A figure of the Buddha hangs at the center of a small gallery filled with natural light. Only the head and shoulders have been given form, the torso a tangle of rattan strands falling away, red ink-dyed tips curving upwards, recoiling from the floor.
This ethereal sculpture, “Buddha 2” (2009), is the latest acquisition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and part of a striking solo exhibition by artist Sopheap Pich. Pich was born in Battambang in Cambodia in 1971, where he lived through the Khmer Rouge era, from 1975 to ’79. He left Cambodia with his family in 1979, first moving to a refugee camp in Thailand and later to the US. He returned to Cambodia in 2002. The Met exhibition, Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich, is a retrospective of some of his major works, created during the decade since he returned to his homeland.
Given Pich’s history, there’s a certain inevitability that commentary on his work will focus on the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, and Pich’s childhood experiences have undoubtedly informed his work. But his experiences in exile and subsequent return to Cambodia are equally strong, if not more so. There’s an overwhelming sense of memory, both visual and tactile, in his work. From three-dimensional voluptuous pieces based on anatomical structures, the stomach and heart, to abstract two-dimensional landscapes constructed on a grid of bamboo and rattan, Pich’s sculptures are as diverse in meaning as they are in form.
During his childhood, Pich lived with his family in the northwestern city of Battambang, where he helped his father farm and fish. Each day on his way to the rice fields, Pich would pass a Buddhist temple that had become a place of execution; bloodstains covered the walls and ceilings. “Where there used to be the normal Buddha sculptures, there were just piles of broken things I couldn’t see. . . . I was afraid to look in the dark,” writes Pich on wall text that accompanies the piece. It was this experience that led to the creation of “Buddha 2.”
“Buddha 2” can also be viewed as a metaphor for modern Cambodia — as an unraveling, or a process of creation and renewal. Cambodia is emerging, rapidly and exuberantly, from under the weight of its own recent history, but the country’s destructive politics and entrenched corruption threaten to undermine its development.
Asian Art Curator John Guy’s decision to intersperse Pich’s work among the pre-16th century art that dominates the Asian wing creates a juxtaposition that highlights Pich’s modern aesthetic. His diaphanous Buddha couldn’t be more different from those among which it hangs, weightless: 10th- and 12th-century Cambodian and Vietnamese statues of the Buddha and other deities cast in bronze and stone. They are solid, grounded, timeless, with their feet firmly planted. In contrast, Pich’s Buddha lacks solidity, strength, no source of support — but there is a sense of peace and comfort emanating from its quiet fragility.
Most of Pich’s work is not overtly religious in content, but it nonetheless embodies Buddhist principles in its creation and construction. “I’m not a religion buff, I see a lot of contradiction in religion,” the artist told Hyperallergic during an interview at the Met. “[Religion] influences me in a way that I take a little bit of what my father tells me, I take a little bit of what my grandmother tells me, and they are full-on Buddhists,” he said. “I’ve taken things that I think are useful to me and things that are not. I don’t equate them to religion. I happen to read it in a religious context, but I think it’s more philosophy that has influenced me than religion.
“I think the Zen Buddhist way is also about work,” he continued. “It’s about life with work. It’s not about life with nothing; it’s not about life doing nothing. It’s about life in contemplation. It’s about life as a focus. Focus and labor — that’s what keeps me going, so if that falls into the Buddhist whatever philosophy, then it is.”
That meaning in creation is apparent in the cryptically named “Cycle” (2011). Over 4 meters in length, “Cycle” is one of Pich’s many pieces that have intestines and internal organs as their primary influence. It hangs in a space on the second floor of the Asian galleries, a huge, globular, curvaceous form suspended in the center of the room. An earlier piece on the same theme, “Cycle 2” (2008), hangs in a third-floor gallery. Pich said about “Cycle” that the pleasure was in the process and not in thinking about the meaning of what he was making.
Pich’s fascination with anatomical structures is perhaps a throwback to his pre-med days at the University of Massachusetts. But medicine wasn’t his calling, and he made the switch to art at the end of his second year, majoring in painting instead. He went on to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received an MFA in 1999. It wasn’t until he returned to Cambodia in 2002 that he began to create sculptures, making use of natural materials that are readily available there and familiar to him from his childhood. For his recent works, he gathered beeswax and dirt during his travels around the country — the soil in parts of Cambodia is particularly rich in iron, giving it a distinct pigment.
