about those things. I actually tried to destroy it a couple of years later. I tried to burn it, but it didn’t burn. I had to tie socks all over the sculpture and douse it with gasoline on the cement rooftop.
Audience member: Why do you have to destroy it?
SP: I was so frustrated. After Guy Issanjou left, I was so poor, so broke that I moved into an apartment that cost forty dollars a month. I had no space to work or to store [my work]. So the large pieces had to go first. Paintings could be used to pay rent. While I was working with sculpture, nobody cared. So in order to just get rid of that anxiety or whatever, I wanted to destroy them. This big hole here was because there was a big fire in the middle. I saved the sculptures on the rooftop because I was offered a show at a new hotel that just opened up. I had three sculptures and possibly one more. I couldn’t save them, but when they gave me the show, I worked and patched up all those holes. It’s now in the Singapore Art Museum. My philosophy is that if I have made something already, I don’t care what happens to it. If nobody wants it, I will just throw it in the river. It’s fine.
This one, Hive, was very difficult to make. It really kills your back to tie all the top parts. I can’t do it now, as I am forty already. I make a lot of works. I work all the time. As long as this is something I believe in, I will just keep working. I am not concerned with any special technique. I just use the grid because it’s basic and a simple way of putting a sculpture together. I don’t have any special technique or method, I don’t worry about how to make it prettier. I just want to create more and more works.
I made my first dog in 2006. I make many dogs because I love animals. In Cambodia you can’t hold on to animals for long, because once they get big enough for people to cook, they get cooked. This was the last dog I had. I moved into a small studio on the Beoung Kak lake, in the middle of Phnom Pen. When my relatives visited me, they thought the space was terrible. It was stinky, dirty, and dangerous. However for me it was paradise, because it was my space. After I moved in, this dog was kidnapped. As a result, I felt I needed to make a sculpture.
Audience Member: Both this and the previous image include a shadow on the wall, do you think of that as part of the work and an effect you try to create?
SP: I wish I could, but I didn’t really have the luxury of a space [where I could] see it against the wall. So that’s the half that I miss. I am happy when I come to a proper gallery where I can actually see my work displayed. At work that’s not possible. You will see at the end that I work outside.
Double Funnel was made in 2008 in China for a group show. I worked with two Chinese assistants and it took us two weeks to finish it. It’s about 5 meters tall. It’s so tall that you can walk under it into the museum, and it’s very rough. It’s based on a funnel. When I was a kid, I was always in love with funnels. It’s just such a nice and beautiful shape, and you can pour things into it. It somehow reminds me of a boys’ game, but the reason why I did it was that I really wanted to see that shape.
Later I made several versions of Cycle. It seems like that the stomach form just wouldn’t go away. I keep going back to it, and trying to make it more and more beautiful.
The Duel is an interesting sculpture. It’s made of the ends of four bamboo trees. I cut the whole bamboo, not throwing anything away except the branches, because you can’t really do much with them. In this work the ends of bamboo get connected, expanded, and connected again. You cannot really tell, but there’s something in the process that intrigued me.
Raft is a piece from the show at Tyler Rollins two years ago. It’s more about the city and I was really thinking about Cambodia as a place of endless wars and destruction. Before we had temples, but we destroyed them. Now we have a city, but we are destroying nature. There are so many issues about destruction. Destruction makes me think about what kind of work I want to make in response to those feelings. There is a lot of documentation about landmines and bombs, exploded or unexploded. In the 80s, Cambodia was such a dangerous place. What’s interesting is that all these leftovers of the war are recycled now in Thailand. It comes back in the form of metals to build houses. So the city is basically built on wars. That’s my initial thinking. But how do I make the theme into an actual work? I am always interested in art not politics. I just want to be an artist. But when you live in that condition, how do you make art? How do you make something meaningful? How do you make one object and then another one? How do you move from this to that? So sometimes you make something meaningful, and sometimes you make something that you need to figure out.
This installation which is called 1979 was made for the Asian Pacific Triennial. This is a story of my journey from a village where we had lived during the Khmer Rouge to the center town of Battambang province in 1979. Among the bamboo objects are these little bulls which were created by some craftsmen from Battambang. I wanted to use this bull as a symbol for myself, curious and childish; and these are war objects: binoculars whose scale is shifted; and some random metal parts scattered around. Just a lot of stuff I saw in the landscape – a lot of dead people, tanks and cars. Destruction was all around.
This is my first ever Buddha. I’ve never made a Buddha before. When I got to this point, I thought it was enough and I would just leave it like that. But I did add the red dye at the tips of the strips of rattan, because the Buddha symbolizes a temple in my hometown where a massive killing took place. Blood was splattered all over the walls and the floor. Now they’ve shut it down and won’t let you go in. I think it’s still the same as before.
Audience member: Is that piece attached to the wall? Or is it freestanding?
SP: The Buddha? It’s hung by two nails. It’s sort of human‐scale.
