Built in the twelfth century by King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat and its vast complex stand in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap with unrivaled splendor, in its scale, composition, artistic achievements, as well as political and religious significance. “Angkor Wat” translates as “city temple” in Khmer, its original name lost in history. The five main towers, made of stone, are intended to represent the five mountain ranges in Mt. Meru, where Hindu gods reside and heaven and earth are connected through an axis.
Angkor Wat’s structure, as a worldly replica of the religious “axis-mundi,” suggests the central importance of the Angkor Kingdom and its king. Carefully constructed following the cosmic order, especially the rising sun and moon, the entire complex mimics the “mandala,” or diagrams of the world. Archaeological studies by Eleanor Mannikka speculate the funerary purpose of Angkor Wat—evidence includes the temple’s facing west and the direction of bas-reliefs. Dwelling on the temple’s intricate plan and unprecedented grandeur, the Khmer kings proclaim legitimacy in their political reign and spiritual dominance.
ANGKOR WAT AS REPRESENTATION
In 1863, France adopted Cambodia as a protectorate and laid claim to the Angkor region, after the French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot’s memoir Voyage dans les royaumes de Siam, de Cambodge, de Laos drew European attention to the site. Angkor Wat caught massive scholarly interest in France and was on show at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, the Exposition permanente des colonies at the Palais de l’Industrie in Paris, and then the 1922 Exposition coloniale.
At the 1931 l’Exposition coloniale when France was at the apogee of colonial culture, the replica of Angkor Wat was considered exact and exquisite. The exhibit was applauded as more magnificent and authentic than any previous iterations, functioning effectively for the public to “learn lessons from the past, teachings for the present, and especially with the resolve to always do better, be more flexible, and achieve greater, bigger things,” in the words of the general organizer Marshal Lyautey. Cast in plaster as the fashion of archaeological replica at the time, the temple took up a dazzling size of 5,000 square meters at the exposition, with its central tower rising to a dazzling 55 meters.
With the slogan “le tour du monde en un jour,” visitors to the grandiose exposition in Vincennes were led to project themselves as the colonizer hierarchically touring the colonies. By placing the metropolitan section at the north to the lake Daumesnil and the colonial natives at the south adjacent to the zoological garden, the spatial layout of the exposition again blatantly pointed out the inviolable hierarchy. Behind the staged magnificence lied the fundamental statement that France deserved the full credit in restoring and reviving the abruptly lost Khmer civilization. Such tone dated back to Mouhout’s comparison of Angkor Wat to Solomon, Michelangelo, and Greek and Roman masterpieces, as well as his mourning of “the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”
Mouhout was not the first European to “discover” the site. Several explorers and scholars had made careful documentation of the temple, but with limited impact. The popular reception of Mouhout’s memoir came at a moment when the French colonial empire was eagerly expanding and competing with Britain in laying their hands on admirable but malleable civilizations. Indochina, as an adorable pearl to overshadow Britain’s Indian “jewel in the crown,” was given flooding attention and promotion. Along with the claim to protect and to restore, the role of Angkor Wat was made more complicated in its central role among all the colonial pavilions. Architectural plans are imbued with a physiognomic logic to visualize the racial hierarchy among the colonies, according to their proximity to the “advanced” European civilization. Khmer was placed at the top whereas the Kanak was identified at the far limits, although both with the premise of no chance of complete assimilation.
Hygienic and glamorizing modifications inside the temple critically demonstrated the “civilizing mission.” The original sanctuaries and concentric galleries in the structure, serving to enclose and connect, were changed into spacious passageways and staircases to allow the air and the population to well circulate. The prioritized functional and hygienic designs dismissed the Khmer notion of the universe and dedication to Vishnu. What the visitor experienced became a collage of representational fastidiousness and ideological superimposition. James Clifford introduced the idea of “ethnographic surrealism” to describe the collage that heightened difference in juxtaposition and thus produced a comprehensible fusion for its own culture. The stylized pavilions of Morocco and Algeria were meant to educate the public about indigenous cultures while assuring a need of advancement and promising the fruitfulness of colonial intervention. This attitude, fundamentally, merges the exhibiting pavilions and their cultures. According to the Rapport général, Indochina should be exhibited as a “grand état moderne, avec l’ensemble de son organisation politique, la représentation exacte de sa puissance économique et le tableau complet de son activité sociale et intellectuelle.” Whereas the interior of the original Angkor Wat was infused with the Khmer king’s ideal to pay tribute to gods and, in turn, legitimize his own prominence, the replica at the 1931 exposition was admired so as to emphasize the legitimacy of a colonial hierarchy. The former stressed harmony with nature and the latter embraced a strategy to naturalize the imperial ambition.
