Phnom Penh-based artist Sopheap Pich (b. 1971) is recognized today as Cambodia’s most internationally prominent contemporary artist in the global art world. He is known for working with local materials such as bamboo, rattan, burlap from rice bags, beeswax, and earth pigments gathered from around Cambodia and for creating sculptures that are inspired by bodily organs, vegetal forms, and abstract geometric structures. Currently featured at the Crow Collection of Asian Art is his large-scale sculpture Rang Phnom Flower (2015). The sculpture, which depicts a cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis; “rang phnom” in Khmer), is his most ambitious single-form sculptural work to date. Twenty-five feet in length, its complex construction is composed of hundreds of strands of rattan with bamboo joints. In Southeast Asia, the cannonball tree is revered for its physical resemblance to the sal tree, under which the Buddha was born; accordingly, the tree is often planted near Buddhist temples. In fact, the plant originated in Central and South America and was introduced by Europeans to Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans then introduced it to Southeast Asia in their revitalization of Buddhism in that region. The enormous, over-sized scale of Pich’s tree conveys the power of nature and serves as a material and philosophical mediation between representation and abstraction. In this interview, we discuss his inspirations, his process, and the role of art in today’s society.
Jacqueline Chao (JC): Tell us about your sculpture, Rang Phnom Flower. What inspired you to create such an enormous sculpture of this particular plant?
Sopheap Pich (SP): Several years ago, I took a trip to Ratanakiri, a northeastern province of Cambodia that borders Vietnam. One thing that left a strong impression on me was the many big trees with bright flowers and intertwining vines that were all over the landscape. I was told people don’t
cut these trees down because they are not considered luxury wood and are therefore not desirable. Their belief that these flowering trees have spirits living in them also plays into their decision to not cut them down. Few other trees have such a relationship to the Cambodian people. The rang phnom tree is normally planted on temple grounds because it bears resemblance to the sal tree, which the Buddha is said to be born under. There is also a giant rang phnom tree on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh that is really impressive. When I held one of the flowers in my hands for the first time, I could see why the tree and its flowers would give rise to such a reverence. A combination of all these ideas led to my decision to make this flower.
JC: Can you tell us a bit more about your process for creating this? For example, how is the bamboo and rattan harvested and treated, and how long did the weaving take? How long did the whole project take?
SP: We buy whole rattan from a furniture shop a few times a year. Several of my assistants spend a couple of days selecting about a thousand of the most mature trees from each batch at a time. These trees are about four meters long, and we split them into four strands lengthwise with a large knife. They are boiled in diesel gasoline in a custom-made tank to cure the rattan, a process that removes the water and sugar inside the strands and kills any insects. After this, we shave each strand with a sharp blade, which takes about 20 minutes per length.
The preparation of bamboo follows a similar process, but we boil it in water instead of gasoline. We still go to different villages to cut bamboo from groves if we require certain parts of the trees that we are not able to get from depots, but, in general, we select the bamboo the same way we do the rattan. Rang Phnom Flower took us about six months to make, with a team of seven people.
JC: What struck me most about this sculpture was the way it is simultaneously representational and abstract. Many of your works play with this duality. Could you tell us more about the role of abstraction in your work?
SP: I was more preoccupied with the relationship between the figurative and abstract when I was painting, which is what I was trained in at school. However, from the very first sculpture I made in 2004, the question of realism and abstraction was never really something I thought about. I suppose this arises from a certain kind of trust I have in the way I see my objects. Many of my works emerge from something tangible as a starting point, but the slow process of making, and the nature of the materials I use, allow me to see possibilities, and a work might often take a turn that is not in my planning. I want every work to have an opportunity to arrive somewhere independently from what I already know. Perhaps this can be seen in some of my recent sculptures, which deal with abstraction directly, but, all the while in my mind, I think I am making real objects.
JC: How do you see the role of art and artists in today’s society?
SP: It’s a good question and a complicated one to answer. We are now living in a very strange world where communication is lighting-fast and all kinds of information we might or might not need is at our fingertips. Everyone has an opinion, and, in such a world, truth does not rely on knowledge but depends on what one chooses to believe. The least educated and unenlightened person can rule the world if he or she is popular enough, and it seems that greed and ego are the rules of the game, with the sheer act of winning an end in itself. It is hard to believe we are living in the 21st century.
I was born into one of the darkest and cruelest times of Cambodia’s history. My parents risked their lives to get my brothers and me to a place that values freedom and knowledge. I always felt that these qualities were the highest aspirations of being human. My father used to tell me that if you have knowledge it can’t be taken away from you, even if everything else is. The way I was brought up and educated gave me some notion of how to live and be, and how to contribute meaningfully to the world. So for me it has never really been an issue of choice. Rather, it is something that I live to do.
Going back to your question of what role art and artists play in today’s society, I like the piece that Bruce Nauman made in the late 1960s, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. This work says to me that there is more to what we do than meets the eye. In some small way, there is something essential that artists do for humankind itself that might go back to when we first recognized ourselves as different from other species on earth. Nauman might have made this work to pose a question or raise a thought, but I am not of a cynical mind about it.
JC: What currently inspires you? What messages do you hope that people ultimately take away from seeing your work?
SP: What inspires me is the notion of work itself. I don’t claim to be very clever and certainly do not always know what my work is ultimately about. I also question the notion that I make art to “express” myself. I am a student of art. I know what I know from other people who have done it before me, and, in the same way, I am learning to do the next work from the work that I am doing now. I am inspired by my surroundings, by nature, and by my travels. I have a studio and a group of dedicated assistants. We work and we hope that our work gives people positive energy and hope. Our work should inspire people to slow down, value time and labor, and give a sense of freedom and possibility.
About the Artist:
Sopheap Pich was born in Battambang, Cambodia. He moved with his family to the United States in 1984 and received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999. In 2002, he returned to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he continues to be based. His work has been featured in numerous international museum exhibitions and biennials throughout the world, notably Documenta 2012 and a 2013 solo exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich) which was the museum’s first solo show ever given to a contemporary Southeast Asian artist. Additionally, his work can be found in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York), Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), M+ Museum for Visual Culture (Hong Kong), Singapore Art Museum, Queensland Art Gallery (Brisbane), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Smith College, Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo), and the Cleveland Museum of Art. His work is also currently on view in the main exhibition at this year’s 57th International Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia), Viva Arte Viva, curated by Christine Macel, chief curator of the Centre Pompidou (Paris).
Hidden Nature: Sopheap Pich is on view now through January 7, 2018 in the Mezzanine Gallery.