Ceramics from Lor Pok

Opening reception, December 14, 2000



Fired earth objects have been made in the region which we today call Cambodia since well before the start of the common era. We can identify two sets of contemporary practices that continue within this long-standing tradition. Through the first, earthenware objects used in everyday local life are made and sold by villagers, particularly in the region of Kompong Chhnang. The ka-am (water pot), the chhnang (cooking pot), and the chang-kran (cooking stove) are made by families who produce as many of these vessels as possible, replicating the given shapes and standard decorations of their familiar forms. The second aspect of the Khmer ceramics tradition is often associated with the age of Angkor when glazed ceramics of high quality and varying color and shape were produced. These are the objects which most often today lay claim to the label of "Khmer ceramics" within the realm of "art" exhibitions and publications. Thus the hierarchy of value is imposed by which high art is distanced from utility. The first category is still in local use and has a ready market among local people thus forming an evident continuity with society. The second category is more problematic since the objects it produces reference another time and a purpose which is often not yet clearly known. Thus these enigmatic objects find less ready local uses and are produced almost exclusively by "Lor Pok" and by the ceramics sections of the Royal University of Fine Arts. We have decided to focus our exhibition on this second category of objects.

Lor Pok was founded in the late 1990s by Chhun Pok, then head of the ceramics section of the Department of Plastic Arts. Frustrated with some of the restrictions of working within a state institution, Chhun Pok decided to establish a private kiln in the village of his birth as a compliment to his work at the University. Not only did Chhun Pok wish to develop a line of new designs at his own kiln, but he also hoped to eventually be able to provide employment for the villagers once the kiln was successfully producing ceramics. Chhun Pok died unexpectedly in August of 1998 at the age of 44. Today his sons and a nephew continue to pursue his dream of Lor Pok.

We have chosen to focus our exhibition on the activity of Lor Pok for several reasons. We are of course implicated in the marketing of the work which we chose to exhibit, and therefore we hope that this exhibition will help Lor Pok to garner new commissions and greater recognition. In doing so we wish to support those who continue to research and produce ceramics in Cambodia today. We also however wish to raise more uneasy questions. What are the ceramics being made at Lor Pok? Are they art objects? High quality copies? Souvenirs? Or a kind of high-end craft production aimed at tourists? Do the objects recognized and certified as "Khmer ceramics" have any local use in every day life in Cambodia, or are they produced primarily for a foreign clientele who more often that not exhibit them as visual objects rather than using them for their intended purpose? What impels Lor Pok to search for "documents" of Angkorian ceramics and painstakingly copy them as if to thus ensure a certain authenticity to their production?

Chhun Pok lived with these questions. He knew quite clearly that he did not have the luxury to make anything which would not find a market. There was no opportunity to make large-scale unique pieces like ceramic "artists" in the West. Rather, the market was for small-scale objects made in multiples which stood in some relation to Angkor or other established signs of Cambodian identity. Within these limits however, Chhun Pok found a certain latitude. He took the ornaments found on temples and wood sculptures and applied them to the surfaces of his ceramics. He took a familiar "traditional" form, the lotus bud, and made a new pierced ceramic lamp in its shape. With such forms he hoped to establish a set of designs which he would make in the village of his birth.