Conversation with artist Pen Robit

15 March 2022

‘Wings Of Tomorrow’ at Silapak Trotchaek Pneik

By Vivyan Yeo

Pen Robit. ©STP Cambodia (Bun Chan), 2022.
Pen Robit. ©STP Cambodia (Bun Chan), 2022.

Pen Robit is a Cambodian artist who explores the socio-political fabric of Cambodia. Through figurative and abstract paintings, he examines the country’s past, present and future through the use of Cambodian cultural iconography.

His works were recently displayed in the solo exhibition, ‘Wings Of Tomorrow’ at Silapak Trotchaek Pneik (STP) and are currently on view at the solo presentation, ‘The Ontology of Form and Colour’ at Rosewood Phnom Penh Art Gallery. In this conversation, we ask Pen about his background in fine art and circus performance, his thoughts on the Cambodian art scene, and the ideas behind his artistic motifs.

You graduated from Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang and then furthered your studies at the Pivaut Applied School of Art in France. What began your life as an artist?

I was brought up in the house of a painter. I recall my world being flush with colours: portraiture, commercial signs, cinema banners and billboards produced by my father. This environment instigated me to take up a brush and pencil. The major turning point was my time at Phare Ponleu Selpak. The school cultivated my creative mind and introduced me to a different world of modern and contemporary art. I had the chance to learn about artists like Jackson Pollock and meet great artists such as Vann Nath and Sera Ing. They inspired me to be an artist, express myself, and take a different path from my father.

How has your experience being an instructor and a performer in Phare, the Cambodian Circus influenced your practice?

Teaching helped me form a habit of researching and exploring new ideas, which plays a role in my artistic practice today. My latest series, ‘Wings of Tomorrow’, is the product of such research endeavours. Performing at Phare further developed my interest in live art and grew confidence within me. As a result, I believe the colours and brushstrokes used in my last few series are full of conviction.

Installation view of ‘Wings of Tomorrow’. ©STP Cambodia (Bun Chan), 2022.
Installation view of ‘Wings of Tomorrow’. ©STP Cambodia (Bun Chan), 2022.

You had a solo show titled ‘Wings of Tomorrow’ organised by STP, a gallery lead by Reaksmey Yean that has just reopened in January 2022, in collaboration with Richard Koh Fine Art (RKFA). For this exhibition, why did you decide to explore the concept of order in Cambodia?

The concept of power intrigues me. I have always liked to paint portraits and military and police uniforms, even in my early days exploring the story of krama. I am interested in what power is and what it does. One thing that power claims to do is to keep order. I am not trying to explain the nature of order, such as whether it is evil or virtuous. Instead, I am trying to scrutinise what it is and unveil its many sides and dualities. Expanding this concept provides me with the time, space, and entry points to think about Cambodia and its modern history. By extension, the series became a framework for me to reflect on contemporary regional and global socio-political issues: authoritarianism, military coups, and modernisation. The dynamic between power and order is what really sparked this series.

“I am not trying to explain the nature of order, such as whether it is evil or virtuous. Instead, I am trying to scrutinise what it is and unveil its many sides and dualities. Expanding this concept provides me with the time, space, and entry points to think about Cambodia and its modern history.”

— Pen Robit

What does a space like STP provide to Cambodia, and what observations do you have about the local art scene in general?

I want to see more galleries, spaces, artists, curators, and art books in Cambodia. With diversity in mind, I want to see the Cambodian art scene develop a cosmopolitan outlook and atmosphere. We still have a small art ecosystem, but the emergence of galleries like STP in Phnom Penh is expanding and diversifying the scene. This is very exciting because we can experience more voices, styles and stories. This is not to mention that we now have more local collectors and supporters, who enrich and sustain our cultural industry and ecosystem.

Pen Robit, ‘Beautiful Day’, 2020, oil on canvas, 155 x 120cm. ©Phearun Yin/STP Cambodia, 2022
Pen Robit, ‘Beautiful Day’, 2020, oil on canvas, 155 x 120cm. ©Phearun Yin/STP Cambodia, 2022

In your solo shows ‘Out Of This World’ at RKFA in 2020 and in ‘Wings Of Tomorrow’, we see recurring motifs such as the rose, skulls, tigers and military uniforms. How do some of these cultural iconography feed into your compositions?

These shows are important signposts in my story and visual repertoire. They represent the dualities existing within nature – life and death, power and weakness, and love and determination. These are everyday familiar imageries that carry the same meanings across cultures. For instance, an image of a tiger would often represent a powerful force, masculinity, or repressive authority. I play with these symbolisms to create imaginary and unfamiliar compositions.

Pen Robit, ‘Primitive Life’, 2020, oil on canvas, 125 x 125cm. ©Phearun Yin/STP Cambodia, 2022
Pen Robit, ‘Primitive Life’, 2020, oil on canvas, 125 x 125cm. ©Phearun Yin/STP Cambodia, 2022

Most of your painted figures are have expressionless, generic faces, and are directly looking at the audience. They are also either fully clothed or depicted nude. What are your thoughts on these choices?

