Just under a year ago, Phnom Penh-based artist Amy Lee Sanford sat cross-legged under a spotlight in the exhibition space of Meta House, surrounded by a circle of 40 terracotta vessels.
Each pot was moulded and fired in her late father’s home province of Kampong Chhnang, and over six days Sanford – with steely concentration – shattered all of them, collected the fragments and then carefully glued and strung the pieces back together.
The performance was titled Full Circle and was in some ways a cathartic experience for the 40-year-old artist, symbolic of her experience as an American-raised Cambodian struggling with notions of identity and the trauma of losing her father and most of her family in the Khmer Rouge regime.
During the Lon Nol reign, Sanford’s father, a well-known academic, sensed the pending danger he and his daughter faced. With his Swedish-American wife, Barbara already having fled to the US, the artist’s father arranged to have the then two-year-old Sanford also sent back to the US to be raised by her step-mother.
Nine months later, Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into Phnom Penh and Sanford would never see her father again.
The US-raised artist grew up believing all of her family had been killed, and it was only until 2004 that she discovered she still had relatives in Kampong Chhnang province. She returned to Cambodia in 2005, a visit that later spurred her to return for good.
Tonight, Sanford, who graduated in engineering as well as visual arts, will show variations on her sculptural theme in 40 Pots + 4 Sketches, an exhibition at Java Arts.
The show will see the artist move between the mediums of performance and installation, and represents a step towards a “conversation” between herself and the audience, says Java Arts curator Dana Langlois.
“Amy comes from an object-based focus, working in ceramics, sculpture and installations, so there was a huge shift for her moving into a performance work.”
Sanford made that shift by recreating the vase-breaking ritual, spontaneously, in public spaces: on dusty footpaths in Siem Reap and the heaving streets of Phnom Penh.
Four video recordings of these performances will be shown at tonight’s exhibition.
“The original was very specific and rhythmic whereas this new process was experimental – testing her endurance in the heat,” Langlois says.
Sanford herself says she needed time to digest her original Full Circle performance.
“In my art process, reflection requires a fair bit of mental distance from the work, whether the work be sculptural, performance, or some combination,” she says.
Staying calm during the video recordings of the vase breaking was particularly challenging.
“The internal mental process of breaking and repairing a pot became extremely public and external. That change was a big challenge. Between the noise, people, weather and adrift physical debris, it was challenging to retain a focus on the basic task at hand.”
The delicate pots were statements on a number of issues Cambodia faces, she says.
“[The pots] can be seen as symbolic of the trauma that Cambodia, individually and [as a society], has endured, [but] not limited to that.
“They’re also representative of the process of change... how quickly situations can change, and how labour intensive it is to repair [trauma].”
40 Pots + 4 Sketches opens tonight at Java Arts at 6.30pm.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]