The parallel narratives in Angkor Wat created a juncture in their public reception respectively, augmenting structural elements that characterize this historical encounter outside of either of their contexts. By examining the elements preserved and abandoned in the expositional replica in 1931, this paper hopes to highlight the mechanism that predicates upon the historical to empower the present. In a post-colonial discourse, what voices should be heard and what should be rendered historical and obsolete? Why has architecture notably embodied imperial culture? In recent decades, oriental collections in the west are transferred from one museum to another, some shunning misleading images while others invoking more controversies. How can architecture and architectural movements help to readdress the problematic frame?
ANGKOR WAT AS AN EXHIBIT
Apart from the stark modification of the Angkor Wat’s interior and the strongly emphasized dioramas that aimed to simulate the travel experience, human exhibits were added to the exposition, enabling utter immersion and unusual interactions between the metropolitan populace and the colonial natives. Native Khmers were introduced to showcase a purported authenticity at the exposition, whilst the temple was originally intended for personal admiration and as a mausoleum for the king. Indigenous Indochinese were arranged to comprise “les types les plus variés et caractéristiques de la société villageoise” by a delegation of 409 people.
Among the pavilions, restaurants and two entertainment grounds further enlivened the experience to “tour around the world.” Natives at the exposition served indigenous food and performed their culture in stereotypical forms. Black fighters, Arab dancers, and Cambodian ballerinas were staged as an authentic viewership. The presentation was not the first of its kind, but has become prevalent in popular culture since the turn-of-the-century. In the 1930s, the metropolitan audience was likely long familiar with the exotic shows in local theatres, where they were encouraged to jointly indulge themselves in a production that connoted nothing but Otherness.
If the temple as architecture was deprived of its historicity and morphed into a signifier of the timeless indigenous culture, the native performers were also reduced to a hollow and stagnant form that merely performed its functionality. Spontaneity is a central element in the Cambodian ballet, yet dancers at the exposition were instructed to insist on the major themes and essential scenes channelled by an argument communicative to foreign spectators. The authenticity of the music they danced to was again suspicious: it was composed by Governor-General Pierre Pasquier and directed by Maurice Fournier. Everything was carefully edited and rehearsed, to bring out the best of the indigenous performance in a comprehensible manner, along with all the native objects and documents that were modified.
The performing space complicated the eerie artificiality. Angkor Wat was never an entertainment venue for the public. Its sublime authority eliminated the possibility of lavish celebration and entertainment at both its indoor and surrounding areas. Human exhibits, as arranged by the organizers, should amplify the verisimilitude of the architecture. At the exposition, however, groups of natives were orchestrated and thrust into a familiar but formidable space, to perform as instructed. To insist on the ideal Lyautey and other organizers wished for — the ideal for their civilizing mission and public education —undermining the vibrant features to fit into a contrived authenticity was deemed necessary.
Unlike Auguste Rodin’s sketches of the Cambodian dancers made after the troupe’s tour in the 1920s, the ballet at the 1931 colonial exposition, as well as the previous two renderings in Marseille (1906) and Paris (1922), was compelled to bear a scientific and rational lens, in support of expansion and stabilisation colonization. It was rendered even more ironic as the Cambodian dancers were instructed to perform orientalist opera, i.e. Lakmé by the composer Léo Delibes. The libretto of the opera was written after Pierre Loti’s oriental novel Rarahu ou Le Mariage de Loti.
