Held every five years, the Documenta visual art festival in Kassel, Germany, is a prestigious event rendered “intentionally uncomfortable, incomplete, nervously lacking-at every step,” says its curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. As the New York Times noted, one goes to this “idiosyncratic, concept-driven affair…to think.”
Sopheap Pich, the first Cambodian artist to feature at Documenta, should fit right in.
Opening Saturday, the 13th Documenta festival presents the work of more than 160 painters and sculptors from 55 countries. The series “Reliefs” that Mr. Pich created for the event consists of three-dimensional wall pieces of infinite intricacy.
Borne out of Mr. Pich’s journey into art as pure visual expression with no link to a verbalized story, his nine pieces could hardly be closer to Cambodia’s physical essence. Their frames are made of bamboo and inner grids rattan from Kompong Cham province, and the red paint coloring their rattan and burlap strips was produced by mixing red earth from Ratanakkiri and Preah Sihanouk provinces with beeswax from Ratanakkiri.
“As I was finishing my New York work for the exhibition [held in New York city in late 2011], I came to a point where I was thinking that, maybe, I’m relying too much on narrative in my work,” he said while working on his last piece for Documenta in his Phnom Penh studio in late February.
“I wanted to see what happened if I don’t try to do that. …What if I stop talking about myself, that I’m Cambodian, that I make this because of that. What if I just make something that everybody can look at and everybody will be puzzled,” he said.
So Mr. Pich started to develop the concept for his series “Reliefs.”
“It looks like a painting but it is not,” he said. “It looks like a painting but it doesn’t have any imagery. So this is a kind of abstraction. But I wanted to make it my abstraction. I had to have a reason why I made the abstraction. I could just have painted a blank canvas but that wouldn’t be me, now, would it. So I had to find my own.”
While touring Cambodia, Mr. Pich had been collecting red earth, bamboo and rattan, and purchasing beeswax from a honey producer in Ratanakkiri province
“I find beauty in these things,” he explained. “I just wanted to put them together in a way that doesn’t explain itself, that don’t have to explain itself….They’re just what they are.
“Once you find out how I work and where I get my materials from, all these things…are their own story but they’re not prevalent right away, they’re not obvious,” Mr. Pich said.
The outcome is a number of intriguing works of tremendous complexity that reveal themselves slowly as one starts examining them.
They also reflect a consummate artist who has mastered Western art techniques but creates with Cambodian materials. “I wanted the works to reflect the idea that I live on the border, that I live on the edge of many different kinds of worlds, universes,” Mr. Pich said.
His story is typical of Cambodians of his generation. Born in May 1971 in Battambang province, he still carries with him memories of the Pol Pot regime. “Anybody who grew up at that time must remember a lot,” he noted without saying more on the topic.
When the Vietnamese forces sent the Khmer Rouge fleeing to the Thai border in 1979, he and his family took refuge in Thailand. Five years and as many refugee camps later, they arrived in the United States and settled in the eastern state of Massachusetts.
After obtaining his Master’s degree in fine arts in the US and studying in France for a year, Mr. Pich returned to Cambodia in the early 2000s. He has now been based in the country full-time for eight years. Around 2005, he set painting aside and started creating sculptures out of rattan, becoming in the process one of Cambodia’s most renowned artists on the international stage.
An outdoor sculpture by Mr. Pich is displayed at the King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia and the large installation he presented at the 2009 Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane is now part of the Queensland Art Gallery collection in Australia.
Last year, his huge structure entitled “Compound, 2011” was displayed in the National Museum of Singapore during the third Singapore Biennale of contemporary arts, and his work also featured at the Asian Art Biennial in Taiwan in addition to being exhibited in solo shows in Seattle and New York.
Mr. Pich’s works now commands high prices, a fact he does not like to emphasize.
“Many people have written articles trumpeting the cost of artworks by me and others as if it somehow had any relevance to the artwork itself,” he wrote in an e-mail from Germany a few days ago.
“I feel very fortunate that my work has increased in value in the last couple of years,” he wrote. “This allows me to have a proper space to work, pay my assistants decent wages, and eat better. It also allows me to travel for both exhibitions and searching for materials. But in the end, it’s the works and the ideas behind them that interest people.”
Mr. Pich now has a warehouse-size studio on the outskirts of Phnom Penh-his much smaller, previous one was at Boeng Kak lake-and he uses 10 assistants to build his large sculptures and three-dimensional wall pieces for which preparing and assembling the required rattan and bamboo takes a great deal of time.
Mr. Pich bought a painting of the late painter Vann Nath to exhibit next to his own works at the Documenta festival.
Mr. Nath, who died last year, was imprisoned at S-21 during the Pol Pot regime and contributed to making known what had happened at that Khmer Rouge torture center by painting what he had seen. The former jail has since become the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
“Some of his work is important to me,” Mr. Pich said of the late Mr. Nath.
“I knew him well and I want to bring him outside the Tuol Sleng museum.”
The Documenta art festival runs through mid-September.