Than Sok’s art is making waves around the world

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Than Sok’s The shapes of water – or Kbach Teuk in Khmer – is a series of 18 compositions in acrylic paint on canvas with repeated motifs on a blue, green, yellow ocher and gray background intended to represent the mobility of water and the transformations it has undergone from the ancient past to in modern times.

Sok has gained international recognition for his works and he recently exhibited the series of paintings in Laos, Singapore and France.

Besides his paintings, Sok is an artist who works in a variety of mediums, including drawing, painting, installations, videos and even live performances in which he “conjures doubles, replicas, re-presentations and resemblances of materials, spaces and rituals linked to Cambodia. .”

He has done solo and group exhibitions both locally and internationally in countries like Australia, Japan, Poland, Myanmar, Singapore, Laos, Germany, Thailand and many more.

“I studied at the Reyum art school from 2002 to 2007 in Phnom Penh. I was trained in the rigorous lines of kbach, proportional rules and applications of composition, while learning figurative painting in the traditions of perspective and flat. I extended the fundamental studies to the practice of contemporary art in the first and only studio of the Reyum art school from 2005 to 2007,” Sok told The Post.

At the time, Sok says the language, the art market here and his own living conditions were the three main challenges he faced as an artist.

He says he rode his bike for seven years while studying at Reyum and came to class covered in sweat, but that didn’t matter to him.

Than Sok, 38, makes drawings, paintings, installations, videos and performances. PROVIDED

“Over the years, I have been exposed to – and often participated in – Reyum’s rich ethnographic research and exhibits. I was also able to learn with associate and guest researchers, artists and curators. This experience – combined with my studies abroad in the early 2000s – was unique, especially at a time when the internet remained mostly inaccessible,” he says.

During his studies, he started drawing at the night market to earn some pocket money – but he says it was worth it to get the education provided by Reyum.

“I gained a critical insight into the notions and practices of cultural traditions and the importance of continuity, which profoundly influenced my own thinking, and I began to take an interest in conceptual art,” says the 38-year-old artist.

From her art school days until now, language has been a difficult barrier to overcome, says Sok. He says he only understands a little English and finds it difficult to communicate when he exhibits in other countries.

Reminiscing about his studies, Sok recalls that at the time, the art market in Cambodia was quite small and that the current market for contemporary Cambodian art is still a relatively new phenomenon.

And, he says, while he was in school, it was difficult for him to do research because the internet was not widely available in the Kingdom and social media like Facebook didn’t really exist until the mid-1990s. years, so whenever he needed to research Kbach Khmer or any other classical Khmer art tradition he would need to go straight to places like palace, temples or museums.

After graduating from Reyum, Sok then went on to study architecture at Norton University in Phnom Penh, thinking that architecture is also creative and an art form in its own way, but wasn’t really the type of art he wanted to create in his heart and in the end he focused on drawing and painting again.

“To be frank, there were times when I hesitated to continue. I understood that it is rare for an artist to become rich through his works, but I guess every artist has in his heart the passion and love that drives us to keep going no matter the money. In my case, I have exhibited many times, but only once in a while have I sold art,” says Sok.

One thing they had in Cambodia at the time was art galleries which acted as gathering places for artists and they started doing group shows locally which then led to group opportunities in also abroad and who opened the door and gave hope to his generation of artists when they were young, he says.

Although he has been creating art for many years now, Sok considers 2009 to be a turning point in his artistic career. He began to take it more seriously and investigated topics such as religious and spiritual beliefs and rituals while experimenting with different materials and mediums such as sculpture, installation, video and performance.

Content Image - Phnom Penh Post

Patrons view Sok’s work at the 10th Asia Pacific Contemporary Art Triennial at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. LEE WILKES

“Because I have encountered many different spiritual beliefs over the years, I am always curious to learn more about how beliefs differed in the past from today, how they have changed over time. and why or in what context.

“So I would say most of my inspiration comes from when I come across something that’s unusual or breaks the ‘rules’ of the art that I’ve learned before – and those examples become new lessons that I share with my audience”, the Phnom Penh based artist said.

Kbach Teuk was painted in 2018 and the series made its debut in Laos at the group exhibition Elevation Laos as drawings on paper slightly larger than the standard A4 size. Since then, he has been developing the concept and presentation of water mobility at trade fairs in Singapore in 2019 and in France in February 2022.

“Kbach, in the Khmer language, has several meanings, referring to specific gestures of dance and theater, such as kbach robam, or to particular techniques of Khmer boxing such as kbach kun, as well as to a vast vocabulary of ornamental shapes that decorate objects and architectural elements. surfaces – often linked to the divine – throughout Cambodia.

“In the case of Kbach Teuk I refer to the design of an ancient water vessel that I have seen repeated over and over again elsewhere in Khmer art, and I continue that repetition today,” he explains.

Each of the Kbach TeukThe eighteen canvases of are saturated with monochromatic or mixed color variations, one dominant color permeating each composition.

While certain colors refer to the artist’s experience with different bodies of water – from the red-brown of the muddy Mekong in the rainy season to the blues of the sea and the greens of the marsh waters or the yellow-browns of the mangrove wetlands.

Other colors pay homage to the water found painted in Cambodian temples – sometimes aged and faded, but in some cases brilliantly restored or newly created.

“I wanted to create something new, from one step to another, until the last variation exhibited in Paris at the Batia Sarem gallery, where the series ends, after having been explored from its roots to its ramifications,” he says.

Sok layers each color – each body of water – with delicate, rhythmic lines, infusing each with a unique character, drawing inspiration from the interdependent life forms found in each type of water – plants like water lilies and hyacinths or animals like frogs, snails and snakes, in addition to the invisible forces that move water and shape it into waves and tides.

On each of his 18 distinct canvases, Kbach Teuk contains a complete composition with an immersive pattern, but which moves according to the viewer’s position and proximity to the painting, just like the water itself, which is always in motion, perceptible or not.

“I don’t know what the future holds for my art but I just know that I will continue to work on it because I will never leave something that is so close to my heart.

“All I want is for the Khmers to be more open and understand what the arts can do. I hope that the younger generation – whether students or academics – will take up the challenge, especially by creating contemporary art, because there are many opportunities for them,” says Sok.

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