Across the road from the south wall of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is an alley known as Street 240½, where late last year a section of blank wall was transformed into a huge portrait of legendary Cambodian singer Kak Channthy. The artist behind this mural is Guatemalan Erick Gonzalez, who on Saturday 11 May has a new exhibition, illusion/dis/illusion, opening at Bong the Gallery on Sothearos Boulevard, just north of Street 178.
Rather than street art, this collection includes a range of high concept pieces, commentaries on contemporary life in Cambodia – summed up perhaps in one of the most straightforward works, a painting of Apsara dancing in jeans, or an image depicting the blind leading the blindfolded. Erick and I met this week to discuss his life and work and love of Cambodia.
Can you tell me about the long and probably strange journey you made from Guatemala to Cambodia?
Erick: I left my country around 2005 to settle in France, motivated above all by curiosity and the romantic idea that I had of France, but also for the desire to see another reality, it was a kind of cultural migration.
However, this adventure took me further, not only in the personal but in the artistic. Not speaking the language at the beginning made me focus on my artistic production, trying to create artworks with more universal codes. The same logic of curiosity also brought me to Cambodia, the same circumstance and the same response, travelling to discover the world that surrounds me.
What made me stay [in Cambodia] was the fact that I felt at home. Finding certain historical and social similarities, typical of the third world, but to be honest, what really makes me stay in this country is the people. Their ability to rebuild themselves after a traumatic period and the sincerity with which they show themselves as they are. Finding that humanity in danger of extinction that I began to notice after more than ten years living in Europe.
At this moment, my eyes are still open like the first time I came to Cambodia. Attentive, surprised and contemplative of this society that never ceases to amaze me. For the good and for the bad that every society entails.
I’ve known your work in the past in stencils, street art, murals – but never in a gallery space. In which media are you most at home?
Erick: I started my artistic career as most of artists: painting, but after more than ten years, I began to find new ways that allowed me to express myself better like photography, objects (or contemporary sculpture, found objects, or whatever you want to call it), the installation and the optical art.
After this search, I think that what gives me more pleasure is to create objects. A practice that dates back almost a century – from Marcel Duchamp to artists such as Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei.”
What artists and atmospheres have inspired you the most in Cambodia?
Erick: As an artist all cultural expressions inspire me. Some more than others, but what is important and what really touches me is the attitude of some Cambodian artists in the face of a society almost indifferent to artistic practice, a society whose priorities are elsewhere. I have been lucky in meeting people who make art from all fronts: music, painting, performance, literature, photo, street art and dance. It’s not the artistic production that inspires me, but the attitude of those artists, always faithful to the belief that art can change something in their society, swimming against the current and staying firm.
Would you say you are more driven from your own observation and contemplation or by the vividness of the world around you?
Erick: I believe that your question carries the answer in good order. I started creating art from my own vision of my society, of my daily reality. Then, with the years of experience and artistic evolution, I try to make of my works a reflection of the society in which I live. Without judgments. Without answers. Sometimes I hit, sometimes I’m wrong, but that’s part of the process. There is nothing to regret. I just try to show people what I see of them and of the society. I think art can help to find sense to this life. Art is also a source of know-ledge.
The exhibition, illusion/dis/illusion, opens at Bong the Gallery on Sothearos Boulevard, just north of Street 178, on Saturday May 11 at 7 pm.