Brought to global attention through the efforts of the French explorer and artist, Louis Delaporte, Angkor Wat stands as one of the most spectacular architectural marvels achieved by any civilisation of antiquity in the world. The culture and art of the ancient Khmer held within its ruins are one of the riches heritage legacies that can be found in the Southeast Asian region. Despite capturing the western imagination for centuries, there has never been a major exhibition of Angkor Wat in Southeast Asia — that is, until now. Singapore’s very own Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) has collaborated with the Parisian Guimet Museum to curate a special exhibition, Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City. Masterpieces of the Musee national des arts asiatiques-Guimet: showcasing the art, architecture, and legacy of Angkor for the Singaporean eye.
For the very first time, the exhibition features the largest showcase of its masterpieces in Asia, thus marking the inaugural debut of an Angkor exhibition by the ACM. The narrative of Angkor has been curated as one that intends to be as inclusive as possible: with artefacts drawing from the Guimet Museum’s extensive collection of Khmer artefacts, it includes Louis Delaporte’s watercolours, 18th to 19th-century French memorabilia and photography, and ancient Khmer sculptures and architectural elements. Visitors can expect a truly comprehensive experience of Angkor, that encompasses amongst other things, the French perspective of Angkor, its interactions and influence in the wider world, as well as the conservation efforts that continue to take place till today.
It was early in the morning when I gathered with the other media representatives in the lobby of the ACM, ready to start on our guided tour of Angkor, which is led by Theresa Mccullough and Pierre Baptiste, curators of the ACM and the Guimet Museum respectively.
Intricate and Imagined Details
As we first stepped into the exhibition, we were immediately awed by one of its crowning masterpieces, a Khmer sculpture of the Bodhisattva. Theresa tells us to pay close attention to its serene smile radiating peace and tranquillity – qualities that were esteemed and valued by the ancient Khmer empire. The same smile recurs as a motif throughout the rest of the exhibition’s sculptures, which I thought exuded a mystique reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. We learnt from the curators that this was a conscious curatorial decision in order to impress visitors with the beauty and transcendence of Khmer art. Pierre also shares that this piece is his favourite artefact.
Following this, we were then shepherded to the exhibition’s first proper segment, where the early days of Angkor’s discovery by the French were featured. The main attraction of this segment of the exhibition for me would be Louis Delaporte’s watercolour painting of the Phimeanakas, the Palace of the Khmer kings in the centre of the Angkor Thom.
Louis Delaporte’s watercolour art yearns for attention with its vibrant colours and rich detail. I was further piqued by Theresa’s elaboration on the significance of his art — although Louis Delaporte captured intricate details of Angkor’s complex architectural elements, there were imagined details as well. Following the teachings of architecture schools at the time, Louis Delaporte restored the ruins that he encountered to what he imagined to be their original state in his paintings and embellished it with elements. For instance, he added a moat that never existed to the painting of the Phimeanakas. Although the art is not physically accurate, it captures how Louis Delaporte and the French perceived the ruins of Angkor at that moment in time – and did so convincingly; conveying Angkor’s majesty to its audiences.
A Miraculous Story
The second segment of the exhibition focused on the showcase of ancient Khmer sculptures recovered from Angkor Wat itself, of which, a few certainly stood out to me with their own respective intriguing qualities.
As we proceeded further, Pierre points out a sculpture of a female goddess that had a rather miraculous story to tell. As Pierre intimates, the sculpture’s body was long owned by the Guimet Museum, but the head was long thought to be lost to time. In 2006, however, the Guimet Museum received a donation of a sculpted Khmer head from Mr. John Gunther Dean, a former US ambassador to Cambodia. He was given the head by the Angkor Conservation Office in appreciation of his humanitarian work in the region. Till now, Pierre speaks of the story with joy and excitement, proving how unexpectedly satisfying and quaint conservation work can be. The story also shows how arts and culture continue to survive, no matter the odds.
For me, one of the more visually arresting sculptures would be the Radiating Lokeshevara. The sculpture consists of a Bodhisattva that has many encircled Buddhas engraved all over its body – reaching even its ankles – as the curators highlighted. Each one of those encircled Buddhas is thought to represent a world unto itself, with the larger Buddhas encircling his stomach alluding to the cardinal and intercardinal directions, making his body the axis of the universe.