In this way, the sacredness of Angkor Wat decomposed into nostalgic fragments of architectures that can be easily manipulated, reconfigured, and reinvented. The metropolitan science and culture were then granted full dominance over the primitive and demystified native land. Regardless of the temple’s stunning scale and intricate composition, without the spiritual roots, it was displaced as merely a part of the secluded, decayed society, subject to manipulation and in need of salvation. Spectators soaked in this coherent narrative; correspondingly, the representation of Angkor Wat claimed its authorship over the Khmer past and supplanted the historical with the spectacular. A stagnant form of the temple was thus maintained and underlined. All the awe and admiration it might have proudly stimulated became secondary to its fumbling capability of evolving and adapting. Paul Vidal de la Blache saw in the temple its glory in the past and a sudden disjunction from the contacts with India and China that enriched the Khmer civilization. Still different from common romanticization of the ruins, the imperial gaze of a collapsed civilization underlied its uprootnedness and malleability.
THE COLONIAL HISTORY OF INDOCHINA
Loti and Vidal de la Blache’s account might be typical of the French intellectuals that foregrounded the imagined decadence of Khmer civilization, yet some scholarly opinions went beyond to explain the disjunction.
Khmer architecture revealed a sudden splendor and an equally abrupt decadence. This was partly due to wars and partly to the influence of Buddhism, which was inherently hostile to the development of art and literature as it was to all forms of expressed personality.
Indeed, the Khmer dynasty, starting from the twelfth till the fourteenth century, was converting to Buddhism from the traditional Hinduism. Attributing the dwindled majesty to Buddhist culture nevertheless demonstrated an imperative and obsession to classify and explain the world along with the European scholarly conventions. A difference in religion became an indicator of the exotic and the inferior.
The prevalence of Buddhism did probably play a role in the failure of the Khmer reign, yet the story was much more complex than the version presented by the French colons. The official political power acknowledged the status of Buddhism and simultaneously invalidated the power of Khmer kings, who were believed to embody the dual righteousness of political and religious reign. This invalidation immediately led to an irreversible waning of the Khmer rule. Upon conversion to Buddhism, the shrine that originally housed Vishnu was walled in to allow space for the Buddhas. Throughout the centuries, the temple continued to be worshiped by Buddhist pilgrims from as far as Japan. The architecture was never fully abandoned but served to suggest a decaying oriental culture that both physically and metaphysically awaited restoration.
“Mise en valeur” was adopted as a fundamental policy for the French colonials who held belief in the good deeds of their Indochinese actions. The idea focused on improvement in both the economic and the moral, sociocultural realms. Indochina exemplified those that have been transformed “politically, economically, culturally, and physically.” Layers of the native Indochinese society were involved, especially those involved in the agricultural yield, industrial infrastructure, science and technology, and education and ideology.
Such disguises of colonialism became so intricately veiled that the enforcers themselves were sometimes overwhelmed by the thrill of enlightening a primitive culture. Albert Sarraut, who served as the former governor of Indochina and Minister for Colonies, wrote during the 1931 Exposition that the colonial activities were “acte primitive de force, une admirable création de droit.” By the 1920s the indigenous education, including teaching methods and curricula, did start to readily adopt associationist colonial policies and adapted to local “peculiarities of the milieux.” Series of reforms took place between 1924 and 1926, covering all levels of education. The imperial ideology profoundly permeated through and became internalized into the deep ethos of the nation, paving way for the colony-metropole encounter at the 1931 l’Exposition coloniale.
ENCOUNTER WITH THE METROPOLE
When the colonial hierarchy was seminally staged in 1931, it did not go unquestioned. Indochinese performers, for example, were approached by militants who tried to provoke a rebellion. Support from the Communists was offered if they were able to go on strike, yet the attempt failed. Rejecting the militants’ persuasion, the natives insisted on their artisan role and soon reported the incident. Series of such attempts were made during the exposition period, initiated by the full spectrum from student groups to political parties and associations that were openly critical of the colonial policies or those moderately opposing its cruelty and injustice. As if to double-estrange the life of the natives during the exposition, the police force was immense in the natives’ living and working areas, with special grip directed over the Indochinese section. While in front of the visitors, the representatives worked and performed a partially fabricated and partially earnest welcoming attitude to the advancement brought by French colons, on the site they were secretly scrutinized in fear of any rebellious or anti-colonial expressions.
