On the small, grassy triangle between the French Embassy – where he and his family took refuge in April 1975 – and the Japanese bridge, artist Phouséra “Séra” Ing plans to erect a memorial to the Cambodian genocide that is wholly separate from the Khmer Rouge regime’s sites of horror.
“Nowhere in this country do you have something in the public space talking about this period. For me, it is a shame,” says the French-Cambodian sculptor, painter and cartoonist. “Tuol Sleng is a horrible place, and it belongs to the Khmer Rouge history.”
The central sculpture – cast in bronze and currently receiving its finishing patina in Siem Reap – not only eschews this notion of grotesque, hallowed ground, but also embodies the experience of a specific event: the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh.
It features six figures – mostly disembodied and abstract, surrounding a central figure – whose head is bowed and feet dug into the ground.
“The figure is in the position of praying, but the feet are in the expression of working,” Séra explains. “On that day [April 17, 1975], people didn’t have any other power other than praying and work.”
Séra has lived in Paris since his childhood, but has dedicated his palpable artistic energy to making sure this three-year project was completed in Cambodia. He awaits one technical stamp of approval from City Hall, which has already accepted the site.
The French Embassy – which provided €50,000 for the project – wants it completed by January, but Séra, either a perfectionist or a realist, has set his goal for a few months later.
“I’ve aimed for April,” he says.
The artist wants something he might not be able to have: a bronze wall to create a sense of scale, as well as a grander site for the memorial – all of which he says would cost an extra $150,000.
“It’s impossible to have it,” he says. “I’ve said, ‘Okay, it’s done, I cannot do more’.”
The memorial, called À Ceux Qui Ne Sont Plus Là (For Those Who Are No Longer Here), is not the first time Séra has engaged with this sort of collective memory. Last year, he painted a series of large-scale, ghost-like urns that went on display at the National Institute of Education to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Phnom Penh’s fall.
An exhibition at the French Institute next week – which takes its name from the memorial – features his sketches, research and preliminary clay sculptures for the memorial, as well as a few of his cartoons. The institute will also host a conversation and a live-painting exercise with the artist on October 6 and October 8 respectively.
This sort of careful study and documentation is integral to the artist’s next ambitious project: a graphic novel exploring the tumultuous years between 1967 and 1975.
“Getting a better comprehension of the history helps to have the right way to explain things today. If you don’t have that, it’s impossible to say something,” Séra says. “Why was there war? This is very important to me.”
For Those Who Are No Longer Here opens next Thursday, October 6, at the French Institute, #218 Street 184, at 7:30pm, preceded by a lecture by the artist Séra. The exhibition will run through November 4.