Angkor Wat: From Temple to Text features paper 'casts' of extraordinary inscriptions carved into the stones of Cambodia's iconic temple.
K 1134. Lottin de Laval type rubbing of an inscription carved at the Temple of Angkor Wat, Cambodia © Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient Installation view of Angkor Wat: From Temple to Text Courtesy Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones
K 1134. Lottin de Laval type rubbing of an inscription carved at the Temple of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
© Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient
Installation view of Angkor Wat: From Temple to Text
Courtesy Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones
Angkor Wat is Cambodia's most famous ancient temple, built in the twelfth century at the height of the Angkorian Empire. Many of the inscriptions were carved much later, in the 16th century, and the casts were made in the 19th century at the initiative of French colonial authorities.
“The casts are at once two-dimensional copies of literary, religious and historical texts, and three-dimensional moulds of fragments of the enormous monument. Operating as records of a complex palimpsestic history they point to the returns and reappropriations of Angkor Wat in the centuries following the collapse of the French Empire.”
Angkor Wat: From Temple to Text explores the limits between three and two-dimensional representations. In showing the casts, the display investigates relationships between monument and text, and sculpture and inscription. The exhibition evokes a complex history of cultural reappropriation across centuries and civilisations, and the conflicted inseparable drives for preservation and destruction at work within them.
In the 16th century, after the 15th-century fall of the capital at Angkor, Khmer royalty and other Buddhist pilgrims returned to the symbolic heart of the fallen Empire. On their return, they repaired statues and sanctuaries, recording these acts in 'vows of truth' that were engraved on the stones of the ancient temples. Angkor Wat was the most spectacular of these ancient temples, with its restoration a powerful symbol of both a desired return to stability and permanent renewal of the Khmer state.
In the 19th century, French colonial authorities initiated campaigns to make 'casts' of Angkorian texts and sculpted reliefs. They used a simple technique developed and widely used at that time for making accurate paper mouldings; papers were first moistened and applied to the surface, then gently tapped with a brush to adopt the contours of the carving, before being reinforced and left to dry. In the words of the inventor of this technique, the aim of the casting exercise was to 'bring back, from the farthest reaches of the earth, in a trunk...an immense series of monuments ... to ensure for France these precious remains'. The process created mouldings that accurately reproduced the three-dimensional details of the reliefs to create virtual versions of fallen Asian empires that made a profound contribution to the construction of the new French colonial Empire known as Indochina.
Ashley Thompson is a lecturer at the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at Leeds University. She has recently been named Directeur de Programme at the Collège international de philosophie in Paris and is a specialist in Southeast Asian Cultural Histories. She is author of Angkor. A Manual for the Past, Present and Future (co-editor and author, with E. Prenowitz and Ang Choulean), Dance in Cambodia (co-author with T. Shapiro-Phim) and Calling the Souls. A Khmer Ritual Text.
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