Self-taught Danish artist Frederikke Tu talks to editor Marissa Carruthers about her latest exhibition, Deconstruct+, and how living in Cambodia has influenced her work. Photography by Enric Catalá.

When did you start painting?

Since a child I’ve been painting and always had to have a creative outlet. However, I didn’t formally train as artist, but learned on my own, taking classes here and there. I really started my journey 11 years ago when I started a business where I used watercolours. I created short animations using watercolours as backgrounds to tell simple stories people could send as cards. By doing that, I learned about the creative process. Even doing fine art you have to have a process and do preparatory work, so the two go hand-in-hand.

What is your style?

About four years ago, I started experimenting with acrylics and oil on canvas because I wanted to do something in a larger format. People usually find it difficult to go from one medium to the other because the techniques are so different. With my initial pieces, I wanted to take what I loved about watercolours and see if I could apply that to canvas. That’s why I experimented with unprimed canvas – the raw fabric. I started by making the canvas really wet and then applying coloured inks to get the washy watercolour effect, then building it up with layers of acrylic.

What’s the difference between acrylic and oil?

Oil takes more time to work with because it dries slowly. Acrylic dries super-fast, especially in this climate. You have less than 10 minutes of working time. A lot of painters get frustrated working with acrylic because of that but I enjoy it. It forces you to work fast and not get stuck on one part. What is similar between them is that layering is a big part. You build the painting through layers and I think that’s a really good metaphor for how I see Phnom Penh with all its different layers and tonnes of texture. You can also see that in the way buildings are built here.

What was your inspiration for Deconstruct+?

I’m very fascinated by these layers. I come from a culture that’s very controlled and structured, and there are rules and laws for everything. That’s what I like about Asia, it’s so abstract. When I first came to Phnom Penh, I was very ambivalent about wanting to be here, it wasn’t my decision to come. I had a filter on and was seeing everything wrong with it. In getting to know the city, my filter has changed significantly. I don’t think I’ve been ready until now to work on these pieces. They are about my experiences of the city, especially the people. In the beginning, you’re a visitor, an observer, and everything is strange and different. When you’ve immersed yourself more, things become oddly familiar and you start to see things differently.   

Do you have a favourite piece?

‘Cruising Zen’ because it’s a father on a motorcycle picking his kids up from school, it contradicts the stereotype we sometimes have of Cambodian fathers as they’re actually very involved. This is also such a familiar picture here of someone driving a motorcycle with their kids while texting. I did some research on the symbolism of the Naga and found the Naga with an odd number of heads symbolises immortality so I included that. When I first moved to Asia, I was struck by how people here don’t think about death in the same way we do in the west, where we’re very cautious and over-protective of our children. Here, there’s a certain attitude of, if it’s my time, it’s my time. I think there’s a certain peace that comes with that.

How has living in Cambodia changed your work?

In so many ways. The art community here is very welcoming and it has opened up opportunities difficult to find elsewhere. It forces you to get more creative with materials because often you can’t get what you need. It has also been challenging because so much of what you do in your art is a reflection of your feelings about a place. In the beginning, I was like, “How do I take that and make it into something that isn’t my view?” It’s really important in these pieces that I’m not trying to pass judgement on anything.

Has your art helped you fall in love with Phnom Penh?

For sure. Art is very therapeutic. Whenever you go through challenges in life, having it is a wonderful refuge to be able to sit down and put your feelings on canvas.

Describe the contemporary art scene here.

I’m a bit torn. In July, I was asked to be a judge for the last three art students to graduate from Phare school. Nobody is enrolling any more, they’re all doing graphic design and computer animation; areas where they can get paying jobs. This is because of a lack of family support and institutional support when they graduate. There should be more support as there are some amazing Cambodian artists doing some great work. I do think there are more buyers from other parts of Asia coming here to purchase Cambodian art, which is good. But there needs to be more shows abroad that showcase Cambodian artists, and more good art galleries here. That is essential.

Deconstruct+ runs from Mar. 2 to Apr. 5 at the Insider Gallery InterContinental Phnom Penh. An opening reception takes place on Mar. 2, from 6pm.