Art from anguish

As one of Cambodia’s leading contemporary artists, Leang Seckon’s works draw upon the history and mythology of both his homeland and the chaos of the 20th century to transform tragedy and suffering into transcendent beauty

Words by Paul Millar  
Photography by Enric Català Contreras

Humble beginnings: Leang Seckon started life as a buffalo boy standing watch in the rice fields of Prey Veng, haunted by the bombs that once pounded the country. Now, he is one of Cambodia’s most celebrated contemporary artists

At six years old, Leang Seckon pried apart his parents’ stuttering old radio, leaving it in pieces on the wooden floor of his childhood home. Entranced by the lilting songs of Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, Cambodian singers lost in the maelstrom of the Khmer Rouge years, the young boy tangled his fingers through the wires, searching for the source of the sounds that had lifted him high above the village of his birth.

Seckon is not a boy anymore, but his eyes have lost none of their playful intensity. Striding about his studio in the backstreets of Phnom Penh, the artist runs his rough fingers across an enormous canvas where the faces of Cambodia’s most famous singers whirl among distant planets, immortalised in the music of the spheres.

“When I grew up, it was in a time of suffering,” he said. “But we needed something to support the mind. So the songs were moving me, and they both took care of my feelings – not my life, but my feelings. I felt so much suffering, hurt and pain for a long time. At that moment, music carried my body. It was like floating without the wind, beautiful. How life can connect to beauty is there, not here – already in the mind. That beautiful feeling is flying. It’s when we feel ‘oh, this is heaven’.”

“We had no paper, no anything. But already nature has given us so much to use, if we have the mind to use it”

Born just one year before the murderous Khmer Rouge swept to power in 1975 after years of fighting with the US-backed Lon Nol regime, Seckon’s earliest memories thunder with the pounding of American bombs. In one series, Heavy Skirt, he entwines the familiar floral patterns of his mother’s skirts with the blossoming of bombs across the Cambodian countryside, ripping through the roof of his house as his mother huddled in a nearby bunker, Seckon still growing inside her. Growing up in rural Cambodia through the years of Khmer Rouge atrocity and Vietnam’s decade-long occupation of the Kingdom, those memories continued to gnaw at his mind.

“Every moment changes the way you feel – when I was on the rice field, very quiet, a plane would fly overhead and make sound, and I would be shaking,” he said. “Art is very important – it joins part of everyday times to life. After four hours of hard work, five minutes listening to music helps fix you.”

It was not an auspicious beginning for one of Cambodia’s most recognisable contemporary artists. Seckon recalls long afternoons standing in the rice fields of Prey Veng province, tasked with watching the buffaloes that grazed knee-deep in the still water. Gifted with an insatiable imagination and a craving for a creative outlet, Seckon sought out any escape from the drudgery of daily life.

Artist at work (clockwise from top): Leang Seckon paces his studio in Phnom Penh; sketches for an upcoming painting; the tools of Seckon’s trade

“When my mother, my father were angry with me, I would climb to the top of a tree to see the view,” he said. “I felt like all my suffering, all my problems, were away to one side – and my mind was away to the other.”

Lacking even the most basic art supplies, Seckon soon turned to the natural world as his first medium, shaping red clay into sculptures to share with other children.

“I used many things from the environment – leaves and grass to cut and sew into costumes, clay from the lake to make sculpture, things we could play with and enjoy,” he said. “We had nothing to do – we had no paper, no anything. But already nature has given us so much to use, if we have the mind to use it.”

In the sacred temples of Angkor, the Buddhist monks who stored the ancient teachings of their religion traced the words of the Buddha onto dried leaves bound together like folding fans. Alone in the fields, Seckon learned to scratch his own designs onto bamboo leaves, rubbing ground-up grass into the leaves to imprint his patterns onto the makeshift paper. It wasn’t until he entered the fading pagoda of a village that Seckon glimpsed what an artist could do when given the right tools.

“I was living after war, and suffering, and pain,” he said. “And it’s very good to remember, because after that there was nothing to see, no artworks, no paintings. The first paintings I saw were on the walls inside the pagoda. It was so colourful – the trees green, the soil red – I thought it was from somewhere on another planet.”

That first aesthetic shock in the holy places of his native faith still resonates through Seckon’s work. On the enormous canvases piled against the walls of his Phnom Penh studio, images of the Buddha stride across canvases thick with figures from history and mythology; in one, US President John F. Kennedy stares down Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk under the heavy gaze of one of the S-21 detention centre’s most famous prisoners. In another, gods drawn from the abandoned faiths of antiquity watch as world leaders gather under the domed roof of the United Nations to forge a fragile peace in the aftermath of decades of civil war.

It is impossible to convey through the written word the sheer sensory shock of Seckon’s work, or its depth of meaning: playing cards and planets, politicians and perversions cavort across his canvases, enmeshed with a collage of symbols ranging from the hammer and sickle to the expanding waves of Wi-Fi. Expansive and expressive, his blend of painting and collage is a disorienting assault on the senses – it is only once you look past the sheer scale of his works that the meticulous attention to detail, the stories and secrets criss-crossing each canvas, become apparent.

For that boy standing in the rice fields, though, the success and fame that he has won seemed very distant indeed. Throwing himself into the scant opportunities offered by the local high school, his talent quickly caught the eye of a teacher who pushed him to travel to Phnom Penh and enter the capital’s Royal University of Fine Arts. It was a chance, he says, that not many people outside the Kingdom’s cities have had.

“A lot of the people who live in the villages, they have art in their minds but they don’t mention art – it’s something strange to other people,” he said. “The bird is luckier than me – he can fly everywhere, wherever he wants. Every day I’m standing in the rice field with these buffaloes, I felt stuck – there was so much pressure on myself. I didn’t just want to learn art, I wanted to learn language.”

For 20 years, Seckon lived on the shores of Boeung Kok lake, supporting himself through everything from sign-painting to design-work in the local daily newspapers. His first exhibition, which featured Buddhas robed in the gold lining of discarded cigarette packets and sacred apsara dancers clothed in the labels of Angkor beer bottles, was a radical reimagining of some of the Kingdom’s most sacred symbols in the commercial chaos of Cambodia at the turn of the century – and a critical success that would launch him into the international art scene. 

For Seckon, though, what continues to feed his manic drive to create is not commercial success, but the need to interrogate and dissect the turbulent history of his homeland – and it is to this end that he has dedicated his life’s work.

“Art is more open, and more free,” he said. “It has no rules. It can look from the top and see everything, the connections… I use my art for mending my life, for fixing its problems. Especially my experience of life in the war. Not just how I survived – but how I make art turning suffering from pain to beauty.”

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