SOAS University of London

Prof. Ashley Thompson Inaugural Lecture - Double Realities: The Complex Lives of Ancient Khmer Statuary

Ashley Thompson

Date: 5 May 2016Time: 6:30 PM

Finishes: 5 May 2016Time: 9:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery

Type of Event: Inaugural Lecture

Introduction: Professor Nora Taylor
Vote of Thanks: Professor Penny Edwards

The Angkorian empire produced one of the most remarkable sculptural traditions in human history. Starting from Hindu and, to a lesser extent, Buddhist models, Khmer artists invented bold new techniques and sophisticated aesthetic principles that underpinned their exploration of anthropomorphic statuary. And yet the representational presuppositions of Western aesthetics only cloud our understanding of this innovation: perhaps art, in this context, does not stand in a mimetic relationship to the world, but rather itself constitutes an ‘original’, an embodied and multivalent reality that calls for a different relationship with its ‘viewer’.

This lecture will begin with a reflection on the Khmer ‘portrait statue’, considered in the traditional art history of ancient Cambodia to have been a late and peculiar invention of the reign of the last of the great Angkorian kings. However I will challenge this view, and indeed take the double ontology of these sculptures – embodying at once gods and people – to in fact constitute the baseline reality of essentially all Angkorian and post-Angkorian statuary.

Nothing is as it seems: even Angkor itself, this exemplary outlier of the Sanskrit ‘cosmopolis’ that flowered in the late first and early second millennia CE, is construed both as a fiercely singular local dominion and a universal kingdom. Microcosm and macrocosm are each set off against and magnified in the other. Within this context, a number of otherwise incongruous phenomena can be understood as manifestations of an underlying bifid structure: from the fluid ambiguity in the gendering of certain anthropomorphic representations to the determination with which religious practitioners, then as now, experience their own lives as participating in a larger cosmic life variously conveyed by art.


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Prof. Ashley Thompson - Double Realities: The Complex Lives of Ancient Khmer Statuary

Ashley Thompson is Hiram W. Woodward Chair in Southeast Asian Art and Academic Lead of the Southeast Asian Art Academic Programme at SOAS. She is a specialist in Southeast Asian arts, aesthetics, literatures and cultural histories, with a focus on Cambodia. Her new book, Engendering the Buddhist State: Territory, Sovereignty and Sexual Difference in the Inventions of Angkor (Routledge, Critical Buddhist Studies, 2016) reopens the question of the relations between power and culture in ancient Southeast Asia with a groundbreaking examination of the role of art and language in the self-imagination of the ancient Cambodian empire centred on Angkor (9th-13th c.).

Book Launch 

The lecture is also the occasion for a launch of Professor Thompson's new book, Engendering the Buddhist State: Territory, Sovereignty and Sexual Difference in the Inventions of Angkor. Grab one of the first copies on 5 May where you will be entitled to a 20% discount. If you would like to purchase a book on the night, please do bring cash as we will not be able to take card payments. We will also have flyers at the event entitling you to a 20% discount when purchasing online.

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