Around harvest time, golden flowers grow in rice paddies.
“It’s as if the flowers were coming to protect the field. They are so beautiful,” said artist Leang Seckon.
Their beauty lasts but a moment, which is why he chose that particular flower to commemorate in a sculpture those who died on Koh Pich bridge during the Water Festival in November.
Like the flowers in rice fields, those people who died were beautiful and are now gone, he explained Tuesday.
Mr Seckon’s sculpture consists of 111 mini-towers representing the stupas that are built in Cambodia to receive a person’s ashes. Resting on a metal frame, those small towers form a large stupa.
The sculpture he named “Mount Meru,” after the mythical mountain in Buddhism, is part of his exhibition opening tonight at the French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh.
Called “Shadow of the Heavy Skirt” in reference to his mother’s sole skirt that became heavy with patches during the civil war of the early 1970s, the exhibition includes a series of large-format, acrylic and fabric swatch paintings.
One of them, titled “Freedom not Far,” consists of small portraits of people killed at the Khmer Rouge torture center Tuol Sleng. Mr Seckon encased those portraits inside images of butterflies. “I feel that [their spirits] are still stuck at Tuol Sleng: I want them to find their own freedom like butterflies and fly away,” he said.
On the similar theme of people’s spirits floating away, Mr Seckon painted dragonflies in a myriad of blue-gray tones and titled the work “Go Across the Border of the Sky.”
Creating “Mount Meru” took Mr Seckon and three helpers three weeks to complete, as each of the small stupas in the sculpture is an intricate construction made of hundreds of pieces of brown flower stems.
On Nov 22, 353 people died and hundreds more were injured on Koh Pich island on the last day of the Water Festival in Phnom Penh when panic spread among the crowd on the bridge.
Sculpting the stupa is Mr Seckon’s attempt at immortalizing them. He hopes that with this work, the victims will be “beautiful again: and live forever,” he said.
Since his first solo show at Java Cafe 10 years ago, Mr Seckon has become one of Cambodia’s leading artists with an international following in Asia and Europe.
His work over the past year has been very much about remembrance. In March, his first one-man show in London consisted of mixed-media pieces that reflected various eras of Cambodian history such as the peaceful villages of the 1960s and the bombings in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
On Aug 9, he staged an art performance at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the museum’s archives inclusion in Unesco’s Memory of the World Register. About 100 government officials, diplomats and NGO representatives attended the event.
Finally last month, the international fair Art Stage Singapore exhibited the 40-year-old artist’s nine paintings he had created “to say goodbye and thank you,” he said, to his home and studio of nearly 20 years on Boeng Kak lake. He was among those expropriated from the river banks late last year as Cambodian developer Shukaku Inc continues to fill in the lake.
Mr Seckon is now considering invitations to exhibit in New York next year.
His exhibition at the French Cultural Center, which opens tonight at 7 pm, runs through Feb 26.