For the Indochinese brought to the exposition, Angkor Wat turned into an archaeological and voyeuristic space that they were expected to reside in and be absorbed into; the temple itself was again located in a larger ethnographic map that Indochina should be proud of and also morning upon. These representatives might have been well aware of the tight surveillance imposed on them while acknowledging the hatred and frustration they perceived beneath. In this sense, the natives were dancing meticulously to both visitors who naively assumed their obfuscation and ignorance as well as the security that surveilled them.
What appeared most problematic to the natives was, however, an “amusement park” that entertained and informed the metropolitan visitors. Harboring the priority to educate about French colonies, the exposition integrated quotidian consumption and viewership to augment an affinity to the sensual perception. As the publicity campaign by Suchard chocolate, featuring indigenous types in provocatively titled series, such as “type de Nègre” and “type d’indigènes,” the campaign received wide popularity among children and profoundly influenced their notion of the universal order. Another similar example is the image on postcards sent from colonies. With family’s greetings and lighthearted sentences prevailing the usually inaccurate depictions of the colonies—spanning across geographic milieu, landscapes, construction, transportation, “types of human, scenes from daily life, cultural demonstrations, and civil or religious celebrations”—the impression arrived readily accepted and deeply rooted.
Sympathetic voices to the colonies in the early 1930s dwindled significantly. Forms of naive humanitarians and liberalism were noted among the rare unity between press across the political spectrum. In “National Unity: The Right and Left ‘Meet’ around the Colonial Exposition,” Blanchard closely examined the press opinion, from the left to the extreme right, around the 1931 exposition and their reception among the public. Despite consistent criticism from Humanité and Le Populaire, an array of papers from both sides acknowledged a reinforced image of the French colonial empire. Serge Hyr, in praise of the great cause of French colonizers, acclaimed them “audacious and determined…heroes…who traveled far to conquer territories for the national patrimony” on l’Ami du peuple. Special colonial columns were opened on Le Temps, Le Figaro, and Le Charivari dedicated to the grand exposition. Films, as a rising medium whose credibility and impact extended beyond literature, were brought under a tighter state control after the exposition.
Though the exposition and the press revolving around the period almost unanimously encouraged a close observation of and contact with the “primitive,” they also implied recognition of their forces and liveliness that led to a utopian imagination. An anti-colonial exposition, titled “The Truth about the Colonies,” was held at the former USSR pavilion during the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry. The latter came to negate both the naively appreciative imagination by the public and the overarching, normalized stigmatization from the state.
At the height of imperial culture and patriotism, the opposing voice united the Ligue de défense de la race nègre, Ligue contra l’impérialism, the French Communist Party, and Surrealists but attracted little public attention. Compared with the marvelous recreation at the exposition, this pavilion was designed by the young Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov, who built the entire structure out of wood and glass. Hygienic concerns were also tackled, by positioning the wooden-panel roof at a certain angle to allow air circulation. Melnikov’s structure itself was no less significant than the pavilions at the 1931 exposition, yet its modest materials and pragmatic concerns gave way to its much more impressive rival. The design also profoundly coincided with the anti-Exposition voice that colonialism was profitable for the capitalists only at the cost of the life of numerous French and indigenous workers. Lacking a foundation of popular audiences and activist groups, the exposition still managed to set a precedent for the coming generation of students, artists, and political leaders that woke to advocate for the independence of the colonies, at a time when the migratory community after the Great War was rapidly growing.
THE AFTERLIFE OF L’EXPOSITION COLONIALE 1931
The Museum of Colonies was the only permanent structure of the 1931 event. The replica of Angkor Wat was demolished—rather than, as suggested in Premier Bilan de l’Exposition coloniale, to be sold to film studio—once again challenging the implied economic reasoning for the profitability of Indochina in the “utilitarian colonial trilogy.”
France’s restoration of the original Angkor Wat started at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the establishment of Conservation d’Angkor in 1908. Entering the 1960s, conservational projects by the French government were conducted in an increased scale and smoother organization, until disrupted in 1975 during the Khmer Rouge era. Preservation of Angkor Wat, along with other native architectures in French colonies, was connected to the regionalist movement by scholars such as Vaillat and Robert de la Sizeranne. Both critics saw the preservation as an extension of the movement in the “Greater France” and thus their value of consolidating the empire. As a visual spectacle to evoke admiration of and faith in the French colonial deeds, Angkor Wat was removed from its original context and unity, substituted by a confusing collage that stuck together ancient splendor and modern pragmatism.
