Given that art is inherently subjective by nature it’s almost impossible to rate one piece as “better” than another because every artist uses different styles and techniques as they evolve their identity over time and comparisons between them are always apples to oranges.
While it’s difficult to judge the relative merits of different pieces of art, it isn’t quite so hard to judge the relative accomplishments of different artists if you do it by examining their notoriety or how their work has been received and very few Cambodian artists have had a history of representing their nation on the international stage as celebrated and notable as Leang Seckon’s over his lengthy career.
Seckon is a veteran Cambodian artist known for his mixed-media pieces that combine ancient and modern Cambodian stories using elements from Khmer cultural and religious traditions.
A journey of a thousand steps always starts out with the first few baby steps and Seckon’s is no exception. He spent ten years learning, studying and practicing in school – though his career actually began to take off before graduation.
“I have a bachelor’s degree from the Royal University of Fine Arts. From 1992-2002, I explored a lot of disciplines including classical and contemporary art and architecture.
“I tried to work in the architectural and design fields and I drew some logos and did some interior decoration and stuff for some NGOs and other organisations but then when it came to discussing the projects with partners and so forth, I felt that I didn’t have complete freedom as an artist so I opted to return to fine art like drawing,” Seckon, 51, tells The Post.
While many Cambodian artists describe how they’ve struggled with their passion for the arts and were forced to give up on it as a full time pursuit at different points for financial reasons or the lack of a market for their work, Seckon says that he’s always been able to maintain his career as an artist full time.
Prior to graduating from RUFA, Seckon had already showcased his work locally and internationally in the UK, Hong Kong, the US, Japan, Thailand, Norway, Australia, France, Singapore, Myanmar, China and beyond.
He also won an award in 1998 for his illustrated book on HIV/AIDS for the Australian Red Cross Education and another for his submission in the 2004 painting contest for HIV/AIDS World AIDS Day sponsored by UNESCO.
Then in 2008, Seckon’s profile nationally and internationally got a big boost when King Norodom Sihamoni personally endorsed Seckon’s huge and ambitious Siem Reap art installation: The Naga.
The 225m Naga (a mythical serpent creature) was made entirely from rubbish like rattan and 150,000 hand-cut pieces of plastic bound together with 10km of nylon rope. Over 200 people from the local community helped him assemble it.
The Naga was a monumental-sized version of Seckon’s typical multi-layered works that make use of materials like rubbish, leather or netting all sewed or stitched together with yarn or thread. No matter how many times you look at them, you’ll see something new each time that inspires wonder, admiration and curiosity for Seckon’s boundless creativity.
“Every year I’ve improved as an artist in terms of style … but my artistic identity and basic techniques have remained the same. All of my works are layered with materials like fabric, paper and leather all sewn together and highlighted with colour. Stitching it all together with thread is one of my personal hallmarks,” Seckon says.
His inspiration and influences include everything from Buddhism to various social issues, environmental issues, the struggle to overcome the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and the aftermath of that period as well as reflections on his own life.
“Mainly what I want to emphasise is that whatever I have done in the over 20 year journey in art I’ve been on, I’ve always wanted to show the public the value of art and help people to learn about and embrace what is happening in their society,” Seckon says.
The Prey Veng province native says he mostly likes to do larger works with dimensions of 1.5m by 1m because it’s easier to work with and gives him room to express his ideas.
But with the economic situation around the world so uncertain due to the Covid-19 pandemic he says he is considering trying to shift to doing smaller pieces so that he can produce more of them and price each of them more affordably.
“Actually, paintings are works of art – it’s not a business. And it’s difficult to make a living from art even for me, despite being well-known. But real artists are just natural researchers and creators, whether we can make money or not doesn’t really matter. Nothing will prevent a real artist from creating something new,” he says.
Seckon says that while he may not be getting rich from art, he appreciates that he now has total freedom to create and that he doesn’t have to make things tailored to customers’ demands so all of his artworks are his own original ideas.
“I don’t compare my success to anyone else’s. For me, I am proud that all of my creations are my own ideas and I have lived a life independently and according to my own principles,” he says.
Seckon likes to do series of works with clear themes tying them together and within each series he might create works ranging from drawings to performances to sculpting and other forms.
“I’m glad that I am recognised and able to put food on the table with my artwork, but I’m not a slave to my work either. Meaning, all of my time is my own. I live however I want to live. I’m old now and I’ve learned a lot over the years so I know better than to chase after society’s approval or try to compete with anyone,” he says.
Seckon says success as an artist comes from making the effort to create something unique using innovative techniques and with a strong sense of style and its own aesthetic identity and that expresses some splendid idea with profound depth of meaning and visionary insight.
Pointing to one of his paintings, the artist explains: “I was born during the war. We saw bombings, torture and pain. But in this layer of the painting, the first thing you see is the joy and the prosperity. Only when you look into the other layer can you then see the pain hidden there.”
Seckon says that he’d like the world to begin to recognise Cambodia for its resilience in overcoming the darkness of its past rather than focusing so intently on the tragedies of that period.
“It’s important that people see beyond all the bad things that happened to us by showing them our current ideas and creating more understanding and awareness about Cambodia through our art culture,” he says.
Seckon says he has taught some students and apprentice artists but rather than focusing on the technical aspects of drawing or those types of basic skills he tries to mentor them to become true artists and instil in them a philosophical outlook that will enable them to eventually create something original and new.
However, learning this mindset isn’t always easy for Cambodians and it can take time to really internalise it and become a free-thinker, he says, and many have given up half-way or when they realised that he wasn’t going to teach them how to duplicate his artworks through technical instruction.
“I don’t want to make clones of myself as an artist like that, there’s no point to teaching people how to do what I’ve already done,” he says.
Seckon does see a lot of promise in the new generation of young Cambodian artists who are beginning to show their work here in Cambodia and elsewhere and he has a few words of advice for them.
“Dating back to the 1990s in Cambodia, what made my artwork and my name as an artist known was really nothing more than my ambition and determination. We had no internet and very little means to study art or anything else here.
“Today’s artists all have access to social media and other platforms that can provide them with the exposure they need at any time but they have to learn how to take advantage of them.
“I hope anyone who has struggled with their art continues to pursue it no matter what if that’s what they love. Whatever field they are in – any of them can be great – and as long as the artist has enough passion they will someday be recognised for it. It’s just a matter of persistence over time.
“Don’t let your passion be weakened by surrounding circumstances, like Covid-9 for instance. Everyone is having a hard time right now but how you handle life’s difficulties and challenges is what makes you shine.
“Continue to polish your art and refine your skills using new ideas, approaches and techniques until you develop into your true artistic self,” Seckon advises.
For more information, Leang Seckon can be found on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/seckon.leang.5