In Fine Form

The slender sculptures stand stoically in a row. But their mute metal forms speak volumes: Both modern and primeval, angular and organic, Thang Sothea’s anthropomorphic creations use the simplest shapes to evoke abstract sophistication.

The versatile artist’s latest exhibition, “Manu,” which opened Thursday at The Plantation hotel in Phnom Penh, showcases his first foray into sculpture.

Thang Sothea stands among his sculptures from the ‘Manu’ series. (Alicia Guthert/The Plantation)
Thang Sothea stands among his sculptures from the ‘Manu’ series. (Alicia Guthert/The Plantation)

“I like to take experiments with myself, to discover what I can do and what I enjoy,” said Mr. Sothea, whose last five exhibits consisted mostly of paintings.
“I never worked with sculpture before, but following my experience from painting, it’s more connected: It’s form, volume and lines.”

The series’ title is derived from the Khmer word “manussathor,” meaning humankind. Using steel, iron and hemp twine, Mr. Sothea depicts the evolution of human creativity.

The 30 sculptures are displayed as a progression, with each figure more complex than the last.

“The first idea, I play with the form,” Mr. Sothea explained. “I do one and then I say, ‘It’s not enough.’ The power, the expression, it should be something more. So I keep working on it.

“And then I just keep going with the form, from the simple one to something that’s very complicated,” he said.

Mr. Sothea likened both the process and the final products to a seedling growing into a tree.

“I found the concept is like the way nature is growing,” he said. “We plant it in the soil and one day it starts to grow.”

That organic feel is reflected in his choice of materials.

“I tried something very natural,” he said, referring to the texture of the hemp twine he used to adorn the iron and steel rods. “Even the steel, I didn’t paint it, I keep its natural color.”

A sculpture from ‘Manu’ (Alicia Guthert/The Plantation)
A sculpture from ‘Manu’ (Alicia Guthert/The Plantation)

Born in Kompong Cham province in 1983, Mr. Sothea graduated from Norton University in Phnom Penh in 2007 before finding work at an architecture firm.
After three years, he left the firm to freelance—and to explore his creative side. He began drawing, then painting, then exhibiting his work. But architecture, he said, continues to inform his art.

Of his current project, he said, “It’s connected with architecture also…. It’s building something.”

“Manu” took Mr. Sothea more than a year to complete.

He said he proceeded slowly, letting his ideas evolve. He would start with one sculpture. Once he had its shape in mind, Mr. Sothea gathered different materials—metal rods, rings and spheres, as well as twine—from markets around town.

Then, with the help of a welder who works on a sidewalk near Phsar Kandal market, he put it all together.

“At the beginning, I just designed the structure, the bone of the steel,” Mr. Sothea said.

He then gave his drawings to the welder, directing him to mold the steel and iron.

Now, dressed with twine, the spindly figures—and Mr. Sothea—are ready for the exhibition.

“Right now is the moment that I take a chance to express it, to see what I can do, to show people what I can do and to see their reaction,” he said.

Though he is not sure what his next project will be, Mr. Sothea said he wants to continue experimenting with form.

“From one series to one series, even in my previous [painting] work, I always change,” he said. “Maybe it’s not like that,” he added, gesturing to his sculptures, “but more form, structure.”

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