Renowned Cambodian sculptor to give lecture, exhibit work in Ann Arbor

This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

"I make art because ultimately I'm a refugee, you know," says Cambodian sculptor Sopheap Pich. "I'm kind of living in this escape — perpetual escape. I think reality is very painful. It's already very painful here."
Pich, who is widely referred to as the most internationally prominent contemporary artist to emerge from Cambodia, will give a lecture on Feb. 1 at 5:30 p.m. at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series. His work will also be included in an exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), "Angkor Complex: Cultural Heritage and Post-Genocide Memory in Cambodia."
"I like things that are finished. I like to make things that are complete," Pich says. "... My life is just full of broken things. Broken home, broken history, and just displacement after displacement."
Pich was about 8 years old in 1979, when Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge regime was deposed. He and his family fled to Thailand, where they spent several years in refugee camps before immigrating to the United States.
"My art is a kind of hybrid between East, West, South, North, down, up — who knows," Pich says.
After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999, Pich began his career as a painter, but soon switched to sculpture. He is now known for producing large-scale works made primarily of bamboo and rattan, materials native to Southeast Asia that are frequently used in Cambodian crafts such as basket-weaving and fishnets. His work has been exhibited in major museums around the world, including the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the National Gallery of Singapore, and many others.
"[I] just kind of stumbled onto sculpture," says Pich, who calls his switch from painting "a total accident."
"Painting was an intellectual endeavor, really," he says. He differentiates between "creating something versus making — like I'm making something real versus I'm creating some illusion."
"Just being in touch with something real … requires a lot of time," Pich says. "There’s no shortcut to shaving bamboo, right?"
His process is extraordinarily labor-intensive. While many artists choose to work with machines to prepare materials like bamboo and rattan, Pich (and a handful of his assistants) operate by hand.
He says "the process of just feeling the material — smelling it, seeing its strength, its vulnerability — and just slowing down time," is both central to his art and paradoxically separate from it.
Slicing bamboo, shaving it, tying strands together, and so on is "not making art," Pich says, but labor. The meditative quality of this process appeals to Pich, who has also made a study of meditation itself.

"It’s just feeling ... that moment of focus when nothing else is coming into your head," he says.
A major characteristic of Pich’s work is its size: his sculptures sometimes extend all the way up to a gallery’s ceiling. In the past, he has destroyed pieces that he could not find a place to store.
"The experience of making something large obviously takes your whole self," Pich says. "You have to be fit. You have to be strong."
Because his process is so physically demanding, Pich says, it "[empties] out whatever was in my head into my body."
The result, in an act that resembles a kind of alchemy, is something "substantial" made from nothing more palpable than thought. "Therefore," Pich says, "after a day of work, I feel satisfied. I [don’t] feel like I lack anything."
And yet, in sculptures like "Morning Glory" (2011), "Seated Buddha" (2012), or "Compound" (2011), Pich demonstrates an intricate delicacy that seems to belie the scale of the sculptures, with lines as fine-boned as lace but with the integrity and strength of scaffolding.
In his early 30s, Pich moved back to Cambodia, where he still lives (and has begun painting again). After he finished graduate school, he says, he felt "lost" and "like I didn’t have a grounding, like I [didn’t] know what I was going to paint about, what my art was going to be about."
His country of birth had been an ongoing, omnipresent fixation ever since he’d left, he says. The political situation had stabilized enough that a return felt feasible and, in any case, he says he didn't know where else he would go.
"I’d think about Cambodia all the time when I was in school — all the time," Pich says. Even then, his preoccupation with the country and its history was evident in his work.
In college, he says, "I wanted to paint people killing each other…and my professor would say, ‘What for? You should be learning how to draw and paint and learn the compositions and the colors.’"
When Pich protested — "I just want to paint people killing each other," he’d insist — his instructor responded, "No, no, no, no, no."
Now, Pich says, his meditative and utterly absorptive approach to his artistic process gives him an alternative way to access (or exorcise) the violence he’s been witness to throughout his life.
"Dedicating my whole body [to] a work was like — you’re just exhausted. You don't have time to really over-think it," he says.
The title of Pich’s Penny Stamps lecture is "Wading, Ploughing, Waiting," which is "what we do as farmers," he says. "That’s what we do as people that live with nature."
Meanwhile, Pich acknowledges that his sculptures "all say different things," but that he doesn’t "put too much effort into figuring out what they say to me anymore …  I just accept that things tell you their stories."

More information on Pich's Feb. 1 Penny Stamps lecture is available here. "Angkor Complex" will be on display at UMMA Feb. 3-July 28, and more information is available here.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Photo courtesy of Sopheap Pich and Tyler Rollins Fine Art.
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