Sensing Space – Interiors of Cambodia
It’s five months since my return from Cambodia and there remains a handful of memories of particular strength. What connects these memories quickly emerges – they are all about the use of interior space. Space which had been intruded, abandoned, emptied out or full of presence, of light and shape. Themes I might explore in my 2d, small scale work back home, but here, these themes are to be simply felt. Visually arresting for sure but also provoking a range of emotion and in doing so, strengthening my recall.
How does the use of a space and the resulting shapes create these responses? I doubt I’ll answer this in a hurry, but I am fascinated by the power these spaces can emit. What I noticed about my own response was a swiftness to connect to artworks stored away in my head, sculptural, visual works that may have provoked similar sensations, regardless of environment. Large scale works by artists like Kapoor, Whiteread and Turrell. And this becomes my self directed task, to share these spaces and attempt to draw lines between art and life.
Light and Shade
High up in the Bokor Mountains sits a collection of French Colonial buildings from the 1920’s. One of these is the Old Casino, now a hallowed-out shell of a building with mountain winds free to move through the glassless windows. With no way to reflect the sunlight, these spaces begin to describe the void, daring the visitor to enter the darkness within. Yes, my imagination ignited.
The interior is stripped bare, no furnishings to suggest a luxurious casino from the past. But plenty to remind as a last hide out for the Khmer Rouge. The cold concrete surfaces seem to suck in all moisture and air. People are free to wander among the rooms, hallways, multiple staircases and dead-ends. Without visual markings to define each space, the visitor is left muddled, left to get lost and found among the rooms. I move internally between a sense of repulsion and awe. The emptiness and history is unsettling but the aesthetic beautiful, perfect even. Watching the sunlight fold and fill sharply onto the floor, elegant geometry at play, light forming shape. In the shady interior the sunlight beams angles of momentary warmth. My notion to escape this building is interrupted by these slices of executed light. Back in the UK, I visit the exhibition of The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography collection by Sir Elton John at the Tate Modern. I find my mind wandering back to Bakor mountain as I view the work. Within the collection are reminders how light and shade have always been used as compositional tools. The photograms and angles of László Moholy-Nagy, architectural focus of Werner Mantz and atmospheric still life of Jaromir Funke.
With the concrete exposed, the building’s bones revealed and unadorned by past fashions, I think of works by Rachel Whiteread. Impressed upon by these volumes of concrete in the building, my eye seeks to invert the solid surroundings, turn them inside out, become disorientated by merges of volume and negative space. It feels similar to the uncanny of Whiteread’s house and stairs, the familiar and the alien at meeting point. I become aware of a certain grief, nausea or ache of something long gone. This place saw opulence, violence and lastly abandonment. A range of experience fixed in the walls. My feelings perhaps heightened by the altitude, the windswept walking and general fatigue. I roam to the top floor, seeking the more optimistic sunshine. There are no plaques or audio guides to navigate and ground the visitor. So we are left to project our own demons or dreams, beware your frame of mind entering this place. The effect here would be lessened in a grey, muted climate. It is the very physical movement between light and dark, the high contrasts that makes you dizzy. I blame too much Hitchcock and episodes of The Prisoner for my own fate here.
Occupation not by people, but by trees. Cambodia’s number one place of interest – the Angkor temples. The site is immense, set within forest land over 400 square km, temples are scattered throughout, all built between the 9th and 15th century during the Khmer Empire. Each temple is a record of design, craft and belief. Like many, top of my list of temples to visit were the tree filled Ta Prohm and Ta Som, made famous by films like Tomb Raider. Visitors line up and move slowly through the structures of creaking roots, trunks and stone combined. Time and climate have fused the textures here into one, as if always in co-existence. It is now too risky for the safety of the temple to have the trees removed, so here they remain.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, the temples were abandoned for centuries, leaving the trees free to invade, forever upsetting the order of inside and outside. What is this visceral reaction to a tree-engulfed wall? It seems to provoke such drama and unease, too easy to say creepy. I combine these feelings with those left at Bakor, what I know to be true is subverted, re-arranged in front of me. My security of how things should be is shaken. I feel naive here among the ancient temple and trees, insignificant in probably a healthy, very human way, whilst up against epic themes of nature and time passing. Here I am witness to time having past a great deal, way beyond my own meagre lifespan. Maybe its that. These unexpected shapes of tree and stone reminding me of my own mortality, to be quashed eventually just like these tree roots strangling the brickwork in its path.
Which artists come to mind among the trees? I think of artists working with land and nature, someone like Goldsworthy. I came across an image of Hanging Tree from his past exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture park. A stone wall built around a fallen tree. In opposition to Ta Prohm, the wall appears to act as protector/holder of the tree. Goldsworthy often uses the tree form as a starting point in his work – to weave and surround with willow or direct further stone paths through forest. Although with much artifice, Goldsworthy’s touch can remain light, and I think at its best when materials are free to suggest their own shapes and line. When his work is brought inside like Clay Room or Oak Room it takes on a new power, elevating the familiar and humble to something rarefied as in Ta Prohm.
