Armed with a European fairy tale and a Western musical score, artist Ernst Altmann and his partner Bjela Prossowsky, a filmmaker, arrived in Phnom Penh in January from Berlin with an unusual goal in mind: to create a multidisciplinary art project about a dragon. Collaborating with German cultural centre Meta House, How to Talk to Dragons combines shadow puppetry, music, photography and film. Altmann and Prossowsky have been working with the Department of Performing Arts, as well as independent artists and musicians in Phnom Penh. Tomorrow, they will show the project at the rubbish dumps on the outskirts of the city, wanting, they said, the opportunity to perform for the people who live there, and on Tuesday at Meta House. Emily Wight heard their story.
Ernst, how did you adapt the play from a French fairy tale?
Ernst: I transferred both characters and location to Berlin. We came here and bought puppets and set up a tent, and we built it with the Khmer group. But the Khmers we worked with didn’t like our ending – it was a sad love ending – and they said, “we can’t do it like this. We have to make it a happy ending.” So I adapted the ending to make it happy.
What’s the story of the play?
Ernst: The play, which is called JMoM, meaning “young man without a name”, is based on a French fairy tale from the 14th century about a troubadour who comes to the courts singing. He sings so well that all the women fall in love with him and he gets together with one of the court ladies, and they go to his huge castle and live together. He tells her to never spy on him when he disappears, but she’s curious and she does, and then realises that his second nature is that of a dragon. It’s fundamentally about love and the impossibility of love between a dragon and a human.
The play is very European. Why did you decide to bring a European story to Cambodia?
Ernst: Well, we are Europeans. And the interesting part is the connection through myths. We believe that myths and fairy tales have this all-human impact. I translated this French fairy tale into a Berlin context, and then into English, and now it’s been translated into Khmer, and the people still get it. In the end, when you talk about love, or any other fundamental thing, you can transfer it, you can connect. Also, the dragon is an important cultural root in Cambodia. It’s one of the influences in Khmer sculpture, for example the naga.
What is the significance of the dragon?
Bjela: The dragon is a means of transportation, because it’s a worldwide symbol. Everybody has a dragon in their culture. It’s the way you deal with the dragon or you deal with power that marks the difference between cultures. How do you deal with an animal that can do everything and is more powerful than you? The normal European reaction is to kill it, to take the blood and become immortal. But we adapted it to suit what our Cambodian collaborators wanted.
Why did you decide to work on this participatory art project in Cambodia?
Bjela: I’d been travelling around Southeast Asia 20 years ago and really liked it, and I wanted to come back somehow. Ernst wanted to come too, but he didn’t want to do tourism in the usual way, so we thought about how we could see and learn about the culture in a different way to just picking it up along the way, like you do when you go through a country.
What were the cultural and linguistic challenges you were presented with when working here?
Ernst: Because we didn’t speak the same language, I would communicate with the puppet players through mime, body language and gesture. I just had to jump into this world of signals and adapt to it.
After you’ve exhibited the installation that documents your project at Meta House, what’s the next step?
Ernst: We’re collecting all the film, sound and photographic footage and we want the project to portray a wider perspective to our work, on what does it mean to come as a Western person to Southeast Asia and to work with people here. We eventually want to take this show back to Europe and try to get new funding to then come back to different parts of Asia and work with people from different countries.
The exhibition How to Talk to Dragons will be presented at Meta House on March 4 at 7pm.