On the surface they may be less direct, but a new generation of artists continues to confront the past by weaving it into the present.
Kim Hak is an artist on the move. “I don’t want only to talk about Khmer Rouge, but also about something else,” he says. “The Khmer Rouge is history, we need to learn and we need to know, but we also need to move.”
Along with Amy Lee Sanford and Svay Sareth, Kim is one of a new generation of Cambodian artists whose work engages with the genocide in ways that, while less direct, focus on complex present-day memories of past atrocities.
Importantly, these artists insist that their work is multi-layered, and reflecting on the Khmer Rouge is just one of the strands they work with.
Phnom Penh-based curator Erin Gleeson has argued that international perceptions of Cambodia have been defined by “the two T's”: temples and trauma. Artists like Kim, Sanford and Svay transcend these expectations, while remaining determined to confront their nation’s wounds.
This shift is significant as well as visible. In a series of exhibitions from 2000 to 2008, Cambodian artists had confronted the horrific past predominantly in grotesquely expressive works that vividly depicted the appalling experience of life under the Pol Pot’s regime.
This generation of artists gained their haunting power from an illustrative directness and brazen lack of subtlety.
“To emphasise the meaning of my works, I have attached some pictures about the Khmer Rouge that I had taken inside the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, together with various Khmer Rouge symbols such as a hammer and sickle,” explained Chhim Sothy in 2008.
One of Cambodia’s best known painters, Chhim was speaking about his History Wheel, an artwork made with a cow’s skull, barbed wire, and blood-like splatters of red paint.
Cambodian-American art historian Ly Boreth has suggested that “like many other survivors, Vann Nath’s ability to see analytically was devastated while he was imprisoned at Tuol Sleng”, where the late artist’s paintings are on permanent display.
Chhim, Vann and several other artists were featured in The Art of Survival, an exhibition presented twice at Meta House in 2008, which invited artists to “reflect on the Cambodian genocide,” according to Meta House Director Nicolaus Mesterharm.
Sopheap Pich, a sculptor now enjoying international attention at the Documenta 13 exhibition in Germany, was also included. “I personally think that dealing with the Khmer Rouge, dealing with that time, is not just about trying to make images that speak about it,” he wrote. But this viewpoint was fairly unusual at the time.
In the exhibition catalogue, many artists spoke of the “messages” contained in their works. Painting was the most popular medium, and images of skulls, bones, and anguished faces dominated. The same was the case in 2000, when Reyum Gallery pioneered a similarly themed exhibition, The Legacy of Absence.
Daun Penh, Kim’s exhibition currently on show at the newly reopened Reyum Institute, consists of 51 photographs of Phnom Penh’s streets. Markets and motorbikes, traffic and construction, the riverside and the rain, young people and old buildings: all aspects of the city are included.
“When [people] see the images, they don’t see the Khmer Rouge, they don’t think about the Khmer Rouge. They see the city now,” Kim says.
Taken between 5pm and 7pm, the pictures are bathed in the “blue light” of evening. The artist chose this time for its evocative atmosphere, but also because he finds a poetic echo of the historic return of survivors to the city after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, in the daily ritual of people returning home from work or meeting in the streets after study.
Like much of this artist’s work, the exhibition reflects the rapid changes in Phnom Penh’s urban landscape. Balancing a mastery of architectural space with a keen eye for fleeting moments and revealing facial expressions, Kim is one of several Cambodian photographic artists attracting international attention for his documentation of the processes of transformation and development.
The pictures in Daun Penh are all taken from a tuk-tuk, and the expanse of impenetrable black with the narrow horizontal opening of the back window is, for Kim, like a blindfold which has just been removed. Kim shows Phnom Penh as it is now, as if revealing it for the first time to the victims of Pol Pot’s regime.
“Daun Penh is dedicated to the victims who left Phnom Penh [during the] Khmer Rouge regime without any chance to come back to their beloved city, and also survivors who fled,” Kim says. The artist has relatives abroad who remain afraid to return. His work is an invitation for them to see their country as it is today.
Amy Lee Sanford, who was born in Cambodia but raised in the US, returned in 2005 for the first time in 30 years. “I create art in order to observe, examine and transform the lasting effects of war, including trauma, loss, displacement and guilt,” she says.
In Full Circle, a performance at Meta House (produced by JavaArts) in February, Sanford broke and pieced back together 40 clay pots over six days. The pots used in Full Circle were all made in her late father’s province of Kampong Chhnang, adding an intensely personal element to this lyrical meditation on the slow and painstaking process of rebuilding.
The artist points out that survivors of trauma from all over the world have been affected by her work. “It’s certainly not specific to Cambodia, but it resonates. It resonates everywhere, in my opinion,” Sanford says.
Like Sanford, Svay Sareth makes durational performances. Both artists explore the relationship between live action and its documentation. Svay’s Mon Boulet, currently showing at Institut Français, records a week-long walk from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh pulling a 100kg silver ball.
The piece symbolises the weight of history and memory that Cambodians like Svay – raised in refugee camps till he was 19 – still carry. But for Mon Boulet, Svay subsisted only on the offerings of strangers along his way, making the piece also an investigation of chance and of the ever-changing character of people.
Kim Hak’s Daun Penh is at the Reyum Institute, #47 Street 178, Phnom Penh, until 15 June. Svay Sareth’s Mon Boulet is at the Institut Français, #218 Street 184, Phnom Penh, until 23 June.