With the Kingdom’s booming arts scene, it is not a rare instance to stumble upon an invite to an exhibition opening almost every other week in Phnom Penh. However, what keeps the crowd coming back is the personalised story each exhibition tells. While two narratives can be alike, they can never be an exact replica of one another. This time, Anith Adilah Othman sits with Ouk Socheaty, the man behind amazing ceramic works currently showcased at the French Institute of Cambodia.
Oscar Wilde once said that art is the only serious thing in the world, and the artist is the only person who is never serious. If you had met Ouk Socheaty, you would know that Wilde was not far off from the truth.
In a glance, Socheaty seemed like an average joe – with his short-sleeved shirt casually tucked into his pants, carrying a backpack on his one shoulder. He is humble, too, and generous with his smiles. However, what sets him apart from the rest of the crowd sitting at the cafe of the French Institute of Cambodia is that the Institute has dedicated a whole room to showcase Socheaty’s artwork.
With degrees from the Royal University of Fine Arts, the National Institute of Education and the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, Socheaty is of the major contemporary artists in the ceramic art in Cambodia.
His works have often been exhibited in private art galleries in Cambodia as well as the National Museum of Phnom Penh and in other major international institutes such as the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, USA, the Yixing Ceramic Museum in China, the Shanghai Gallery of Art or in the French Cultural Center of Sendai, Japan.
After six years of hiatus, he is now back to showcase 38 art pieces – 23 of which he created especially for this exhibition.
“I am very excited. My last exhibition was in 2013. It was really hard for me to fight for my arts. I had to really juggle between a full-time job and making ceramics. My family is all the way in Siem Reap so I have to find time to see them too,” he said, explaining that he is currently an instructor and an academic officer at the Secondary School of Fine Arts.
When asked how he did it, Socheaty laughed and said: “I work at night and during all the holidays. I don’t get a day off. We have a workshop at the school where I create so I am always there. I sleep, eat, work, and craft there.”
Most of his work is often marked by Buddhist cosmology, in which he draws his creative inspiration. The technique he used is also unique as it comes from the Kulen ceramic tradition, one of the most important in Southeast Asia due to its glaze, its firing techniques and its unique form.
“I would like to share my experience in a different perspective. There are not many ceramicists out there so I would like to remind people that ceramics once had its glory days during the Angkorian times.
“The history is beautiful. From being used as functional items, to decors, to eventually being admired as art. Since the collapse of the Angkor period, ceramics were forgotten for a while, mostly replaced with terracotta.
“Along with the globalisation of arts, I feel the need to share my artwork with others,” he told
Good Times2 in a recent interview.
For this exhibition, Socheathy has chosen to present brand new ceramic works, which he made from natural materials from his immediate environment.
“I mostly use natural clays, some found in Kampong Chhang and Siem Reap. I also make my own clay, I make my own glaze. I really like to be fully involved with the whole process. I thoroughly enjoy it. I believe that having true love for something will ensure a better outcome.
“Sometimes I spend a whole day experimenting with the clay. I’ll go up a mountain to find raw materials. Making ceramics is also great in the sense that I get to practice all the things I learn in chemistry classes in high school,” he said.
Despite having magic hands, Socheaty admitted that it is not easy to complete a ceramic creation.
“If I’m outside and I get some inspiration, I would sketch them out on whatever I can find. Then I’d go back to my ‘laboratory’ and try to recreate it. The results vary. Sometimes the finished product is not what I expected. After the firing process, sometimes the structure would just collapse I’d have to destroy it. But magic can also happen by accident.
“I also get a lot of cuts all over my hands, especially when installing and assembling the materials,” he said, laughingly.
Socheaty said he hopes the exhibition would spark some discourse about arts in general
“I hope people will feel something and start to have some thoughts. I hope they can feel inspired and leave the gallery with an urge to create something new themselves. I also hope they will give me feedback about how I can improve as an artist,” he said.
Concurrently, Socheaty’s artworks will be showcased alongside the metal sculptures of another renowned Cambodian sculptor Ou Vanndy. Making use entirely of recycled materials, Vanndy’s works are known to be inspired by traditional or contemporary mythologies – as evidenced by the massive bull sculpture now installed in front of the French Institute of Cambodia.
Vanndy has also turned the gardens of the Institute into his own sculpture park. Those interested to take a closer look at the artwork of the Kingdom’s two most brilliant artists can visit the Institute for free. The exhibition opened on Thursday (June 20) and it will be on until August 10.