Sopheap Pich’s “Compound” (above) is showing at the Henry Art Gallery

The artist, Sopheap Pich, was born in the small rice-farming town of Koh Kralaw in northwestern Cambodia in 1971. His parents and his ancestors were farmers. Through a long turbulent history, agriculture has been the major industry to support the lives of people. Rice is one of the major export items along with timber, garments, rubber and recently, oil. Though Cambodia is one of the fastest growing countries, income per capita remains small. The rate of deforestation is one of the highest in the world. The primary rainforest was reduced down to 70 percent of its total in 1970 to almost 3.1 percent in the present due to illegal lumber trade.

The country of Cambodia’s glory days lie in the past. The vast Khmer empire ruled over portions of neighboring countries: Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam from the 9th to 14th century. Though the recent history of Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979 wiped out the infrastructure and cultural and artistic heritage, the image of a once powerful Cambodia is alive with architectural ruins, including the world image of Angkor Wat, a major tourist attraction.

Now, Sopheap Pich is making his name as a major young Cambodian artist, who has exhibited in many countries including Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, Singapore and the United States. He earned his Masters in Fine Arts in painting from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999, but returned to his home country in 2003 to find his own art. It was a long journey. Back in 1979, his family escaped to Thailand. The Christian group who sponsored the refugee camps in Thailand arranged for his family to come to the United States, and they settled in Massachusetts in 1984.

In 1992, he took his first painting class at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and was simply captivated by the making of art. Though he met a good teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago, he said he wasted away after he graduated, taking on an endless succession of menial jobs. One day, he received a call from a friend in New York. She just said, “What are you doing here, why don’t you just go home?”

During these years, Cambodia went through a slow recovery. In 1979, the city of Phnom Penh was emptied out because the Khmer Rouge forced residents to live in the countryside in an absolute agricultural society. This resulted in the deaths of thousands by disease, and more by an arbitrary genocide through torture and execution. Most intellectuals and skilled artisans were killed, and the artists were cut off from the past to begin an unclear new life.

Now, back in Cambodia, Pich sported a long beard and hair, and nobody else around looked like him. In 2004, he made his first sculpture of two organic lung shapes out of rattan, a common material used to make baskets for centuries. He felt an emotional connection to this material and he knew he had found something special. Unlike painting, it felt more like physical work. He kept working at it to create a diverse and large abstract formation of human organs.

His work at Henry Art Gallery is quite different. The major piece, “Compound” (2011) is a pyramid of a cityscape made out of bamboo, rattan, plywood, and metal wire, and it no longer has a natural shape created by his own hands. Now he has several assistants, who help him process split bamboo into many pieces, boiling them for pliability and binding them by wire. Varied sizes of square boxes and tube shapes pointed at two ends like a land mine are piled up into an impressive scale. He made a similar piece, entitled “Raft” in 2009, and an art critic in a February 2010 issue of “Artform” pointed out the satirical edge to the work.

On the other side of the wall, eight inkjet prints show the images of a more recent Cambodia. Fish caught at lakes have been the staple diet for generations, but the image of quiet fishing boats on the lake changes to a freeway, and to ghostly modern tall buildings. “Compound” satirically references the bombing of the country by the United States. It could also point to both the past and present conditions in Cambodia.The government forces the people to evacuate their residences in order to build skyscrapers. Unfair distribution of wealth is not just a phenomenon in the United States. Pich uses the word, “transparency” to explain the construction of his city, which opens up our own awareness of the present political situation and other hidden meanings in this work. This rice farmer’s son makes art that forms a prism through which we can see the history of a country in a more personal way.