Angkor Complex: Cambodian History


This thought-provoking exhibition considers the art of Cambodia, Angkor, and its diaspora through 80 works, created from the 12th century to the present day, to explore the distinct formal strategies and artistic innovations that emerged in the face of – and in response to – colonialism, significant social upheavals, war, and genocide. It features work from some of the foremost members of the modern and contemporary Cambodian art scene, including Vann Nath, Sopheap Pich, Svay Sareth, Amy Lee Sanford, and Leang Seckon, as well as significant historical works. Through architectural fragments, sculptural ensembles, paintings, lens-based media, shadow puppets, and performance pieces, the exhibition highlights the myriad ways in which artists leveraged the possibilities and power of art to honour the memory of the deceased, heal personal and collective angst, and nurture resilience.

History of Angkor Wat

At the core of the exhibition is the history of Angkor Wat, the state temple built in honour of a Hindu deity when the cosmopolitan Khmer Empire (802-1431), now Cambodia, was at the height of its power. When the complex was constructed, this sophisticated and sacred architectural group, with its richly carved stone buildings, was situated in a city of nearly a million people. As the Khmer Empire declined and the region became centred around agriculture, the main temple became a Buddhist monastery.

The Khmer kingdom, like many countries in southeast Asia, was heavily influenced by India. The surviving forms of Khmer are primarily religious in content and influenced by both Hindu and Buddhist iconography. However, by the 7th century, works were being produced that reflected their own culture and identity, often showing qualities unknown in their Indian counterparts.

Jayavarman II

Jayavarman II (r circa 802-850), the founder of the Angkor royal line, set the foundation of the Angkor period. This powerful king first appeared circa 780s, as a king of a vassal state with allegiance to Java. He united a number of different principalities during his reign and was consecrated as the universal monarch in 802 at Phnom Kulen (Mount Kulen), northeast of the existing Angkor complex, known as Mahendraparvata (the mountain of the great Indra). While the religious basis of the Angkor monarchy is attributable to Jayavarman II, it is under his successor Indravarman (r 877-889) that the great religious foundations typical of the centralised Angkor state began to appear, such as the temple of Preah Ko (consecrated in 879) and the pyramid-shaped temple of Bakong. Yasovarman (r 889-910?), his son and successor, continued his father’s building projects and built the first city of Angkor.

Under the rule of King Jayavarman VII, it was Buddhism, as opposed to Hinduism, which was to gain in influence. The temple buildings commissioned by the king are committed to the ideal of sympathy and wisdom. This is revealed in the mysterious face-towers of the Bayon temple. The spiritualised smile on the expressive faces, the best example being the peaceful expression of the portrait head of Jayavarman VII (in the National Museum of Cambodia), came to epitomise the later Angkor period. The period following the death of this influential king was characterised by stagnation and, during the 15th century, Angkor was completely abandoned by the Khmer kings.

The French Protectorate

In 1863, when Cambodia became a French protectorate, France began shipping architectural elements and sculptures to France for its own art collections. Angkor had only re-entered the public’s imagination when the French archaeologist, Henri Mouhot (1826-1861), rediscovered the ruins of the complex in the mid-19th century.

Cambodia was integrated into the French Indochina union in 1887 along with the French colonies and protectorates in Vietnam (Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin). By 1946, Cambodia was granted self-rule within the French Union, and its protectorate status was abolished in 1949. The country gained independence in 1953 and successive short-lived regimes used Angkor Wat as an emblem of the past prosperity of the Khmer people. It was the infamous Pol Pot (1925-1998), the leader of the Khmer Rouge, who oversaw the most autocratic and oppressive of these regimes from 1975 to 1979. In these dark years, Angkor Wat and other places of historical significance were both the sites of armed skirmishes and places of refuge for displaced individuals. Today, Cambodians regard Angkor Wat as a sacred centre, national symbol, and a site of memory, as many still follow Theravada Buddhism. This history and symbolism serve as critical anchors within this exhibition.

Empire, Colony, and Nation

To explore Angkor’s history, the exhibition is organised in three thematic sections. The first, Empire, Colony, and Nation looks at the transformation of the region in the Mekong Basin, which straddles parts of present-day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, from a flourishing empire, to a settled colony, and to the established nation of Cambodia. Among the highlights in this section are a bronze ritual conch with stand (12th-13th century), used in Vajrayana Buddhist rituals to empower individuals who performed daring actions to escape from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. A contemporary work, Full Circle (2024), is a sculptural installation by Amy Lee Sanford that grapples with her family’s history, Cambodia’s collective losses, and the laborious tasks of reconstructing shattered lives and cultures. Pete Pin’s photograph, Shorty 28 (2011), shows his ‘Killing Fields’ tattoo, highlighting the violence of the Cambodian genocide that still resonates within descendants of survivors, even when physically removed from the trauma.

The second section, Inheritance of Loss, further examines the cycles and impacts of trauma caused by colonialism, invasion, enslavement, and migration in Cambodia, much of which has rarely been addressed in official courts of law. It includes a set of nine photographs by Vandy Rattana, Bomb Ponds (2009). In this series, the artist draws attention to the history and legacy of US military interventions in Cambodia (1969-73) during the Vietnam War (1955-75). The seemingly serene ponds of water amid fertile vegetation are in fact craters in chemical-strewn fields caused by over two million tons of secret American bombs. Also featured in this section is a poem by Sarith Peou, entitled Scars, which addresses the mutilation of life during the civil war and Khmer Rouge years. Additionally, Sopheap Pich’s Seated Buddha – Abhaya Mudra (2012), articulates only the shell of the Buddha’s body. As the sculpture oscillates between presence and absence, immanence and transcendence, it queries Buddhist notions of reincarnation, impermanence, and ultimate liberation.

Repatriation of Khmer Sacred Objects

The final part focuses on reparation, exploring the theft of sacred objects from Cambodia and the slow process of repatriation. Artist Leang Seckon’s mixed media work on canvas, Journey Crossing the Border (2016), offers a meditation on the loss of Cambodia’s cultural patrimony to the international art market and the perils sculptures face crossing borders. This section also includes an example of a guardian lion, which possibly dates to the 12th century, recalling works at Angkor Wat and other Cambodian temples, which are dotted with small and large sandstone sculptures of lions. Since the 19th century, these lions have fascinated Western travellers, and many sculptures were removed from their original contexts to be displayed in public and private collections. The Western obsession with these sculptures has also led to the production of replicas, sometimes making it difficult to determine whether objects are originals or more recent facsimiles.

Christina Olsen, UMMA’s Director sums up the aim and hopes for the exhibition: ‘Angkor Complex provides a singular opportunity to engage with turning points in the distinct cultural and political history of Cambodia and the surrounding regions through an incredible range of objects. The works in the exhibition reflect both the ingenuity of historic makers and the depth and breadth of contemporary production by Cambodian and diasporic artists. At the same time, the exhibition invites consideration of today’s broader cultural, social, and political happenings and fosters dialogue about the lessons that can be taken from the pain and resilience of the Cambodian people’.

Until 28 July, 2024, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor,