Cam­bo­dia Here and Now

Art Press - - CONTENTS - Trans­la­tion: Ch­loé Ba­ker

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.

Kh­vay Sam­nang. «The Way of the Spi­rit (Preah Kun­long) ». 2017. C-print d’après une vi­déo 2 ca­naux. (Court. l’ar­tiste et ASA BASSAC). Di­gi­tal C-print from 2-chan­nel vi­deo Dan­cer Nget Ra­dy

De haut en bas / from top: Kim Hak. « San­dal and Foot­print with Thorn ». 2014. (Court. de l’ar­tiste) Van­dy Rat­ta­na. « Fu­ne­ral ». 2019. Vi­déo. (Court. de l’ar­tiste)

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