Angkor Wat: A Transcultural History of Heritage

Nicholas Ford

Michael Falser’s study of the trans-cultural history of the heritage of Angkor Wat covers a historical range of approximately 150 years (from 1860) in considerable detail, from a specific theoretical angle, and with a relentless focus upon a particular line of argument. The two-volume study includes an introductory theoretical context, statement of the author’s reflexivity, introduction to methodology and sources, the main body of lengthy narrative and interpretative chapters, and a comprehensive bibliography. The theoretical background is exclusively set in postcolonial critical studies. As befits a postcolonial critical perspective, a major goal is to de-bunk the myths and shortcomings supposedly replete in the extensive wider literature that has accrued around the subject of Angkor. 

The methodology entails an enormous analysis of archival written and visual materials. A core resource upon which the author draws is the extensive archive graciously made available online by the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), which he then consistently uses to denigrate the narrative of their efforts in Angkor. Falser’s background is in art history and architecture, while, if it helps, this reviewer’s background is in human geography, Southeast Asian studies, and as a Buddhist.

Core Line of Argument

Falser’s basic line of argument may be briefly (if perhaps crudely) summarised thus: Firstly, from the very first encounters of the French with the (both functioning and ruined) temples of Angkor, there was a powerful desire for their appropriation into the French patrimoine culturel, to make them the jewel in the crown of France’s imperial overseas heritage. Secondly, this process was presented in a series of exhibition pavilions in France, from which the architectural plans, imported smaller originals, and larger plaster casts, and even performance art of dance and display, served to create an image of ‘Angkor.’ Thirdly, these French-created models and images would in time be ‘back-translated’ in the efforts to reconstruct these temple monuments back in Cambodia, culminating in Angkor as, in Foucauldian terms, a heterotopia: “Angkor Wat […] transformed from a living Buddhist site into a dead re-Hinduicised ruin and commodity inside an archaeological park” (Falser, p.400). Fourthly, Falser’s account follows a thread of shifting heritage (ownership) from Khmer (and Siamese) to French, followed by a limited return to Cambodian jurisdiction before ultimately becoming a site of global heritage through the involvement of UNESCO and other state heritage conservation actors.

Decolonisation and Angkor

Personally, I found two chapters particularly interesting and enjoyable in the way they related wider changes to the orientations towards, and reconstruction of, Angkor. Firstly, Chapter Eight in Volume 1, on the years immediately prior to World War II and the 1937 Exposition Internationale, elaborates pertinent politico-cultural changes within France, such as the ‘regionalist’ and decentralist turn, as well as an element of growing internal antipathy to the colonial adventure. Secondly, Chapter 11 in Volume 2, on the years 1960-1990, considers competing claims to Angkor’s heritage within late 20th-century geopolitics. The centrality of Angkor for the national project of contemporary Cambodia has already been well explored, for instance in Penny Edwards’ (2006) very well-written Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945. However, as Falser emphasises, her focus was primarily upon politics, while his is upon architecture. In Chapter 11, Falser explores the implications of these turbulent times in relation to Sihanouk’s futile dreams of resurrecting his leadership as dharmaraja, and in relation to the vicissitudes of the war years. The analysis identifies the way all Cambodian political groups have used the past grandeur associated with Angkor in varying symbolic, inspirational, and politically pragmatic ways. It is still painful to recall the continuing international recognition given to the Khmer Rouge during those years, following their ousting from Cambodia by the Vietnamese.

Falser stresses that the monuments and temples of Angkor survived the war years surprisingly unscathed, linking with his critique of the resurrection of the earlier ‘salvage paradigm.’ The complexities of both – the diplomatic lobbying of various Cambodian political groups and the jockeying for position among various nations to become involved in the conservation/restoration of Angkor – is particularly well discussed. The book makes the case that the claim of urgency to rescue the monuments of Angkor was used to justify the (perhaps hasty) designation of Angkor as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Some Concluding Reservations

For all of its manifold qualities and scale of analysis, the full reading left me with some reservations. Firstly, the writing sometimes engenders a slight sense that Falser seeks to stretch, and almost reduce, the narrative review and analysis solely to his core lines of argument, resulting in the interpretation taking on a rather too sweeping, and even one-dimensional, quality. For instance, identifying elements of ‘back-translation’ from the exhibitions in France to the later restoration efforts in Cambodia is a useful contribution to the canon of knowledge. But, as with his various allusions to the ‘myth of anastylosis,’ to say anything definitive about possible inauthentic impacts of such ‘back-translation’ in restoration would require a rather different research methodology than solely archival review. Such architectural distortions arising from anastylosis would require systematic and comprehensive on-site study, careful comparisons against various estimations of the ‘original’ architecture, and a balanced evaluation of the overall impacts. However the key concluding question is not just that ‘back-translation’ has occurred, but to what degree, and how far it has been detrimental to the structures.

Secondly, if not exactly cynicism, there is little positive space in Falser’s analysis for the poetic and magical allusions so often accorded to Angkor. For instance, Falser quotes at length Bernard Philippe Groslier’s speech before the French president and Cambodian king in 1966, in which he describes “the moment where a whole people marvels at the miracle of its own genius, so perfect that just the gods themselves could have made it…” (quoted in Falser p.226). But for Falser, what is significant in the poetic speech is what it says about the colonial relationship between France and Cambodia. Obviously Falser is aware of, for instance, the spiritual, artistic/aesthetic and socio-cultural dimensions of Angkor, but he relentlessly seeks to reduce them to postcolonial notions of politics and power. The Khmer may well be offended by his insistence that so much of the image of the grandeur and the artistic and wider aesthetic refinement of Angkor was primarily fostered by France. For instance, while classical Khmer dance performances may have been assembled and choreographed for the international exhibitions staged in early 20th-century France, these obviously derived from earlier classical dance elements.

Thirdly, Falser’s disparagement of tourism and the ‘commodification’ of Angkor archaeological park surely needs to be placed within the context of Cambodia’s desperate poverty, and the competing economic, cultural, and conservational pressures that have to be negotiated in the management of Angkor. Yet despite presenting such a critique of just about everybody involved (except for some repeatedly cited, similarly-minded postcolonial writers), in the whole of the 1,000+ pages, there is no clear outline of what Falser would actually advocate for Angkor. A distinctive and well-argued underlying thesis is crucial. Of course, any writing involves setting limitations and constraints of scope. However, there is an impression that this repeated return to a core line of argument may have short-circuited Falser’s development of further highly pertinent themes and insights from the archives studied. Given that the study is conceived as trans-cultural, perhaps more could have been drawn out concerning, for instance, possible aesthetic impacts of Angkor upon French culture. With respect to the current situation of Angkor, Falser’s overriding concern with confirming his essential thesis may have prevented him from deriving more practical implications and advocacies. 

Nevertheless, these volumes cover an enormous range of historical material in great detail, stimulating a wide range of questions for further research. Finally, the text is extremely well illustrated with over 1,400 (mostly vintage) photographs and architectural plans. The 200+ pages of colour plates, in appropriately matte, non-glossy format, are wonderful.