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Finer details under the surface

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A cigarette glows bright in fading twilight. A beer bottle, half-full, rests on a windowsill. Viewing Vandy Rattana’s photograph of this scene, we feel close enough to smell the smoke, yet it’s clear we have not been invited. This is a familiar sensation in this artist’s work.

“Street photography is always just the surface. It’s very challenging work, because people just shout at me sometimes,” Vandy says. He is regularly verbally abused – sometimes even chased – when shooting street pictures in France, where he lives most of the time.

“I was so quiet,” he says, when he describes how he captured the image of the smoker at the window. “I was with my wife, and she walks very fast, and I told her ‘be quiet’.”

The image is from Surfaces, a series shot recently in Europe that will be shown at Phnom Penh’s Sa Sa Bassac gallery later this year.

“I think the feeling changes when we switch to another situation or culture,” Vandy says. For him, Europe is “like theatre”, and he feels very much that he is “in the audience”.

The pictures in Surfaces rarely show people’s faces, and are mostly shot from a slightly removed perspective. Many dwell on small details of European life, made to appear utterly strange through an outsider’s eyes.

“The way Vandy captured the European cultures in which he lived and moved through for two years is in one way representative of his reality – his vantage point is removed, voyeuristic; he is unseen by his subjects,” explains Erin Gleeson, curator and artistic director of Sa Sa Bassac.

“Within this state of refrain, he found moments of intimacy in moments of critical curiosity for the surface of the encounter – a constructed pedestrian walkway on the beach, pulling a dog by its neck, solitude, snow, a drowned bicycle unclaimed – encounters unknown to life in Cambodia.”

Vandy’s work is never easy. For 2009’s Bomb Ponds series, he traversed 10 provinces in search of craters remaining from the so-called secret US bombing of Cambodia from 1964-75.

“You can hear something a thousand times and not know it, yet if you see it with your eyes just once, you know,” Vandy says, quoting a Khmer proverb.

Like much of his work, Bomb Ponds addresses a chronic lack of documentation of contemporary realities in post-conflict Cambodia. His pictures occupy a space between fine art and documentary photography, and he is currently in a New Zealand group exhibition exploring this dichotomy.

There is nothing sensationalist about the series. Many scenes are – at first glance – pastoral. Then, for some, a disquieting question: how many of these surprisingly beautiful ponds dotting the landscape were formed when water filled in the gaping craters left by massive bombs?

To date, 32-year-old Vandy has shown his work in 19 countries across four continents, including six nations so far this year.

In 2009, he was among the first Cambodians to be included in the influential Asia Pacific Triennial in Australia. And at present, his work is showing at both the First Kyiv Biennale in Ukraine – alongside such big names as Ai Weiwei, Tracey Moffatt and the late Louise Bourgeois – and at Documenta 13 in Germany.

Documenta is one of the international art world’s most significant events. Held every five years, the current exhibition is expected to attract close to one million visitors.

For Vandy to be included – alongside fellow Cambodians Sopheap Pich and the late Vann Nath – signals that global trendsetters and leading curators are finally paying attention to the diversity of work from this region.

This follows steadily increasing interest in Southeast Asian contemporary art over the last half-decade.

“I feel I have a very great privilege ... I exhibit with great artists,” Vandy says. “The pressure is that I need to work more in order to respect this privilege that people give me.”

Bomb Ponds was first presented in the US, and acclaimed as one of 2010’s top 10 museum exhibitions by the authoritative ArtAsiaPacific Almanac. Since then, the series has continued to tour internationally.

Vandy is currently working on a plan to dig a large crater in New York next year. The proposed crater will mark a radical departure from his photo-based work.

“In composition, I’m very strict. But in terms of ways of showing scenes, there are so many,” he says. “I will not stick to photography, but to anything that will talk. It does not matter what instrument, what medium.”

Vandy’s composition, although “strict”, is powerfully simple. Almost always, he places the main subject at the middle of the frame.

Even in his earliest work, such as 2006’s Looking in my Office, he focused on one central figure or object: a receptionist asleep, or a plant in a plastic cup. The gaze, while often wry is always steady and intent.

Here’s how he sums up his aesthetic: “[I take photographs] based on the way I look at things even when I don’t have the camera. So you can see the real thing, not try to play. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, it’s classical composition.”

This intensely direct approach has been influential among fellow artists, especially those in Stiev Selapak (“art rebels”), a collective Vandy co-founded in 2007, who all follow a centred format.

They include Khvay Samnang’s self-portraits pouring sand on himself, Lim Sokchanlina’s landscapes, and Lyno Vuth’s portraits of face-painted men.

But within Vandy’s photographs there is, perhaps, always a distance. Although he feels at home working in Cambodia, so many of his pictures are made by observing and seemingly without invitation.

Surfaces makes this implicit “outsider” status explicit, and reveals that in much of his Cambodian work he has been a chronicler of history’s theatre.

It’s not only composition that links each series, but also the artist’s documentary impulse. “I’m afraid that there will be no more pictures of the streets in France of the 21st century!” he exclaims, noting his own experiences when taking street photographs.

Whereas so much of the past century’s street life was documented, today it is not. “Nineteenth century, 20th, Henri Cartier-Bresson, it was so easy at that time,” Vandy says.

Nowadays, he feels, many people – especially in France – are too aware of the “business” of photography, and sceptical of the photographer’s motives.

It’s a markedly different problem from the one that led him to chronicle present-day realities in Cambodia, but one that may have the same effect of limiting future generations’ understandings of what our time is really like.

For Vandy, photography has never been easy. He also makes it troubling for the viewer.

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