“The Shadow of the Heavy Skirt” presented new painting, sculpture and video by the leading Cambodian artist Leang Seckon. Born in Prey Veng province in 1974, Seckon grew up during the Khmer Rouge era. Since he graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh, in 2002, he has exhibited regularly in Cambodia and internationally, recently at the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in Japan (2009) and at Rossi & Rossi gallery in London (2010).
Seckon’s work is strongly autobiographical and the title of the exhibition refers to the heaviness of his mother’s quilted skirt that she wore while she was pregnant with him during the civil war of the early 1970s. The thick fabric can be read as a metaphor for the burden of survival in the face of relentless hunger and bombing from the beginning of hostilities between the Cambodian army and both North Vietnamese forces and Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the early 1970s. The country endured decades of misery until the overthrow of Pol Pot’s regime and eventual peace agreement in 1991.
The large painting The Shadow of the Heavy Skirt (all works 2011) is riddled with holes cut into the canvas, each revealing a piece of fabric sewn underneath. Some of the material is painted with images of fire, falling bombs, aircraft, skulls, flowers, fish and distressed human faces. The holes, representing the gaping craters in the earth left by bombs and the legacy of countless unexploded landmines that continue to claim lives today, thus become visual containers of traumatic memories.
In a process of transformation or catharsis, Flower of the Buddha substitutes holes with rows of circular motifs that contain images of flowers, as well as depictions of ponds of fish and small images of the Buddha and the Elephant. Buddhism teaches that enlightenment brings renewal and freedom from suffering, and so this work can be read as a companion piece to the gray bombed field in the The Shadow of the Heavy Skirt, now metamorphosed into a beautiful garden, symbolizing new life.
Rendering the triumph of beauty and liberation over suffering was also evident in the sculptures. Remain of the Pagoda Prison was created with a plank of timber that had been part of a pagoda used as a prison during the time of the Khmer Rouge and was later demolished. Human figures and flowers are carved into the face of the plank, which now stands upright and is crowned with a carved head of the naga, a mythical serpent that features in stories of the origins of the Khmer people and is an important motif in Khmer architecture. The structure evokes both incarceration and divine sanctuary.
The sculpture Mount Meru and Koh Pich is a memorial to a more recent tragedy. Copper wire and grass stalks, alluding to the life of rice farmers, are woven into a seven-foot-high stupa with paper cutouts of human figures piled at the base. The work symbolizes Mount Meru, the sacred mountain in Buddhist cosmology, believed to be the paradise awaiting the several hundred Cambodians who were killed when a stampede occurred on the bridge linking Koh Pich Island to Phnom Penh during the Water Festival in November 2010.
Seckon’s exhibition was a deeply personal and poetic act of remembrance, but the work also alludes to the dawn of a new future, one in which the skirt no longer carries a heavy shadow.