Siem Reap art exhibit invites introspection through nature

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Touch’s detailed oil paintings, which she paints with tiny bamboo stems, can take months to complete. Photo supplied

Khchao Touch has been plagued with existential questions for as long as she can remember. She wanted to know where she came from, why she was born and what awaited her in the afterlife – questions which could be considered unusual for a child to be asking.

“Where was I before I was born? Where am I going? What am I doing? Why was I born into this life and for what?” Touch asks.

She says she often felt confused while growing up. Sometimes she was angry, sometimes sad, sometimes she spoke unkind words. She wondered why her mind swayed in different directions, almost as if she had no control over it.

Nature became something that she centred on. When she looked at flowers and trees, she felt a deep appreciation for their beauty, their inherent peacefulness and ability to draw people in.

She was also struck by the fact that nature never demanded anything. Even in death, they gave back to the earth by fertilising the ground from which they sprouted.

The 38-year-old Touch says: “They [the flowers] get up in the morning and smile. They smile until they die. When they die they still smile. They turn into compost and offer life to other plants. All their lives, they just give, they don’t need anything from me. Is this nature?”

Her meditations on life and nature inspired Touch to launch an art exhibition entitled I Am Nature? which opened August 28 at the Mirage Contemporary Art Space in Siem Reap and will run until November 9.

Touch’s goal for her exhibition is to analyse the practice of mediation and human connection with nature while providing an opportunity for self-reflection.

She uses actual parts of nature to create her art, painstakingly painting detailed patterns with tiny stems of bamboo to create pieces that can take months to complete.

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Khchao Touch’s artwork is heavily inspired by meditation, which she credits with calming her restless mind. Photo supplied

The Mirage art gallery says the exhibition features artwork from two of Touch’s projects – Just Born, which features oil and acrylic paintings on wood and Empty, which showcases her ballpoint pen drawing skills.

“Through my work, I want to communicate that peace and harmony are available to all.

“Looking at myself and looking at those around me, I see that we all struggle. I want to give us a space for peace and contemplation. I would like people to see their strength, beauty and perfection,” Touch says.

Her artwork reflects the deep link between meditation and self-reflection with symmetrical patterns and vibrant designs which come together at a central figure’s philtrum, the vertical indentation that is located above the lip and below the nose.

The paintings are designed to enhance viewers’ focus and prompt them to engage in compassionate self-reflection.

Touch was born in Battambang in 1982 and trained at the Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit art school in her home province, from 1998-2003. She then taught at the school until 2008, when she decided to pursue a full-time career as an artist.

She travelled to France, where she became a resident artist at the Fenetre sur rue, which is a cultural association in Bordeaux, and then to the US, where she created installations for the 2nd City Art Gallery in Long Beach, California.

In 2009, she gave birth to her daughter and spent the next five years caring for her family. She was nominated for the Sovereign Asia Art Prize that year, and again this year.

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Khchao Touch’s artwork is heavily inspired by meditation, which she credits with calming her restless mind. Photo supplied

Touch was a runner up for the “You Khin Memorial Women’s Art Prize” in 2010 and listed as one of Cambodia’s top 10 artists by the Southeast Asia Globe.

In 2013, she opened the Lotus Gallery in Battambang with her husband and started working there in 2016.

In addition to showcasing her work at the Lotus Gallery, Touch has hosted solo exhibitions at the French Cultural Centre and the Art Cafe in Phnom Penh, The Hotel de la Paix, Heritage Suites Hotel and The French Cultural Centre in Siem Reap. She has also participated in numerous group exhibitions in Cambodia and abroad.

She credits the Dhamma Latika, a Vipassana meditation centre in Battambang, with easing her restless mind and gaining an understanding of how to work with it.

“This place taught me meditation and how to calm and focus my mind which never wanted to listen to me. It always wanted to think and think . . . about the future, the past and even the negative. It never wanted to stay calm and still in the present moment,” says Touch.

She says the Vipassana meditation centre taught her a style of meditation called “The Art of Living” and she was able to smile a little inside.

“It watered the seeds I had planted and they have started to grow,” she says.

I am Nature? was planned for an earlier date, but Covid-19 shuttered The Mirage for five months.

Mirage’s communications manager Kasia Sumislawska, tells The Post: “Now, we feel that Touch’s work fits the times we live in. It’s very meditative in tone, encourages self-reflection and transmits a message of peace and tranquillity.”

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Sumislawska says Touch’s work is deeply connected to meditation and celebrates being in the moment.

“We believe that experiencing her work may bring the feeling of peace to our guests,” she says.

Following government guidelines, Mirage only allows a limited number of guests at one time and they must practise social distancing.

Upon arrival, people are asked for contact details for contract tracing purposes, offered hand sanitiser and encouraged to wear masks.

Surfaces like door handles are cleaned regularly before and after each showing and guests who are unwell or feverish are encouraged to stay home.

Guests can view Touch’s art at the Mirage Contemporary Art Space on Oknha Oum Chhay Street in Siem Reap town from Wednesday to Saturday from 11am to 5pm until the exhibition ends on November 9.