The unprecedented exhibition at the Australian National Gallery until 25 October, “The age of Angkor: Treasures from the National Museum of Cambodia”, shows thirty-three stone and bronze works that have not been seen outside Cambodia before. Made possible by the peace accord between the four warring Cambodian factions ratified on 23 October 1991, the sculptures have all come from the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Although two of its directors were killed during the fighting between 1975 and 1979 and the building suffered badly from neglect, most of the National Museum’s collection survived.
The exhibition arose out of a cultural visit made to Cambodia in December 1990 by the head of conservation at the ANG, Andrew Darren, which established links with the Director of the Cambodian National Museum, Pich Keo. The possibility of obtaining loans from the Phnom Penh museum was then followed up by the curator in Asian art at the ANG, Doctor Michael Brand: “Normally it would have been the ANG’s desire to have more time, but 1992 was chosen because the Japanese were trying to borrow some objects for a show to be held in 1993. The Cambodians felt they would prefer to have an exhibition in Australia first, therefore we had to bring the date of the exhibition forward”.
In September 1991, the Australian Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans was asked to support the project. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Senator Evans said: “It was the infrastructure of our mission in Phnom Penh [established on 30 October 1991] that was important in making everything work. We were closely involved in trying to set up the transport arrangements: we had to get the airforce to ferry the pieces from Phnom Penh to Bangkok and then the Australian national carrier Qantas to bring them to Australia.”
The exhibition introduces both Hindu and Buddhist art and explains the balance of goddesses and gods, with an emphasis on Shiva and Vishnu, gods of special importance to the Khmer kings. These kings chose Angkor at the beginning of the ninth century for their residence and remained there until 1431, when they were defeated by the Thais. During this period, fifty temples were built on a site of 200 square kilometres around the most prestigious of all, Angkor Wat. Religion was the only subject treated by the Khmer artists of the Angkor period: temples were lavishly embellished with sculptures of gods and goddesses, and bridges represented the rainbows that united people and their gods. In a process that gathered momentum in the late nineteenth century, most of the free-standing sculptures were detached from the monuments which once housed them. Fortunately, many of these works entered the collection of the National Museum of Cambodia.
Twenty-six objects in the exhibition are from the Angkor period, including the sculpted sandstone Kneeling Woman (dated to around 1150) from Bayon, the Mountain Temple of Angkor Thom. The temple, 65 metres high, represented the centre of the earth, to which the kneeling woman presented her respect. Angkor Thom, erected under the reign of King Jayavarman VII, witnessed the transition from Hindu to Buddhism. Six objects from the pre-Angkor period are also present in the show.
The overall cost of the exhibition was A$400,000, mostly sponsored by the Australian Telecommunications Corporation. An A$700,000 appeal was launched by Prime Minister Paul Keating during the opening ceremony to provide an aid and assistance package to the National Museum of Cambodia. Apart from the restoration of the museum, help will be given in the form of training for Cambodian staff in restoration, conservation and museum techniques in Australia. Some workshops will be run by ANG staff at the Phnom Penh Museum. The Australian Government and the ANG are jointly providing A$325,000, leaving A$375,000 to be contributed by the public.
The opening of “The Age of Angkor” comes at a time where Australia is endeavouring to raise its profile among Asian countries. Although Senator Evans tried to minimise the political overtones of this exhibition, Prime Minister Keating’s opening speech was seen as a prelude to his forthcoming trip to Asia, while a message from Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia was a clear indicator of the new diplomatic links between the two countries.