At the center of regionalism, decades after the 1931 l’Exposition coloniale, was a key departure from the intended accuracy in the Angkor Wat replica. In 1931 it was conceived as an effortful, exact replication that implied the capacity and ambition of restoring a remote ancient civilization; regionalists, in contrast, looked for the authenticity in the abstraction and synthesis of forms and spirits. Architectural forms thus speak to human experiences.
Detached from the aspired harmony of political reign and religious piety in the twelfth Hindu Khmer culture, the replica of the temple became a sign of a sign, image of an image. Guy Debord published Society of Spectacle in 1967 and criticized the degradation of the modern consumerist society in which representations came to replace the authentic and mesmerized society with spectacular images. Even the nature of consumption was no less manipulated in thoughtful campaigns. Goods from the colonies, including rice from Indochina, were found essential in building up a unified profile of the country and given massive coverage. Debord denounced that spectacles create a “never-ending present” by stupefying the past and estranging the future. Detournement, therefore, is encouraged by the Situationists to disrupt such indifference and radically reform the social structure and, importantly, in situations created with all elements of modern life. The Truth about the Colonies counter-exposition may count as an attempt to disrupt and awaken; the exhibits in the Soviet Union pavilion were nonetheless aiming at an extravaganza as well. Contradictory contingencies behind the plan thus merged into a hybrid space where historical exhibits and modern pleads co-reside. Such a transition was in sync with the exposed failure of association policies in French colonies. Attempts to reproduce the accurate native structure revealed itself as a hollow dream that could not curb the brewing uprising in Indochina, nor did it resist the aftermath of the two upheavals in 1930. A patronizing view gradually gave its way to the principle to fully understand the local context.
A juncture was performed on-site of Angkor Wat’s negated past and a “young, quivering” Indochina awakening to sweeping action. To analyze one Cambodian ballerina at Vincennes demands reimagining the entire milieu around her. The performing backdrop, architectural details of the temple, encounters with the Parisian public, as well as the contrivances behind the stage: all this became part of the question on the French recreation of Angkor Wat. The replica rose to an awe-inducing scale, forming a parallel narrative that departed from the Khmer king’s sacred temple. Both renditions are located in a complex of varied structures that serve as a whole to imply the universal order, and thus borrowing power from its image and impose on it the possessor’s claim of authorship and kingship. Whereas the Khmer kingdom predicated on the integrity of its religious and political legitimacy, the imperial empire dwelled on the collaged reality between the reinvented Angkor Wat and the stylized colonial pavilions, glued together with the native representatives.
The counter-exposition, aiming to expose and provoke, failed to identify the architectural validity of the venue and continued in the fundamental colonial discourse with racial classifications and stereotypes. At l’Exposition coloniale, imposing the natives in front of the pavilion was not about activating the authentic context and the affectionate evocation of Angkor Wat. Instead, both the native Indochinese and the architecture were reduced to a mere indexical sign to beg for and nod to the French colonial power and actions.
Text by: Li Yuzhuo
Cover image: Editions BRAUN, Reproduction of the Angkor Wat temple at the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris, 1931
Li Yizhuo is a researcher of art, digital media, and social practice. Since 2018, Li directs the FRESCO Collective/FRESCO Foundation, a research-oriented organization in New York. Li was recently in residence at “Al Balad,” Jeddah and Alfred University’s Institute for Electronic Arts. Among literary and visual arts publications, she has contributed to House Letters and edited FRESCO Magazine and Shift. In autumn 2020, her research-based curatorial project, “Viral Transmission,” was exhibited at the OCAT Institute Beijing. Li graduated from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts after studying English and Psychology at Tsinghua University and Universität Heidelberg.