I felt that it represented omnipresence, and paralleled the idea of a multiverse that we have come to theories about today. As I admired it, I felt that it truly radiates peace and a sense of connectedness with the wider world, embodying the Buddhist ideals of the ancient Khmer. It is a serious pity that the sculpture is not fully intact – the eight arms that it would have had, each representing the cardinal and intercardinal direction, would have made it an even more marvellous sight to behold.
Another sculpture that also grabbed my attention is the Vishnu Hayagriva. The Hindu god Vishnu, was said to take on many forms, which included this one. Called “Kalkin” in India, present local inscriptions found in Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province refer to him as “Vajimukha” – a variant of “Hayagriva” – which means horse-headed. The hybrid nature of this sculpture was recognisable for me as many Chinese mythological figures also incorporated animal elements into their physical being. Its humorous resemblance to Bojack Horseman also added to the excitement that I felt when I first saw it. The sculpture is also later revealed by Theresa to be her favourite artefact from the exhibition, as she recalled how amazed she was by the life-like quality of the horse head and the smoothness of the stone – almost encouraging you to think it was living. This is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with: As I looked at it, I was half-expecting the sculpture to start neighing at me.
Coming Full Circle
In a way, the third and last segment of the exhibition comes full circle, as it brings us to the latest conservation efforts and the technologies deployed to further conserve the heritage of Angkor for future generations.
The end of the exhibition leads us to view Big Beng and Ordeal, two contemporary sculptures made by Sopheap Pich – a 47-year-old Cambodian artist whose sculptures are primarily crafted from traditional Cambodian materials and are inspired by his memories of the Khmer Rouge. Big Beng is inspired by the highly valued and endangered Cambodian Beng tree, which continues to be exploited in Cambodia’s black market.
On the other hand, Sopheap Pich found inspiration for Ordeal in the Ordeal tree’s woody seed pods – the tree itself is used in Singapore for landscaping and one particular Ordeal tree in Upper Seletar Reservoir is gazetted as a Heritage Tree of Singapore. Sopheap Pich’s works straddle the past and the present; relating to Angkor, Singapore, and the geopolitics of Southeast Asia. I felt that these sculptures are a nice concluding touch to encourage visitors to appreciate the widespread influence of the Khmer art and tradition as it continues to endure today.
Addressing France’s Neo-colonialism and Curating Controversies
The curators were asked for their opinion on how they viewed France’s heavy involvement in the conservation of Angkor, which could be conceived as problematic as it concerns the imposition of neo-colonialism by a colonial master on its former colony. The curators were quick to point out that the long-established relationship between France and Cambodia, with regards to Angkor’s conservation, has been more than friendly – spanning the time from when the first French explorers documented Angkor in the 1800s to the modern period. It was more of a matter of pragmatism than a concern of French neo-colonialism, as France had the expertise and willingness to help conserve and share the rich heritage of Angkor with the wider world; it was even sanctioned even by the king of Cambodia himself. I thought that this was a sensible response and agreed that any worry of neo-colonialism was a non-issue in this case.
Another question that also surfaced turned to the purpose of showcasing the French perspective of Angkor; again a concern of whether colonialism was being portrayed in a negative light. It was clarified that the purpose was to show things as they were and how Angkor was discovered by the wider world, rather than glorifying the French or colonialism. As someone who is invested in historiography and heritage conservation work, I felt that this rang true and also resonated with my own ideas of curation.
Other Things to Note
The exhibition also features a holistic range of programmes, ranging from family-oriented workshop activities to a Cambodian arts festival – Angkor Encore Festival (25–27 May) – highlighting Cambodian performing arts.
Something that I thought would really get families excited would be the activity booklets that complement the exhibition. They are made especially for kids in mind as they get to have a fun tactile experience of the exhibition as they complete the adventures within.
History and heritage aficionados should sign up for the exhibition’s curator tours, where they would be treated with behind-the-scenes stories of the artefacts and experience the exhibition in a more intimate setting with greater depth of understanding and exploration.
Overall, Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City has definitely impressed me with its curation and the splendour of the artefacts on display. It does a great job of telling Angkor’s story and is incredibly inclusive in doing so.
Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City. Masterpieces of the Musee national des arts asiatiques-Guimet will run from 8 April to 22 July 2018. For more information on admissions and programming, find out more here!
The exhibition is also part of the Voilah! French Festival Singapore 2018, which showcases the best of France-Singapore partnerships and innovation in the arts, culture, and science. For more information, check out the festival’s bespoke line-up of programmes at: https://www.voilah.institutfrancais.sg/.
Artefact photos courtesy of Musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet.