Bangkok exhibitions are featuring more artists from abroad, as demonstrated by “Tidal,” the Thailand debut of 39-year-old Cambodian sculptor Sopheap Pich. Using the most economical artistic means, Sopheap articulates forms that reflect sensitively on his country’s troubled recent past. Each ruggedly elegant work comprises one or more volumes of latticed, split cane alluding to the human body—its membranes, organs, bones and limbs—while also commenting on history and culture.
Scarred Heart (2007), for example, takes the form of a recumbent 1.5 meter-high amphora with a shallow lateral groove suggesting an abrasion or wound. Another heart-shaped work, Jayavarman VII (2007), wistfully references a 13th-century ruler known for his public works, initiatives lacking in modern Cambodia. Covered in burlap, the piece is topped with two glass jars of the type used for fire-cupping in Chinese medicine, recalling the king’s construction of many hospitals. The quirky heart shape was inspired by the mold of a classical-style Khmer bust that Sopheap saw in use at a local foundry.
Delta (2007) is a room-sized installation that hints at the deepest layers of a culture shaped by rivers and fertilized by annual flooding. The sculpture’s form suggests both a riparian terrain and a digestive organ, evoking a land that is inundated with riches, yet aches for sustenance.
Impetuous (2007) could be viewed as a playful but skeptical look at the male ego and its role in human affairs: five small phallic shapes hang on the wall, pouting drolly earthward. Other works took on canine forms—Sopheap’s nip at the dog-eat-dog tone of life in Cambodia’s new era of crony capitalism. The show, created mostly on-site, was skillfully installed in the space, a restored 19th-century timber villa.
Sopheap doesn’t fuss with “craft,” despite one’s first impression of this work. He left Cambodia at the age of seven during the Pol Pot regime and returned in 2003, a few years after master’s degree studies in painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. Deciding then to venture into sculpture, he found that rattan was one of the most suitable materials on hand from suppliers in Phnom Penh. Although Cambodians have long used cane to craft tools and buildings, Sopheap didn’t train with craftspeople or otherwise borrow their methods. He doesn’t weave this versatile material in the traditional way, but instead fastens it with wire, allowing freer forms. Compared to the meticulousness of craft, Sopheap’s sculptural techniques are more expressive. Yet nothing was strident in this extraordinary show, helping make it persuasive both as social critique and art.