Unlike most art spaces in Cambodia – where multi-use and low-budgets are the norm – the Rosewood Gallery in Phnom Penh Cambodia offers a different art viewing experience. Entering the luxurious lobby of Vattanac Capital, I’m led to an elevator, and guided all the way up to Than Sok’s latest solo exhibition, Objects of Belief. Even amidst the greatest views of the city, Than’s work doesn’t fail to captivate.
Instead, ghostly arrays of objects tinted a dull orange on an all-white background are windows into the changing cultural landscape of Cambodia. In Seed Bank #7, we see traditional items, such as a stupa, a bell, an urn, and a spirit house, but also a… loudspeaker? Scaled to the same size and coloration, these all become equally significant. Since studying at the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, and his first solo exhibition at Phnom Penh’s SA SA BASSAC gallery in 2012, Than delicately tests the surfaces of tradition against the contemporary realities of exchange. As anyone who has lived here for anytime knows, every ceremony has to be as loud as possible.
Objects of Belief showcases work from three of Than’s series – Seed Bank (2018), Klah Klok (2017), and Objects of Belief (2015) – highlighting the artist’s ongoing commitment to investigating how form, materiality, and meaning intersect and are even shaped within Cambodian society. Much like the work of Thai artist Jakkai Siributr, the show pays careful attention and respect to the surfaces of culture, even as they subvert.
Starting with the show’s namesake, Objects of Belief comprises intimate watercolors, realistically depicting religious items from Cambodian Buddhist temples. They are illustrations of objects which, until I lived here, were largely meaningless to me, but have overtime grown more imbued with power. For example, the painting Objects of Belief (Chung Pien) depicts an ornate golden vessel called a Chung Pien (ជើងពាន in Khmer), which is used in ceremonies such as weddings to hold sacred water. Scented with perfume and flowers, the water is splashed by monks on objects or people in order to bless them.
Klah Klok (2017) features a large eponymous sculpture of the popular Cambodian gambling game Klah Klok (ខ្លាឃ្លោក). While the dice are largely true to the game, small changes have been made, such as references to alms-giving, bribes, and romantic gifts. By melding together references of religion, corruption, and play, Than calls into question the notion of merit-making in a contemporary Cambodia rife with inequality and corruption. Starting perhaps with Than’s solo exhibition The Halo of the Omnipresent Eye (2012), he has been asking the nearly blasphemous question: is wealth a matter of luck, bribery, or merit, or are those distinctions even relevant in today’s morally ambiguous world?
Seed Bank (2018) consists of eight stunning large-scale acrylic paintings on white-washed monk robes, called Kashaya. Continuing Than’s larger practice, especially works from his Promotion (2013) series, Seed Bank realistically depicts and calls into question items of faith by interweaving religious items with various secular items. After the initial shock of realising that the backdrop is a robe, we more fully appreciate the eerie effect from the ghostly, off-coloured objects foregrounded.
I kept wondering, why “Seed Bank”? Are these items a collection of seeds, ready to be sown for a future Cambodia still coming to fruition? Are these the DNA of a country’s culture, tucked away for protection from a quickly changing world? I’m not sure, but I love the questions that arise. The name is all the more ripe for the fact that the Kashaya is designed after the grid of a rice field, the staple crop of Cambodia.
Taken together, the gorgeous show showcases Than’s long questioning of tangible Cambodian culture, and how in Cambodia, what are assumed to be irreconcilably distinct categories – corruption, religion, and hyperconsumption – can all bleed together. While Cambodia considers itself a Buddhist nation, with the country’s official motto being: “ជាតិ សាសនា ព្រះមហាក្សត្រ” or “Nation, Religion, King”, it remains one of the most corrupt in Southeast Asia. The giving of alms – a staple for Buddhist practice in the region – is as common for the elite as the giving of bribes.
From across the hall of the 35th floor gallery, I sit down to enjoy a $4 Americano and reflect on the show and a complex world wherein Buddhism, greed, hyper-consumption, and, yes, even powerful artistic critique, can sit so closely together. Looking south through the large rectangular windows, which offers one of the best views of the city, I can barely make out the Buddhist institute, the nation’s premier authority on Buddhism, now overshadowed entirely by a casino. I wonder if there could be no more poetic of a spot for Than’s excruciatingly detailed and quiet critiques of Buddhism grappling with modernisation than right here, in the nation’s tallest skyscraper. Just as the Buddhist Institute is an archive for the nation’s Buddhist documents, Seed Bank is a window into a Buddhism still emerging, one that is still very much being negotiated with the people and politics of today.
Objects of Belief runs through December 22nd at Rosewood Gallery, Vattanac Capital Tower, 66 Preah Moha Ksatreiyani Kossamak Ave, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.