Strange to say, only with the flourish of romanticism in the nineteenth century did European art focus on the landscape as the theatre for the mind. The full-frontal landscape encapsulating the possibilities, desires, fancies, imaginings, and exhilaration of the modern world and its revolutions, as well as its dread, anxieties, fears, and menace testified to romanticism’s communion with nature in a post-deist world. This romantic force shattered and displaced the earlier backdrop landscapes that were ancillary tableaux and montages for the Renaissance and Enlightenment consciousness in which the triumphant human psyche aligned itself with the gods of Biblical, Greek and Latin proportion. (Ironically, Renaissance background “landscapes” were only anachronistically perfected by Salvador Dali’s tempera as a footnote in the twentieth century.)
The full storm and stress of the romantic landscape were perfected in the German-speaking world where mythologies rivalling those of Christianity hinged upon elemental natural forces of wilderness, waters, mists, fogs and fire, and this powerful force from German painting fed into early oil landscape paintings in Australia where it was tempered by an acknowledgment of the powerful effects of the light of the Antipodes addressed by the Heidelberg artists. The oil paintings on Belgian cloth by Sokquon Tran (b. 1969 in Kampot, Cambodia) are the true quintessential heirs of these rival traditions of the psychological landscape and throughout his many preparatory studies in charcoal, crayon, watercolour, and oil on canvas he rallies the forces that he finally brings to his brooding landscapes. More recently he has incorporated timber, stone and elements of nature into his works, underscoring the links between his paintings and the land.
The menace and unease we sometimes feel gazing at his visions of rocky foreshores and mist-wreathed mountains viewed across brooding waters evoke human calamity, perhaps not surprising in an artist whose childhood was scarred by the horrors of war and human atrocities. The elemental and dark waters that lap around the consciousness expressed in his works tell of the journey he made to Australia as a young man with an artistic vision in which Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa stood as a stark symbol of what nature and man can be forced to endure.
Yet looming from the waters are the transcendent and redeeming landforms, a realm of ethereal mystery rather than a fatal shore. Sokquon Tran has draws inspiration from the landscapes around the Southern and Central Highlands, and he is able to envisage them as the early convicts consigned to Australia saw them. These wildernesses are not far from Sydney, but he rarely addresses the vistas that city offers. His views of Chinatown and Balmain, for example, bring the blurred elemental forces of nature into the city. It is through this anti-colonizing power of his brush that Sokquon Tran infuses nature into Australia’s overweening and excessively twittering urban ethos. Sokquon’s work thus moves from menace to transcendence, and in this way he achieves the tranquillity which can coincidentally also be seen in classical Chinese painting. For a millennium previously, Chinese artists bypassed the human form, figure, and visage to express, encode, and enshrine human psychology and the individual in landscapes in which mountains and streams were obligatory symbolic elements. Despite his shared evocation of transcendence, I hasten to add that Sokquon Tran is a fully fledged, and uniquely Australian, artist yet his work can only be contemplated in the context of world art.
Historian and arts writer
In the years after the Second World War the term “thousand-yard stare” entered the English language as a way of describing the blank expression on the faces of soldiers who had seen too much horror and experienced too much trauma. If this idea could be applied to an entire nation then Cambodia would be a leading candidate.
Sokquon Tran arrived as a refugee from Cambodia in 1978 at the age of 10. It was the end of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous three-year reign and no-one who had lived in that country could emerge unscathed. Some artists who have experienced trauma feel compelled to become witnesses to history, others seek an entirely different path.
Tran’s imaginary landscapes are far removed from the dramas of history. Serene, beautiful and atmospheric, they are blank screens that encourage a meditative response in the viewer. They are also minimalist landscapes in which tiny amounts of visual information take on a disproportionate significance.
Beneath a huge, cloudy sky we see the dark forms of a landscape and a few tantalising glimpses of light. We recognise that somewhere, on or beyond the far horizon, there are people with homes and cars, full but unknowable lives. That bare suggestion of everyday life adds an important dimension to these paintings, removing them from the realm of abstraction. We may respond instinctively to the skill with which Tran manipulates tones and colours, or his silken touch with the palette knife, but the longer one studies these paintings the more one feels that something is being concealed.
Tran’s version of the ‘thousand-yard stare’ imbues an apparent blankness with a sense of longing. The English language is inadequate to describe this feeling, but the Germans have a word: Sehnsucht. The term denotes an incompleteness that yearns for fulfilment. Happiness is inextricably entangled with melancholy. Past, present and future become one.
Sehnsucht is the antithesis of hopelessness and despair because it believes there is life beyond the most gloomy scenarios – or in Tran’s terms, beyond those great, billowing masses that crowd out his canvases. He asks us to stare into an immeasurable distance, but not into the void. Through the veils of mist and shadow we search unceasingly for that small, transcendental glow.
John McDonald, 2018