On a recent trip to Phnom Penh, I was really excited to visit the studio of one of the leading Cambodian Contemporary artists, Sopheap Pich. I have seen his works at various biennales, including Christine Macel’s Venice Biennale in 2017, at exhibitions (he just had a stunning exhibition at Tina Keng Gallery in Taiwan) and at art fairs around the world. He is already in major public collections such as the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museums in New York, Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Mori Museum in Tokyo, among others.
I’ve been coming to Cambodia for 30 years, and my love for the charming kingdom, the sweetness and simplicity of its people, and the wealth of its culture and history has grown over time.
So here I was back in Phnom Penh, driving 45mins from the city centre to Sopheap Pich’s studio. When I arrived, there was lots of activity going on: the studio looked like a bee hive. His whole team was busy working on the installation of large trees he is preparing for the Gwangju Biennale opening in April. When he returned to Cambodia in 2002, Sopheap Pich had several studios before finding this one. Originally a rice field, it is now a tropical garden with trees he planted and a large water pond full of nenuphar. The studio is a warehouse built from scratch with a storage area for the various raw material used for the artworks, rattan (dipped in barrels full of diesel to remove any insects and sugar and to ensure proper conservation), bamboo, large pieces of wood used as a mould and used pots and pans which are flattened and sculpted around the tree-mould.
Inside there is a smaller room, Sopheap’s laboratory, where he draws (trained as a painter, drawing is still an important part of his practice), paints, learns the guitar and writes (one finger at a time) on his typewriter the first draft of proposals, concepts for exhibitions, and applications, before transferring it to his computer. He left Cambodia with his family in 1979 at the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, which he describes as a cult, and was in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. From 1984, he grew up in the US. When he returned to Cambodia in 2002, he started experimenting with 3D works using rattan and bamboo from his homeland. Since then, the material has become the core of his artistic language.
During our conversation, we talked about identity, being Khmer and growing up in the US, where he studied Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, the organisation of his team and the support group he has built over the years. Some of his assistants have been with him for 20 years. He explained the strong influence of Japanese artists and philosophy in his artistic journey, particularly Ray Yoshida, his professor at the Art Institute, who taught him the musicality of the painting.
Sopheap’s work is organic, minimalist, abstract, and figurative: he makes large bio-morphic sculptures inspired by organs (he studied med school before art), vegetal forms, and abstract geometric structures. There is an inner sense of freedom, flow and poetry. Yet it is about creating a personal and distinctive visual language, nourished by memories, subconscious images and the “slow labour of making something from nothing”.
Talking to Sopheap, I realised that he constantly experiments with new materials and techniques and dares to put himself at risk. For example, at the Venice Biennale in 2017, he presented drawings: dipping a stick of bamboo in a mixture of earth pigments and gum Arabic and repeatedly pressing it on watercolour paper, expressing the passing of time. This spring, he will do a residency in France, experimenting with a new material: glass.
Next to the studio in another part of the garden, Sopheap has built a beautiful house, simple yet stylish, where we had delicious Japanese green tea. There, together with his wife, Sam I-shan, a Singaporean curator, we talked about the Art world, Art, Cambodia and serendipity… it was a precious moment when you wish the day would never end.
Words and photo by Virgine Puertolas-Syn ©Artlyst 2023