It was after being visited in a dream by a forest spirit that Khvay Samnang began working on his new art project, Rubber Man.
The spirit – who appeared as a white naked man – took Samnang to a rubber plantation to show him how its home had been destroyed, he explained a few days after the show opened on Friday.
“I felt it was like how the villagers who have lost their land come to Phnom Penh to protest,” the artist said.
Inspired by the homeless spirit, Samnang embarked on an unusual project: dumping rubber tree sap over his naked body, hoping to raise questions about where the inhabitants go when forests are destroyed.
More than 300,000 hectares of rubber trees have already been cultivated in Cambodia and the government hopes to more than double that in the next few years.
However, rights groups say that the deforestation destroys minority groups’ hunting and gathering grounds and places of spiritual significance along with animal habitats.
Pouring materials over himself has become something of a trademark for Samnang.
In a previous work, Untitled, he went to various development sites around Phnom Penh and dumped buckets of sand on his own head. In Newspaper Man, he covered himself in newspapers and wandered blindly around Boeung Kak, which was filled in with sand in 2010 to make way for a development.
For Rubber Man he undertook about 10 trips to Ratanakkiri, where he was filmed and photographed sans clothes in rubber-tree plantations and villages dousing himself in buckets of rubber tree sap.
“It was really smelly, like rubber, but not that bad,” he said. “Getting it off was very painful. It took two and a half hours each time to remove and it pulled out all the hair from my legs.”
Samnang said some of the villagers he encountered were disturbed by his nudity and threatened to have him arrested.
But a friend in the village who was respected for perceived supernatural powers was able to smooth things over.
Samnang said that normally in Cambodia power trumped rules. “I don’t normally have power but in this case I was able to use my friend’s power.”
The result of Samnang’s ordeals is a single-channel video and photographic series accompanied by a series of hand-carved rubberwood sculptures of threatened animals and machinery such as chainsaws and bulldozers.
Samnang said he did not want any publicity ahead of the exhibition’s opening last week because he feared it might be shut down by the authorities.
It wasn’t the political aspect of the show that would be a problem – it was the nudity.
The footage is carefully edited (the full frontal shots are obscured by the liquid rubber) but Samnang was still concerned.
“I didn’t put out any press release or anything,” he said.
Ironically, Samnang could not have completed the project without the help of a friend who owns a rubber plantation.
He said the friend admitted to him that he had done wrong by cutting down the forests but hoped that helping with Rubber Man could be redeeming.
“Most people who own the rubber plantations won’t admit they have done anything wrong, but at least he did,” he said.
The Rubber Man exhibition is on at Sa Sa Bassac gallery (#18 2nd Floor, Sothearos Boulevard) until July 12.