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‘People don’t like honest work’

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‘After the Black Wood’, sculpture made from steel rods and Angkor beer bottle caps. Photograph: Ruth Keber
Mao Soviet hurries into Phnom Penh’s Romeet gallery, a little breathless and his hair glistening with sweat. Pensive, with brow furrowed, the Battambang artist explains he has been on the dusty fringes of Kandal province all afternoon, visiting some 100 evicted Borei Keila families at a forced relocation site near Odong, 50 kilometres from the capital.

It’s a few days before the launch of Soviet’s latest body of work, After the Black Wood, and the 32-year-old is making final decisions on the installation of the pieces and statements he wishes to make at the opening.

The impressive, imposing collection comprises three intricate, connected, steel-rod-and-beer, bottle-top sculptures, forming an abstract, curved whistle. It’s a solo follow-up to an exhibition Soviet collaborated on in October last year with American artist Tim Robertson, part of the Our City Festival.

That show, The Black Wood, was a bold one. Using chunks of discarded wood and debris from the notorious eviction sites of Borei Keila and Boeung Kak lake, the artists carved and painted delicate sculptures and light installations. They served as symbols of one of the country’s most controversial issues: the sale, by the government, of land to private companies and the subsequent forced evictions, destruction of homes and relocation of thousands of people. Much of the wood used were the charred remains of homes that the government burnt down, questioning the notions of place, shelter, security, development and corruption.

In January of last year, developer Phan Imex, along with hundreds of district and military police and security guards, marched into Borei Keila, evicting hundreds who had refused relocation packages to the city’s outskirts and Odong, tearing down houses with axes and crowbars.

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The company, which signed a land exchange deal in 2004, said it had provided adequate compensation to the 1,776 families, yet it failed to build two promised high-rise buildings for the evictees, while those at the Odong site have described the conditions as unliveable.

The thematic concerns of Soviet’s follow-up are linked to the original: the artist speaks of a “virus” endemic in Cambodia. However, an aesthetic shift is apparent, with more of a design influence – the bottle-top grids, in colourful squares and diamond shapes, seem to create a network, each part “reliant on the others for strength and stability,” curator Kate O’Hara says.

After this latest visit to the evictees, Soviet seems preoccupied with ways in which he can help the families.

“I felt the problems do not end with them being relocated . . . Their [Odong relocation] site is horrible – no food, no running water. I think my work gives them a voice, but to be honest, it is more of a message to the people responsible for this. Right now, I am thinking of ways we can help these [evicted] people.

“This is an issue I wanted to revisit . . . Some people don’t like this . . . they don’t like honest work.”

The whistle, Soviet says, represents the failure of the Cambodian police and authorities to protect its people.

“They will do anything to take care of the people who are in power. The people with money will always be protected. It’s impunity. That’s it, really.”

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Soviet worked on sketching the design, cutting the metal and assembling the sculptures for over four months, but he had been collecting the bottle-tops for over five years.

“You know, my process . . . I always think of the concept first before the materials – whether a painting or a sculpture – and it creatively evolves from there. Then I find the material.

“The bottle-tops, mainly beer bottle-tops, all have meaning attached. They are discarded, used objects – mainly from wedding parties and beer gardens, sites of excessive drinking.

“It is also a criticism of the drinking culture here, of the violence it causes and what beer girls are subjected to.”

Soviet is referring specifically to the rape and sexual abuse of women in Cambodia, something he says is endemic and has had an irrevocable impact on his life.

“When I started to collect the bottle-tops, a friend of mine had been raped. She later committed suicide. I have had very, very sad things happen to some friends of mine and people I know,” he says.

“I imagined then a story about sexual violence, rape, drinking to get drunk, and began collecting the bottles. These things breed rape.”

It’s not the first time Soviet has explored the issue: in his 2008 series of paintings, The Immigrant explored the rape, abuse and trafficking of women in Cambodia.

The naked female forms depicted were modelled by his girlfriend, artist Sophorn Phin, which caused controversy among his conservative family and neighbours, he says.

The pair lived together for six years before marrying and now have a five-month-old daughter.

“I think so many traditions here are backward . . . Isn’t it normal to get to know someone before you marry them? Why should we worry about what other people think?

We’re in love, have a beautiful baby . . . what is wrong with this? We need to change, right?”

Soviet dreams of Battambang becoming the arts capital of the Kingdom.

“We have excellent artists here, and although we have Phare Ponleu Selpak, there is no other [arts] education here, not many critics, curators. Still . . . some of the best young artists are here, who do their own thing. Battambang has creative history – the musicians like Ros Sereysothea, the pagodas are very [ornate], the wooden houses.

We are close to Bangkok and that link is there,” he says.

Soviet says he has been disappointed by recent criticisms – that the artists were not working hard enough –  leveled at young Cambodian artists by visitors from the Western art world.

“Some [Western] critics and curators come [to Battambang], for a few hours and judge and criticise . . . but Asian art and Cambodian art is different. What do these people know about Cambodia’s history and the issues here right now? Don’t make a judgement after 10 minutes.”

Soviet has international exhibitions planned in the foreseeable future and believes his art is becoming stronger and the statements more brave with every exhibition.

“I don’t think I have to self-censor, and I am not worried about making [political statements] though. I don’t think they care what I have to say . . . I’m just an artist, not a Mam Sonando,” he says.

“I think art can change things, deliver a message . . . I dream that it can . . . but it will take time in a country like Cambodia.”

After the Black Wood will run until March 24 at Romeet.

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