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New Cambodia Art Planned for an Old Empire

One of the four new statues is positioned by a worker from the World Monuments Fund.
One of the four new statues is positioned by a worker from the World Monuments Fund.

SIEM REAP - In Cambodia, the World Monuments Fund is putting the finishing touches on the first original carvings added to the famed temple ruins of Angkor Wat in some 800 years.

The four statues will soon be erected to a roof top of the east gallery of Angkor Wat.
This part of the massive temple complex contains one of its most famous bas relief friezes, called the Churning of the Sea of Milk, which depicts dueling gods and demons, adorned by apsaras - or celestial nymphs - ascending to the heavens, symbolizing life and immortality.

The statues will be aligned against the sun to illuminate the center and caste a great silhouette across the grounds outside the gallery, similar to the original statues lost long ago.

Lisa Ackerman is the executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund and says installing new statues in such a sacred place would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, but public attitudes have changed.

“Yes I think these are the first new commissions for Angkor Wat since it was finished several centuries ago," Ackerman said. "So I think the sense of history for us is the idea that we’re helping the Apsara national authority re-evoke for modern eyes what their ancestors gave to their community, once upon a time.”

Previous efforts to preserve and restore parts of the Angkor Wat ruins, which cover a thousand square kilometers, have been criticized for being shoddy or destructive and insensitive to local customs.

But the Apsara Authority, which governs Angkor Wat, gave the go-ahead for the new statues production in 2008. The 70-centimeter-tall carvings are from blue sandstone dug out from a local quarry - similar to that used during the Angkor period empire which peaked in the 12th century.

Their designs are based on some nineteen stone fragments traced to original statues and as well as line drawings from the 1960s and records kept at the Conservation D’Angkor. The World Monuments Fund, a private group dedicated to preserving historic architecture, dictated that each statue must be different and contain varying levels of detail.

The statues were then carved by Chhay Saron, a 53-year-old former soldier who lost a leg to a land mine. The project was led by English sculptor Sasha Constable, who has lived nearby for more than a decade. Ackerman said she expects the overall effort will win the respect of the authorities - and Angkor Wat visitors.

“I think it will dramatically alter the emotional experience of arriving and seeing these spectacular new sculptures,” said Ackerman.

The carvings were unveiled this month at an annual meeting of the International Coordinating Commttee, a group of archaeologists and architects who work on the site.i

Before the statues are put in place, the group is still waiting for final approval from officials with Angkor Wat's managing group, Apsara Authority.