In my mind, each of my paintings in both ‘Wings of Tomorrow’ and ‘Out of this World’ is similar to a theatrical stage, where I am the director. This is like in the Theatre of the Oppressed, where actors require active participation from the audience to complete the story. Instead of imitating nature, my characters have been deformed, denaturalised and at times, transfigured. For instance, the female figures in my paintings  project masculine characteristics such as muscles. The clothed and unclothed figures, like the expressionless faces, reference the known and unknown; some facts are hidden, and some are revealed, but nothing guarantees the truth.

“The clothed and unclothed figures, like the expressionless faces, reference the known and unknown; some facts are hidden, and some are revealed, but nothing guarantees the truth.”

— Pen Robit

Besides figurative paintings, you have created multiple series of abstract works around the krama, a traditional Khmer checkered scarf. How did you develop your interest in this material? 

It all began in a workshop with my teacher, the late Srey Bandaul, and my visit to the Killing Fields during another workshop with the late Vann Nath and Sera Ing. I would see krama piled with the remains of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. These experiences inspired me to observe the way krama is used in Cambodian society. Krama, for me, is a signpost of social class, status, and national identity. Lately, however, I see krama as an interconnecting fabric, a woven fascia linking components across the body of society. Krama shares similar patterns to that of metal mesh, which is common in urban landscapes throughout Cambodia and the rest of the world. It becomes a visual symbol for the spread of modernisation and urbanisation.

Pen Robit, ‘Intersection’, 2021, enamel paint on canvas, 120 x 120cm. ©Phearun Yin, STPCambodia, 2022.
Pen Robit, ‘Intersection’, 2021, enamel paint on canvas, 120 x 120cm. ©Phearun Yin, STPCambodia, 2022.

You have another ongoing show titled ‘The Ontology of Form and Colour’ at Rosewood Phnom Penh Art Gallery. This show presents 21 abstract paintings that were conceptualised during a three-month art residency at STP. What has this residency given to your practice?

Besides giving me time, financial support, and access to archival materials, Reaksmey’s provocative questions have pushed me to take another step in my deployment of krama motifs and colours. In ‘The Ontology of Form and Colour’, I see my paintings as reliefs, sculptures, fabrics and landscapes. This perspective allows me to work beyond a two-dimensional composition, thus generating a different way of seeing, experiencing, entering, and making my artwork. Reaksmey’s questions motivate me to delve into a research-based practice. He loves books, and it seems like he is encouraging everyone to love books in the same way. This is probably why he has been working to expand the STP’s library collection. I must admit that his provocative questions have sometimes been disturbing, but over time, I slowly began to shift my view and understand his perspective.

How has the pandemic impacted your artistic career?

I think the obvious answer would be how my access to money and international opportunities have been cut short since 2021. However, it is best to look at the positive side. The pandemic reinforced the fact that the world is systematically complex and interconnected. It also unveiled that the local audience and market are as important as the global community. Focusing on the local scene is not inward-looking. Rather, it helps us create a resilient future. Moving forward, I hope to engage with local audiences more and contribute to a thriving Cambodian art scene.

“The pandemic reinforced the fact that the world is systematically complex and interconnected. It also unveiled that the local audience and market are as important as the global community. Focusing on the local scene is not inward-looking. Rather, it helps us create a resilient future. ”

— Pen Robit

Pen Robit, ‘Various Forms’, 2021, enamel paint on canvas, 155 x 200cm. ©Phearun Yin, STPCambodia, 2022.
Pen Robit, ‘Various Forms’, 2021, enamel paint on canvas, 155 x 200cm. ©Phearun Yin, STPCambodia, 2022.

Which Cambodian or Southeast Asian artists do you admire? How have they inspired your work?

I admire the simplicity and labour-intensive nature of Sopheap Pich’s works, the rich and layered history of works by Leang Seckon and Dinh Q. Lê, and the colourful aesthetics of Mit Jai Inn’s artworks. Mit Jai Inn, especially, influenced my application of colours. The artists that truly shaped my thinking and creativity, however, are those from China and Germany. They are Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, Yue Minjun, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz, and Neo Rauch. In one way or another, these artists inspired the way I structure my narratives and the play of line and colour in my compositions.

Looking ahead, what are you excited about in the near future? 

I will continue to explore krama and its (hi)stories, forms, and aesthetics. Currently, I am producing a new body of works, which I hope to show at Richard Koh Fine Art in Singapore for the first time. I have also just set up my studio in Cambodia, where I will have more space to explore and experiment with mediums such as metal and wood sculpture. The thought of this gives me goosebumps!

‘The Ontology of Form and Color’ was on view till April 30, 2022 at the Rosewood Phnom Penh Art Gallery. More information here

This translation of Pen Robit’s answers was assisted by Reaksmey Yean.

 

This interview was originally published on  Art & Market (A&M) on 15 March 2022 here. It is republished here as part of a content partnership with A&M.