Leang Seckon Bids Sihanouk Farewell

A series of works by artist Leang Seckon entitled “Goodbye, Cambodia,” honoring the late King Norodom Sihanouk, will be displayed in Singapore from Thursday. 

In one work entitled “Seven-Day Mourning,” the late King Father is sketched in blue-grey acrylic against a patterned backdrop. His image seems to float on the surface of the artwork, which consists of hundreds of small images of the Buddha set on dark red or blue backgrounds with gold borders.

The work portrays the King in a way that conveys his humanity but at the same time creates around him a larger-than-life aura befitting a man who wrote pages of the country’s history and whose actions will be debated by researchers for a very long time.

Looking closely, one notices that the sketch’s background is actually made up of incense-stick wrappers dropped in front of the Royal Palace by mourners who came to pay their respect to the late King during the seven-day mourning period following his death last October.

The series—named after a song that King Sihanouk composed several decades ago and sang during one of his last stays to Cambodia—consists of four large collages and will be exhibited during Art Stage Singapore, a four-day art fair opening Thursday during which 130 art galleries from 23 countries are expected to showcase 600 artists.

Mr. Seckon, who is one of Cambodia’s leading artists with an international following, said he had first planned to produce a series on the theme of environmental protection for the fair. But when the King passed away, he decided to create works that would honor him.

Mr. Seckon was in the countryside on October 15 when the news spread that King Sihanouk had passed away. He immediately rushed to Phnom Penh.

As he joined the thousands of people who had come to pay their respects at the Royal Palace he noticed that, as they were unwrapping their bundles of incense sticks, they were dropping the wrappers decorated with images of the Buddha on the ground. “I started to collect the labels…thinking that this held a good meaning,” he said.

Each night of the 7-day period, Mr. Seckon went back to collect more discarded wrappers, and later used them to create the vast mosaic on which he sketched the face of the late King.

Another work in the series is entitled “Paradise of King Sihanouk,” a collage that includes photographs of the King at different periods of his life placed on a grey background of sea and sky meant to convey that the King is now in Heaven. “He is in a beautiful place and can look over Cambodia again,” Mr. Seckon explained.

The third work is called “Goodbye Cambodia,” another collage with a photo of the late King among pictures of other international leaders along with imagery of world religions. “Peaceful, to celebrate the end of a time,” Mr. Seckon said.

“Power of Man,” the last painting, is about what people can accomplish when they are determined to use their talent. Beside King Sihanouk’s image, there are depictions of international icons such as American singer Elvis Presley.

The destructive side of human beings is illustrated by the photo of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, who ran the Khmer Rouge torture center Tuol Sleng: He is shown plunging to the ground head first with an assault rifle in his hands.

King Sihanouk has often featured in Mr. Seckon’s works over the years. As a singer, he has always been fascinated by Cambodia’s popular songs of the 1960s during which the late King was at the helm of the country. Moreover Mr. Seckon, who was born in 1970, has been revisiting his childhood memories of U.S. bombings during the civil war of the early 1970s, creating series of mixed-media works and installations about the decades prior to the Khmer Rouge regime.

His series “Goodbye, Cambodia” is presented at Art Stage Singapore by the British gallery Rossi and Rossi.

“Seckon’s work touches people at different levels,” said gallery owner Fabio Rossi in an e-mail Tuesday. “There is an immediate, striking visual impact which generates a lot of attention. At the same time, the content of his paintings is very meaningful and inspiring.”

Asked whether this series was a way to say farewell to King Sihanouk—who will be cremated on February 4—Mr. Seckon replied that it was meant to better remember him. The King’s very identity is part of Cambodia’s fabric, he said. “I don’t want us to lose him.”

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