Cambodia Here and Now
In Cambodia the unchecked exploitation of resources, radical changes in the landscape, and Chinese domination of the country form a current state of affairs that feeds artists and anchors their work in the real world. Field investigations, interviews and reappropriation of traditional materials and local symbols: it is a question of taking a fresh grip on the present and reinvesting Khmer culture in the voids left by History.
Popil (2018) by Khvay Samnang features two traditional Khmer dancers who love and clash against the backdrop of urban development zones, dry rivers and cleared forests. Masked and embodying two dragons, they reproduce the gestures of the Chinese and Cambodian armies that train together today on Cambodian soil.Thus, many works are direct responses to the news. Tith Kanitha’s Hut’s Tep Soda Chan (2011) installation recreates the interior of a house on Boeung Kak Lake before expropriation of the local population for real estate development. The drying up of the lake is also behind the Khvay Samnang performance series Where
is my Land? (2014), in which a dancer springs from muddy waters and resists burial under the sand. Dam construction projects, their impact on the ecosystem and indigenous people are also at the heart of Preah Kunlong (2017), an invitation inspired by the animist culture of the Chong – an indigenous community whose culture and traditions have almost disappeared – to reconnect with an original nature in which humankind and all living beings were one. Sao Sreymao, meanwhile, photographs the remains of villages already submerged by the waters of the Mekong, drawing scenes of life engulfed on the deserted images.
Lacking land and work, many Cambodians cross borders, often illegally. For the past three years Lim Sokchanlina has been meeting migrant workers living in neighboring countries. Letter to the Sea (2019) is addressed to fishermen employed on Thai boats and whose working conditions are particu
larly difficult. Read underwater during a performance held at the bottom of the ocean, it reflects both the impotence of the artist and his willingness to engage with migrants. In 2015 had Lin Sockchanlina followed the new highway linking Phnom Penh to Thailand, and systematically photographed head-on homes abandoned or simply cut in two by the development project. His series of photographs Wrapped Future ironically highlights the sheet metal barriers that mask the country's many shipyards, “wrapping” the landscape as if a happy surprise might spring from it. In Phnom Penh the recent destruction of the White Building has crystallized the upheavals of society. Built by architect Vann Molyvann, this building embodied the New Khmer Architecture movement born in the 1960s after independence. Reoccupied after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, it was home to nearly 2,000 inhabitants and, since 2010, Sa Sa Art Projects, the first independent space founded by the artists’ collective Stiev Selapak, the vital centre of the community. Neighborhood interactions in this open living space encouraged many artists to develop socially engaged practices and draw inspiration from their daily lives. House-Spi
rit (2018) is a column of more than eighty prayer altars collected by Vuth Lyno during the demolition of the building. Abandoned or given to the artist by the residents, they enclose the spirits and history of this place, which became a symbol of resilience. The Neak Ta, protective spirits and incarnations of a syncretism between local superstitions and Buddhism, are still ubiquitous in Cambodia today. For Sok Than, they participate in a system of beliefs and symbolic rites, questioning the foundations and mechanisms largely intertwined in the politics
and current affairs of the country. Objects of
Beliefs (2015) is a series of watercolours depicting objects of worship, simply drawn on a white background: lotus, offering bowl, prayer bracelet ... Isolated thus, they appear in their fragility deprived of the links that give them meaning. For Srie Bun (2016), Than suspended, side by side, different monks’ robes, the colours of which refer to Buddhist hierarchy. Undonned, they create a feeling of emptiness, an echo of the difficult positioning of Buddhism, which today seeks its place after the threat of its violent eradication under the Khmer Rouge regime. These hollows, these absences and voids, as well as the use of everyday materials, are present in the work of Sopheap Pich, whose installations, consisting of bamboo and rattan, are lightened to the point of becoming simple contours of open shapes. However, each carries a vital thrust, and the emptiness is loaded with potentialities. The choice of local materials reflects a desire for dialogue with a tradition that Pich doesn’t wish to perpetuate but, on the contrary, to transform, while appropriating certain principles. Or
deal (2018) is an immense seed that seems to unfold in space, an abandoned volume, the double corolla of which recalls the shape of the lungs. Its name comes from the essence from which the seed originates, but also evokes ordeal, the dreadful trials said to be from God. There is always something monstrous and ambivalent in these volumes, yet very aesthetic. Morning Glory (2011), a giant, delicate bamboo bindweed, seems caught up in its own roots. His series on paper is more abstract and meditative, the pieces juxtaposing lines drawn with wax and ink or lining up recycled jute fibres, worn by use. Pich is one of the artists whose parents fled the Khmer Rouge and who returned to work in Cambodia, sometimes temporarily, like LinDa Saphan, Anida Yoeu Ali and Amy Lee Sanford, sometimes permanently. When the regime fell, there were almost no artists or intellectuals in the country. The scene today owes a lot to these artists of the diaspora, as well as those who left in the 1980s to study in Eastern Europe under the impetus of the communist government. Suos Davy, for example, introduced abstraction and collages of objects on canvas, stimulating experimentation with pictorial language on his return from Budapest in 1985. Artistic education at the university has essentially been shaped around these artists trained in Eastern Europe, or self-taught ones. This “DIY” is however eclectic, incomplete, and even a brake on reforms and the establishment of real infrastructure, today absent from the government agenda.