This is a big piece, sort of an elaboration on Raftwhich was shown at Tyler’s gallery. It is an installation for the Singapore Biennale commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore. I asked for six months but it turned out to be a year, because it took so long to make these things. I had to hire more people, and train them. My guys don’t have the technical skills, and neither do I. Bamboo is a tricky material. You have to always be mindful of it and take care. Bugs eat it, mushroom grow on it, and the wire gets rusty as the studio is near the water. It’s really troublesome. This work is going to the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, and I will try to reposition and reconnect it in different ways. Let’s see what happens. Hopefully it will become something better or different. It is called Compound. There are a lot of buildings now in Cambodia. The more I see them, the more I feel disgusted by them. With every building that goes up, I feel like more suffering is coming to Cambodia. Why would [I] say that? Why would progress and modernization be bad? It’s a funny and strange juncture that we are at, because most people in the country aren’t educated, living below poverty line, while there are a few very powerful people. All their relatives and children are powerful, not just rich, but very powerful. So a lot of things happen ‐‐ they can take things, do things or destroy things, disregard all opposition. The world always turns out to be more beautiful than I thought it could be, and that makes me happy.
This piece, Morning Glory, will be shown at Tyler Rollins Fine Art. It’s about six meters long, very big. In this image you see part of the studio where I work, and there is another smaller balcony as well, where the sculpture is sculpted. The sculpture is as long as the space in the balcony allows. I have a beautiful place now, a big house with big garden, right next to the Mekong.
This is my second Buddha. I have always had some conflict with my parents – my dad in particular, because he always tries to tell me things and make me do things that I was never really willing to do, and still don’t [want to do]. I just want to make a Buddha, a simple, typical meditating Buddha that you will find in the region. I simply wanted to see what happens if I make it in rattan. It’s two and a half meters tall. We had one day before getting ready to pack everything, when I said, ‘Hey guys, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s take him out.’ That’s when this picture was taken.
As you can tell, I am having a lot of fun, and just doing what I love to do. I like what I am doing right now, because I am not thinking first about its purpose or theme. It’s all about playing. I just want to be like a kid for a while and I am playing with sculpture. In this image you see some of my guys. There are five.
Finally, these are some of my recent works. The reference is painting, because I miss painting. I use dirt. I travel across Cambodia and collect dirt. I love the different colors. I use beeswax as an emulsion to mix it. So this is the new work, which you will see in my next show [Documenta]. That’s about it. Thank you very much.
Audience member: Thank you very much. Can you talk about your interaction with other artists in Cambodia?
SP:I used to be very much involved. I always thought that art was a good thing for Cambodia. The country used to be so rich in art and artists before, why shouldn’t it be like that now? But at the same time I also discourage people from making art, because they should be fixing motors instead. There are better ways of making a living. To be an artist is so difficult. There is limited education, no museum of modern art, and traveling only became possible in recent years. It’s very difficult for Cambodian nationals to travel because they think you might run away. So it’s very difficult. When I came back, I first started this small group called Saklapel. It consisted of me and two other artists who I thought were interesting young artists. In 2006 and 2007 I started working with Dana Langlois, owner of one of the very first commercial galleries called Java Cafe. I volunteered for one year, and was kind of like a big brother to a group of young artists. Now Erin (Gleeson) is stable, and opened her gallery called Sa Sa Bassac. Half of the guys who were with me are now with her. I feel these are the upcoming guys who are doing interesting work. Now I have relocated my studio to outside of Phnom Penh so I don’t get involved much with their activities, but they come to my house and call me to look at their work. I see a lot of good energy going on. I always tell them that art is a serious thing, and they need to do it seriously, that you can’t rush art. Also there are organizations, like the French Cultural Center, that regularly organize shows and other events. But it’s still a very small scene. Sa Sa, French Cultural Center, and Java Cafe, they are all within a distance of 2 kilometers. So that’s our art world.
Audience member: Can I ask how Tyler and you met each other?
SP: Tyler met me through another gallery in Bangkok called H, which gave me my first solo show. I was lucky. At that time I was living in a forty‐dollar apartment and working in my living room. A pretty sad situation. Then a group of Christian people from Norway came to Cambodia looking for fine young artists. And I was a ‘fine young artist’ in their eyes. So they said, ‘Why don’t you come to Norway for three months?’ I didn’t have anything going on in my life at the time: I was alone, no assistant, no cat, no dog, nothing. Not even a bed to sleep on, I slept on a mattress. So I went. On my way to Norway, I transferred at Bangkok and stayed there for two days. The guesthouse I stayed at happened to be near H gallery, so I went by and showed my pamphlet for Norway. H liked my work and my attitude and asked me to do a show the next year. That’s how my life began as an artist. I had to ship my work on a truck over land to Thailand. There were a lot funny stories.
JD: We could go on and on, but let’s stop here! Thank you very much, Sopheap, for your wonderful stories, and we look forward to continuing our conversation soon.
Born in 1971 in Battambang, Cambodia; lives and works in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
1999, MFA in painting, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA
1995, BFA in painting, The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, USA
Sopheap Pich is one of the most prominent contemporary artists from Cambodia. He left the country as refugee in 1979, and moved with his family to the US in 1984. After he returned to Cambodia in 2003, he started to create sculptures and installations with bamboo and rattan, often relating to his memory of the Khmer Rough period. His work has been exhibited in Asian Art Biennial in Taiwan (2011), Singapore Biennale (2011), Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale (2009), and the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane (2009), among many others.
Transcribed by Xiaofei Mo