Photographer Kim Hak spent a sultry March this year carving and scratching away layer upon layer of kaleidoscopic paint from the weathered walls of Kep’s glorious, circa 1960, modernist villas and mansions.
Many left abandoned and dishevelled, but still structurally intact after the civil war, the villas whisper of the dozy seaside town’s past as an opulent beach resort for the country’s well-heeled and blue-blooded.
Hak, who had developed a fascination with Kep’s architecture and had spent the previous two years working on a number of collections tracing the town’s ethereal features and its ghosts, wove his own story into the villas’ peeling walls.
The result is a salient, vivid collection of photos of his own artworks: Unfinished which is set to be exhibited in Phnom Penh and is a spin-off of another collection which was awarded a prestigious French prize last month.
One, reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, is a vivid mix of saffron-hued shapes and flecks of gold, while another is almost Dali-esque, marbled pastels swirling around abstract cracks and shapes.
Other photographs depict the 31-year-old’s charcoal etchings: elephants, seahorses, swaying palms and tropical fruit and what looks like a ruby geisha.
While 30 of the images can be viewed on the artist’s website for a preview, there are plans to exhibit a full collection next year.
Unfinished is the spin off of another Kep-based collection by the artist: Someone, which shows the ghosts – both living and dead – that lived in the old villas.
“Many (structures) are overtaken by the jungle like Angkor ruins and while many seem abandoned there are actually symbols of life inside – mundane, ordinary objects like pots and glasses, stuffed toys and kettles that were part of life back then,” he said.
Hak photographed a faded, gold-framed black and white image of a young couple, yet these symbols of the villas’ life pre-Khmer Rouge are juxtaposed with images of present-day life.
In one image, the viewer peers out of a window in which the glass and bars have been removed and looted, while other structures are tangled in scrub, twisted tree roots and vegetation.
In others we see a bag of eggs hanging on a wall, a moto parked outside a doorway and an elderly woman who had taken refuge in one crumbling mansion.
When Hak returned to work on Unfinished, he was saddened to learn the elderly woman had since died. “It’s just life and we cannot stay forever,” he said.
Someone, it too yet to be exhibited, garnered critical acclaim and in 2011 the half-finished project won the artist an “Artistic Creation Project” award from Paris’ Musée du quai Branly, with Hak winning $15,000 to finish the project.
“I only finished the collection on June 30 this year and then travelled in September to France to give them the final collection and a presentation to the museum’s founder… it will formally be exhibited there next year,” he said.
Hak was also selected in September as one of 1000 artists from around the world to feature at Nottingham’s World Event Young Artists event, with his work exhibited at Nottingham Trent University’s Art and Design school
“There was amazing work from artists across multiple platforms and it was very inspiring to talk to other lecturers, performers and to see new things… to talk about new ideas and methods that may not have been canvassed in Cambodia… it was a huge opportunity,” he said.
Battambang born Hak, who in his early 20s travelled extensively around the country in a tourism gig, said his art was reflective of his “quiet and calm” nature.
“My work is always about memory, it infuses all of my work – there is always past, present and future. I’ve worked on a lot of projects and so far that element has been present in them all - I’m not sure why.
“I think it’s important to just let work and art evolve naturally, not to push something to be unique or different or to mimic other successful photographers.
“Personally I am very quiet and people have said they see that in my work a quietness, calmness and observation… I like to work this way and think if I was commissioned to do something I’d find it quite hard.
“I think my work, when it does depict the Khmer Rouge, is a little more subtle… it is important to recognise the country’s past but also to move on,” he said.
For more information about Kim Hak's work, visit his website.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]