Li Yizhuo writes: I was drawn to the negating and imaginary potential of Nonument, when considered in pair with the original Monument. Denegation in events, ideas, and archives has also been a research interest of mine, with a focus on digital media and social practice. This essay, in particular, discusses the fastidious and spectacular replica of Angkor Wat at the 1931 Paris colonial exposition. This replica and the arrangement of human “exhibits” sought to edit and negate the Cambodian temple complex from the 12th century—recognized as the largest religious monument in the world—calling attention to the enabled colonial contrivances.
 Eleanor Mannikka, Angkor Wat: Time, Space, and Kingship.
 J. J. Belifante, “Henri Mouhot, Travels in Central Parts of India (Siam), Cambodia and Laos,” 18-28.
 Isabelle Flour, “Orientalism and the Reality Effect: Angkor at the Universal Expositions,” 64.
 André Demaison, “Adresse au visiteur,” 1931.
 Flour, “Orientalism and the Reality Effect: Angkor at the Universal Expositions,” 64-65; Steven Ungar, “The Colonial exposition (1931),” 211.
 Henri Mouhot, Travels in Siam, Cambodia, and Laos, 1858-1860, 277-79.
 some examples would be the Portuguese historian Diogo do Couto, the Portuguese prayer António da Magdalena, and the French missionary Charles Emile Bouillevaux’s Voyage en Indochine 1848-1856, L’Annam et le Cambodge.
 Nicolas Bancel and Pascal Blanchard, “To civilize: the invention of the native (1918-1940),” 174; 175.
 Patricia Morton, Hybrid Modernities: Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition, 244-246.
James Clifford. “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” 539-64.
 Ungar, “The Colonial exposition (1931),” 212.
 Marcel Olivier et al., Rapport général, vol. 5 (ii), 670.
 Marcel Olivier et al., Rapport général, vol. 5 (ii), 720.
 Nicolas Bancel, “The Colonial Bath: Colonial Culture in Everyday Life (1918-1931),” 203.
 Olivier el al., Rapport général, vol. 5 (ii), 725.
 Nicola Cooper, France in Indochina: Colonial Encounters, 85.
 Ludovic Naudeau, “L’Indochine,” 378.
 Floor, “Orientalism and the Reality Effect: Angkor at the Universal Expositions, 1867–1937,” 73.
 Paul Vidal de la Blache, Principles of Human Geography, 334.
 Virginia Thompson, French Indo-China, 334.
 George Cœdès, Angkor: An Introduction, 32.
 Cooper, France in Indochina, 29.
 ibid, 30.
 Albert Sarraut, Grandeur et servitudes coloniales (Paris: Sagittaire, 1931), 207.
 Cooper, France in Indochina, 36.
 quoted from Morton, Hybrid Modernities, 124.
“Rapport confidential à M. Le résident supérieur Guesde de Jean-Jacques Gautier, administrateur des services civil de l’Indochine,” Abril 15, 1931, AOMA, FOM, carton 908, dossier 2700.
 Morton, Hybrid Modernities, 124.
 ibid, 123.
 Ungar, “The colonial exposition (1931),” 211; Bancel, “The colonial bath: colonial culture in everyday life (1918-1931),” 206.
 Sandrine Lemaire, “Promotion: Creating the Colonial (1930-1940),” 261.
 Bancel, “The colonial bath: colonial culture in everyday life (1918-1931),” 202.
 Blanchard, “National Unity: The Right and Left “Meet” around the Colonial Exposition,” 229.
 ibid, 224.
 ibid, 225-227.
 Lemaire, “Promotion: Creating the Colonial (1930-1940),” 262.
 Ungar, “The colonial exposition (1931),” 214.
 quoted in Morton, 124. Gaston Joseph, “Annex à la note du 14 Avril 1931, Papillons edités par le Parti communiste français,” AOMA, FOM, carton 908, dossier 2700.
 Blanchard & Éric Deroo, “Control: Paris, a colonial Capital (1931-1939),” 298-9.
 Bancel & Blanchard, “To civilize: the invention of the native (1918-1940),” 171.
 Morton, Hybrid Modernities, 192-193.
 André Demaison, Exposition coloniale internationale de Paris en 1931 Guide Officiel: L’Indochine, 35–36.
 Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question,” Screen 24:6 (November-December 1983):18-36.