Art Press

Cambodia Here and Now

- 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.

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 ??  ?? 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
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)
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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