Exhibition Inspired by Local Folklore, Symbology

A green snake entwined around a cosmic tree billows on the wall, while on another piece of cloth, a scene from Thai folklore flutters.

The series of 22 photomontage prints on fabric is American artist Bruce Gundersen’s latest body of work. “Beyond the Rational Horizon” opened Tuesday at Meta House in Phnom Penh.

Pieces from Bruce Gundersen's 'Beyond the Rational Horizon' exhibition, which opened this week, hang in the gallery at Meta House. (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)
Pieces from Bruce Gundersen’s ‘Beyond the Rational Horizon’ exhibition, which opened this week, hang in the gallery at Meta House. (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Gundersen photographs scenery, people and icons. He then deconstructs and recomposes them into visual narrations of Hindu-Buddhist symbology, local legends and Southeast Asian topography.

The digitally rendered tapestries are hung by their top edge, left to gently ripple in the breeze.

“I’ve never seen art dancing on a wall. I like it,” Mr. Gundersen, 66, said. “Being these symbols and these ethereal things and these myths, it makes sense that they’re alive.”

Contrasting earthly hues against vibrant overlays, Mr. Gundersen’s works—reminiscent of surrealist paintings—juxtapose abstract iconography and realist figures. With snakes a prominent motif, the tableaux transport the viewer to the spiritual spaces in the scenes.

“Buddhist monks used to travel with paintings on silk, explaining Jataka stories in small towns,” the multimedia artist said, using a Sanskrit term for traditional tales of the Buddha’s past lives. “But I can’t really do Jataka trails.”

Mr. Gundersen does, however, shuttle from his New York home to rice paddies in Laos and Sri Lanka, and to galleries in Bangkok and Phnom Penh.

He shared, for example, the journey behind “The Portant,” a 24-by-36-inch print. “I photographed a landscape and isolated it in Photoshop. And then I’d take photographs in Buddhist temples of murals—really old, soft murals—and that’s what this background is,” the artist said.

The textured images are then printed on silk or polyester fabric. The result bridges the real and the ethereal.

'Uah Sees What She Wants to See,' a 2012 digital photomontage print on fabric, depicts the Thai folktale 'Pla Boo Thong.' (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)
‘Uah Sees What She Wants to See,’ a 2012 digital photomontage print on fabric, depicts the Thai folktale ‘Pla Boo Thong.’ (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)

In 2000, Mr. Gundersen, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, made his first trip to Asia after stints as a performance artist and a furniture craftsman. He spent time living with a family in Sri Lanka and embraced Buddhism, while beginning to experiment with photomontage as his chosen art form.

“I started reading a lot of the folklore and myths and so I decided to try to narrate them through digital photomontages,” he said.

“This is the latest work,” he said of the series on view at Meta House. There are older pieces, such as one depicting the goddess Durga that dates back to 2008, “but the works evolved,” he said.

“In this body of work I really got involved in a lot of symbols, like the endless knot,” he said, gesturing to a red srivatsa—a Buddhist symbol—imposed over a rendition of grayish brushstrokes.

“Down there is shatkona—looks like a Jewish Star of David but that represents Shiva and Shakti,” he said of the Hindu representation of the union of masculine and feminine forms depicted on the gallery’s northern wall.

Mr. Gundersen also drew inspiration from folk stories he encountered in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. “The first one is a very famous Thai ghost story,” he said, pointing to “Waiting for Mak” that portrays the tale of a man who went to war and returned to live with his wife, only to find she had earlier died in childbirth. Mr. Gundersen initially worked with photomontages printed on plexiglass. “Really hard edged,” he said. “Then I started experimenting with something softer.”

He began, like the Jataka-carrying monks, with silk. He later switched to polyester, heeding a suggestion made by his New York printer, who also prints garments for the fashion industry. “The colors are so much more vibrant,” Mr. Gundersen said.

But the works are more than that. The series not only challenges conceptions of rational storytelling in its refusal to conform to neither myth nor reality—it also surmounts its medium. On shifting fabric, the otherwise static photographs become ephemeral, like the ever-changing nature of the myths they convey.

“Beyond the Rational Horizon” is on view at Meta House until November 16.

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