Pich’s 2012 Relief series is a departure from the curvaceous forms that typify his previous work to a more rigid grid structure. Two pieces in the series are currently on display at the Met; another 10 are on view at Tyler Rollins Fine Art until June 14.
At the Met, “Ratanakiri Valley Drip” (2012) evokes the landscape of Cambodia’s northeast region using a technique that weaves burlap through a bamboo frame to create peaks and troughs, recalling a series of rolling hills. Pich uses beeswax mixed with tree resin and dirt to create a rich, textured dark brown “scorched” earth that covers the whole piece, broken here and there by flashes of bright raffia threads in red and blue.
The two Relief works at the Met, along with the intestinal-looking “Junk Nutrients” (2009), carry a very specific message about the Cambodia to which Pich returned in 2002. In these pieces, he confronts the consequences of foreign investment and globalization, as well as rampant corruption both inside and outside of the country, that are devastating Cambodia’s natural resources. Illegal logging has destroyed broad swathes of Ratanakiri’s unique rainforest and mountain habitats, leaving destitute the people who rely on the land for their subsistence.
Land is an increasingly precious commodity in Cambodia, especially in the capital city, Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge abolished private property so families have no legal claim to the land on which they live; private investors are literally taking the land from underneath their feet. Pich himself fell victim to the land grabs: his former studio overlooked Boeung Kak lake, but in 2008 he and around 3,000 families were forcibly evicted when the lake was drained to make way for a government-backed real-estate project.
“I took a trip to Ratanakiri and came back, and then I worked on those paintings,” Pich said. “It really drove me to make that kind of work. The landscape does look somewhat like that. So is it political? Yeah, obviously if you’re saying something about deforestation and stuff, it’s political, but that’s just what happens, so I’m not in control of it.”
In that vein, memory and the senses frequently override the political in the pieces on view at the Met. His monumental work “Morning Glory” (2011) — recently acquired by the Guggenheim Museum — draws its inspiration from a ubiquitous water plant eaten throughout Cambodia, which saved countless lives at a time when millions were dying of starvation. The piece re-creates a huge phonograph-like bloom trailing menacing, serpent-like buds.
While the large blooming flower commands the viewer’s attention, another one rests delicately on the floor, each fold of the petals carefully constructed. Is it a new flower ready to open or a bloom that has withered and died? Either way it provides a perfect counterweight, both physically and metaphorically, to the exploding joy of the larger flower. It’s a balance, or a contradiction, that repeats throughout Pich’s work: creation and destruction, freedom and confinement, fragility and strength, inside and out.
Alongside “Morning Glory” stands “Stalk, Version 2” (2009), a tight, cylindrical structure that reaches up to form a fine tapered frond. Meticulously constructed from strips of rattan and bamboo tied with twists of wire, it too embodies the contradictions that abound in Pich’s work. Moving around the piece, the weave plays tricks on the eye; it seems to flicker and undulate. Within the net-like tube is a domed, budding shoot, pushing up to create a new stalk. The theme here, according to Pich, is growth and renewal, but the tight weave of the rattan creates a cage-like form. Air can move through the structure, but the piece itself resembles a trap, like the fish traps from which Pich has drawn inspiration in his work. There’s a sense of confinement and constraint. The stalk is budding, but progress is tough.
In a recent piece for Hyperallergic, I described how contemporary artists from Cambodia are breaking free of the constraints of their country’s history and tradition. Pich was arguably one of the first to do that, the definitive example of an artist who has achieved global recognition and whose work is not easily read as “Asian” or “Cambodian.” It may be for that reason that he eschews any deep interpretation of his work. His most recent pieces — the Reliefs especially — are sparse, minimal, and devoid of narrative.
“I ask myself, ‘Why do you have to come up with a story all the time? And then you have to reference Jayavarman VII, you have to do your hunger days from the Khmer Rouge with ‘Morning Glory,’ and the stomach and the heart and the lung, everything is always something. So what if everything is nothing?
“What I achieve with it is a sense of freedom that I’ve never had before — that I don’t have to do a shape, that I don’t need to feel like it has to be mine. It is mine already.”
Sopheap Pich: Reliefs continues at Tyler Rollins Fine Art (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 14.
Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 7.