I return to memories of Bakor mountain for this theme of presence. Another seemingly abandoned space, this time, the old Catholic Church along the road from the old casino. Although stripped of most furniture and decoration familiar to most Catholic Churches, a few symbolic touches remain. Amid the quiet are the figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Who would not be saddened by their broken, absent faces, in sharp relief against the whitewashed wall. Their presence remaining strong, however threatened by graffiti and debris.
The familiar sense of stillness within a church is thrown out here. The interior has seen much action, a hold up during battles, its wounds seen in bullet-holed walls. Today, the scene feels at once barren and frenetic. Spirit and man circling the church, neither feeling finished as the wind continues to blow. There are many clues to detect the past and present life of this church, too enticing to ignore. Who supplies the bright-white altar cloth and burns the incense? Who wounds Mary, writes on the walls or eats their lunch off this stone floor? For all its isolation up on the mountain, it has its caretakers. It’s brighter than many a church I’ve entered, daylight pouring in from windows, now free of any adornment or obstruction. Where the old casino remained dark inside, here there is so much light. I feel a need to connect with the holy figures here, thankful for them in this worn out space, but forced to reflect back their pain. What remains feels a space both for sorrow and hope.
Connections to other artworks is more tricky, I’m drawn more to film rather than sculpture or photography to explore this sense of presence. Artists who might use long, still shots, textural composition and natural sound and I think of Russian film maker Andrei Tarkovsky, who talked about ‘sculpting in time’. ‘By using long takes and few cuts in his films, he aimed to give the viewers a sense of time passing, time lost, and the relationship of one moment in time to another.’ I found Poetic Harmony a very helpful video essay about Tarkovsky and a good starting point for his work.
Of my most vivid memories of Cambodia, this theme remains top. My cycle through the salt fields of Kampot, right on the south coast of the country was a favourite day during my travels. That afternoon cemented once again my textile roots, where colour, shape and texture all combine along dusty roads of an extremely flat landscape. The terracotta sandy paths burnt into my mind, along with the contrasting grey salt fields and rusty coloured huts on the road to the sea. I never got to the sea, I was too slow before nightfall, distracted with photographs, meeting locals and exploring every hut in reach.
The odd gap in the wall of the huts meant I could peer inside. I saw mini landscapes of salt, mound after mound, from floor to ceiling. Piles of salt shaded from the sun, ready to be transported to factories for iodising. Along came that peculiar sensation in response to the disrupted space. These were interiors filled with one task, not at all domestic, no spaces or corners exposed to give shape to the room. How I ‘know’ a room was challenged again. The icy whites of the salt mounds made me think of snow peaks, a miniature mountain range held up by bamboo and iron.
I consider an artist who creates similar sensations with shape. I immediately think of Kapoor, sculpting with colour and material to make shapes you know and don’t know at once. Scale and perspective used as tools to fool and amaze the viewer of their position in a space.
The wind plays its role again, in my last theme, taking place back up on Bakor mountain. This time it’s the old villa where huge panoramic once-windows dominate the ground floor. It’s also an empty, abandoned shell, but this villa feels different to the church and casino. Rather than a focus on the interior, the position of wide windows steer the eye to the horizon. It’s the outside seen from within that is the film to watch here. The space is re-framed by these windows. I stand and watch my nature films play out, long grasses blowing in the wind, live TV of hurried movement out there, but still and quiet in here. This carefully selected view feels now elevated, merely by the suggestion of the interior frame.
I think of the light artist James Turrell, so practised at guiding and managing our view. I think of his Sky Spaces, ‘a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky.’ Or his mammoth undertaking of the Roden Crater – a large-scale artwork created within a volcanic cinder cone by light and space, a controlled environment for the experiencing and contemplation of light.’ Turrell says “My desire is to set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience.” There’s no meddling with the content of what one might see, but carefully designed space to support the act of seeing – to affect the quality of our experience of seeing.
Through writing this I’ve been considering if there is a way to connect my experiences of these interiors. I don’t think it’s just about being in Cambodia. There are opportunities to explore provocative space wherever we are. I think it helps if the space is new to us, jolting us into being more aware. Cambodia was new for me, every day I was guaranteed to be surrounded by something new. That was my mission of travel, so it was inevitable I would collect sensations. When home, I think art plays its ultimate role – heightening our awareness wherever we seek it. Although sounding uncomfortable, I think it’s about the act of being displaced. Some might say art is about being transported, but I feel ‘displaced’ is closer to the bone – more realistic. The power of my response seems to lie in that dual presence of what I know and what I do not know – something disrupted, maybe it’s about drama. I always liked the elegant solution by artist Christo who ‘changed up’ familiar surroundings or ways of knowing a place. A gift to those who live nearby the artworks. He and his team famously wrapped up in cloth, landmarks like the Reichstag in Germany and the Pont Neuf in Paris. One of my favourites is The Valley Curtain in Colarado, where Christo altered the landscape on a huge scale with a piece of cloth. He altered the view for all those driving through the valley and in doing so, forever altered the experience for those on the road.