In his new installation, the artist Bo Rithy draws parallels between Cambodia’s historical struggles and recent political turmoil. Will Jackson reports.
A bitter chapter in Cambodia’s history inspired Battambang artist Bo Rithy’s new installation, Longvaek’s Bamboo.
In the 16th century, amid a long period of internal strife and conflict with the neighbouring Siamese empire, the Khmer Kingdom’s capital was moved to a fortress at Longvaek, about 65km northwest of Phnom Penh.
The site was chosen because it was easily defencible, surrounded by a 160m-thick bamboo forest.
So, the apocryphal story goes, the natural defences helped thwart a siege by the Siamese forces.
But as they retreated, the Siamese used catapults to fling silver coins among the bamboo.
After the people of Longvaek cut the down bamboo to collect the silver, the Siamese returned and sacked the fortress.
The fall of Longvaek has been described by historians as catastrophic for the Kingdom, which was forced to remain a vassal of the Siamese and Vietnamese until the country became a French protectorate in the mid-19th century.
During a break from installing the work at Romeet gallery in Phnom Penh earlier this week, Rithy drew parallels between the story and the Kingdom’s current situation.
Rithy said that now, as then, the country’s leaders are grasping among themselves for power leaving the people vulnerable to exploitation.
“The bamboo is like the people. Together we are strong, but when we are divided then we can be defeated,” he said.
Rithy, 26, is a Phare Ponleu Selpak visual arts alumnus who has exhibited in nine solo and group shows in Battambang and Phnom Penh since 2009. Last year, Rithy’s work Don’t Answer was chosen to be part of Singapore’s Spot Art Festival.
The idea for his latest work came last year, after the national elections in July, he revealed.
He noticed that people in his village were increasingly divided – they seemed less friendly, didn’t share their food like they did before and argued more and more about the problems facing the country.
Rithy is extremely cynical about the motivations of the country’s politicians.
“They only want to run the country for their party’s own benefit,” he said.
He decided to create a physical metaphor of his hopes for the Cambodian people, spending hours at his Battambang art studio with friends or at home with his family drilling holes in the bamboo pieces and threading them together with wire.
The result was an installation of two parts.
One is a 15m sculpture made of hundreds of criss-crossed bamboo segments strung together with metal wire. Like the spine of an enormous animal, it’s flexible but strong.
The other resembles a throne-like chair covered in razor wire surrounded by hundreds of loose bamboo segments.
Rithy said he wanted to convey the idea that individuals united could be powerful and, like the mythical naga, defeat the evils besetting the country such as corruption and land grabbing.
And, like the bamboo forest in the tale, together they could repel those attempting to steal Cambodia’s riches.
“We can contribute to the reconstruction of our nation towards development like in the Angkor period and break free from the hand of foreigners who are intending to swallow our territories,” he wrote in an artist’s statement.
“And we can take part in absolute opposition against any politicians who are deceiving and selling their ideals and territories, [who are] extremist, nepotistic, self-interested and taking the people as hostages in exchange for power.”
The exhibition opening of Longvaek’s Bamboo is tonight at Romeet,#34E1 Street 178 from 6.30pm.