Thus, there is still no photography department at the Royal Phnom Penh University , which seems still to function almost as at the time of its creation by the French in 1918. Places such as Sa Sa Art Projects and the Institut Français offer essential but imperfect alternatives, supported by private initiatives and workshops offered to artists during the two major festivals in the country, the Angkor Photo Festival and Photo Phnom Penh. These courses, often organized by photojournalists, greatly influence the young generation of artists who, since the mid-2000s, use the medium of photography in the urgency of bearing witness to the changes in the country. For example, as part of an internship with Antoine d'Agata, Philong Sovan created his first major night series entitled In
The City by Night (2010 – 2015), in which the lights of his motorcycle illuminate his subjects: exchanges of looks snapped in the heat of the moment and a surprisingly warm light, face-to-face with the photographer, who engages each time in a new meeting. The documentary approach corresponds perfectly with the culture of the country, where field learning and experience are favoured over academic knowledge. The current climate of mistrust of the media, education and dominant ideology also pushes artists to tackle their subject matter head-on. This need for dialogue is at work with Sophal Neak, whose first photographs were negotiated against new pots and pans: from one kitchen to another, the artist offered women new pots and pans for their old ones. Two series of portraits, Leaf and Hang
On (2013), feature men and women whose faces are covered with huge leaves or hidden by an object they have chosen to represent themselves. Negation of the face and identity reduction… these bodies without roots and without a gaze seem almost unreal. Confronted with the overwhelming weight of the Angkorian heritage and the genocide, it is now a question of finding ways to reinvent oneself. No doubt a painting like Tonlé Sap River Circulates and Reverses Flow (2017) gives a good insight into the complexity of the Khmer identity: King Norodom Sihanouk is in conversation with Mao Zedong and General de Gaulle at the foot of a fresco reminiscent of the Bayon temple, while apsaras dance. In the background, houses on fire and soldiers, a bestiary abounding with strange hybrid creatures: in the work of Leang Seckon, space and time are condensed, events aggregated and identities transformed. He represents himself in Golden Silt
Creative Person (2017) in the form of a mutant body, Naga with seven heads whose shadow is a crocodile, the first inhabitant of Cambodia. The bodies are cut out of leather and sewn onto the canvas. Their insides are hollowed out and replaced by various patterns: flowers, flames, Khmer and Western alphabets and wi-fi signals. Hindu statues are also hollowed out. In tune with modernity, they are filled with new languages, adapted to the deployment of Chinese investors, American brands and contemporary desires. In the centre of Dead and Reborn
Again (2016), between Shiva and Vishnu, the
artist featured a secret box containing the thirty-three letters of the traditional Cambodian alphabet and cultural roots. For the artist who wishes today to address the new generation, it is time to open this Pandora’s box and face reality so that a reconciliation with Cambodian identity and history can be possible.
The past in Cambodia is indeed fully in the present, and the whirlwind of history is constantly updating it. The construction of a collective memory is still problematic and sensitive. In the 1990s and 2000s the work of non-governmental organizations and various international institutions encouraged the artistic expression of the trauma created by the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), responsible for nearly two million deaths. This inititative has been controversial, especially for sticking the Holocaust model onto a culturally very different context. In addition, the curatorial themes of recovery and reconciliation have been rebuffed, enclosing artists in repetitive practices that have become commercial. Today, history resurfaces more freely and spontaneously. Distance allows some young artists to revisit this period of the past. For Kim Hak the urgency is twofold: many witnesses have passed away, and the ignorance of the population is problematic. Since 2014, for the series Alive, the artist has been meeting survivors of Pol Pot’s regime, first in Cambodia, then in Australia and New Zealand. He records their storys and systematically photographs one or two objects they have preserved from this period, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Sandal and
Footprint with Thorn (2014) is a sandal that belonged to his father, which he kept in memory of this painful past. All those who knew the Khmer Rouge recognize this type of sandal worn by soldiers and by those who worked for them. Is it enough to collect testimonies, and don’t these steps remain superficial? For Vandy Rattana this type of artistic practice lacks depth, and most Cambodians don’t seek the cause of the genocide. Struck by his own lack of understanding of history and driven by a thirst for knowledge, he became known by his series Bomb Pond (2009), which shows photographs of craters created by American bombs in the Cambodian landscape (in total more than two million dropped between 1964 and 1973). Monologue (2015) is his personal attempt at mourning. It is a film originally based on the search for his sister’s tomb, filmed as a static shot: between two mango trees, a place where she was buried, and the voice of the artist, who questions the impossible. Today the graves are listed, the fields are cultivated, no sign pays tribute to the victims, and the government adapts History to suit itself. In Rattana’s work absurdity and cynicism have taken over. Landscape (2019) portrays a painter in touch with the surrounding landscape, his desire for control and his inability to grasp reality, which he ends up packing under plastic sheeting before disappearing. At the end of Funeral (2018) a man kneels near his father's grave and eats his bones. Cannibalism, for Rattana, is what best represents today's society. This sense of the absurd is also strong with Svay Sareth, who gives it a more humorous twist. He doesn’t photograph the iconic leather sandals, he eats them and exhibits them on a skewer, hoping to digest them definitively. For him, however, Cambodia is in a state of permanent war: the freedom promised in 1953 has never been obtained and his version of the monument to independence is a pyramid penetrated by blue plumbing pipes, multiple leeches hanging onto current power. He would have liked someone, during the exhibition of the work in Phnom Penh, to topple this pyramid from its pedestal, but nobody dared. Svay continues to denounce hypocrisy and political masquerade, which he often expresses through the use of a camouflage pattern. His sculptures, inspired by the Khmer tradition, are also soft and filled with kapok fibres, signifying muteness in Khmer. In 1993 Vandy Kaonn wrote the essay Cambodge ou La Politique sans les Cambodgiens [ Cambodia or Politics without Cambodians], demonstrating the absence of Cambodians in the political debate of their own country. Cambodia is still the scene of power struggles between an elite depicted as corrupt, and invasive foreign powers. By engaging in reality, and by deciphering a present yet to be written, contemporary artists try to become actors in their history, and work to open free, critical spaces, where this writing could become possible again.