Experienced artist Svay Sareth’s new exhibit is low in vitamins but high in political and social commentary
Svay Sareth eats rubber sandals. Or rather, he chews them apart and spits them out onto a plate for nine consecutive minutes in a film that will be looped as part of the artist’s new exhibition at SaSa Bassac.
The film shows Sareth sat at a desk. Behind him, villagers wander between huts and traffic rumbles past. In front of him on the table are two rubber sandals and a pot of tea.
Sareth observes the sandals. Then he picks one up, and pulls the straps off with his teeth. He proceeds to chew the tough rubber until the strap is broken into several pieces.
As the process is repeated, the frame gradually shrinks to magnify his face. The ripping of the sandals becomes uncomfortably visceral: Sareth salivates, and his teeth grind together noisily.
At the end of the film, he repeats his mantra – also the name of his new exhibition: “I, Svay Sareth, eat rubber sandals.”
Speaking earlier this week, Sareth confirmed that the process was as unpleasant as it looks. “It stinks,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “and it doesn’t give you any vitamins.”
The artist explained that it was the unpleasantness of the shoes that had drawn him to film himself eating them.
“These objects hurt me,” he said. “After I realised that [they] hurt me, I thought, eat it, and you will see.”
But the “hurt” he refers to runs far deeper than simply finding black rubber unpalatable. It was the sandals’ history, and their symbolism, that caused him pain.
“They’re something that all the revolutions in Asia have in common,” he said, referring to the makeshift sandals worn by both the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong.
When, earlier this year, Sareth chanced across a travelling salesman with a rack of rubber sandals attached to his motorbike, memories came flooding back.
“It made me think of all the dramatic history that I know,” he said. “I took it as a scholastic provocation.”
Svay Sareth was born in 1972 and began making art while living in the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand. From there, he went on to co-found Phare Ponleu Selpak art school, now based in Battambang.
He has exhibited widely both in Cambodia and internationally. As is the case in I, Svay Sareth, Eat Rubber Sandals, his work often takes as its starting point the materials and practices of war: in the past he has made sculptures out of camouflage and iron, and has undertaken feats of great endurance.
In 2011, he rolled an 80-kilogram metal globe the 250 kilometres from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh for the performance piece Mon Boulet [My Burden].
Sareth’s most recent exhibition consists of three thematically coherent installations. First, there is the video of Sareth eating the sandals.
Then, on one wall, a suspended wooden pole supports 17 rubber sandals. Opposite them, an LED screen flashes in red the word “it”. The word is repeated 17 times in each of Khmer’s 17 linguistic registers, starting with the formal language used to address royalty, and progressing down to the most familial.
Sareth said that it was the rough and ready nature of the sandals, which cost $2.50 to buy on the street, that made him think about the inequality of Khmer society. “I thought about the different words that indicate the different quality of life,” he said. “All the social levels, with this history of Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge, they are linked together.”
The final exhibit presents a surreal juxtaposition.On top of a two-tiered podium decorated with multicoloured disco lights, there sits a decrepit motorbike decked out with a sandal seller’s rack.
It’s the same bike that first gave Sareth the idea for the exhibition: having met the vendor, he promptly bought the man’s bike and all his wares on the spot.
It’s a composition that Sareth wants viewers to react to with a smile.
“I wanted to present it as a positive proposition,” he said. “Its true history is difficult, but my vision for the future is to take the past, to take something very hard, and turn it into a positive future.”
Sareth said that despite the politically and historically charged nature of his work, he hopes the exhibition to have a certain lightness to it.
“That’s the characteristic of my work,” he said. “It’s like a joke, a play on words. I’d like the opening to have the feel of a party.”
I, Svay Sareth, Eat Rubber Sandals, Sa Sa Bassac, #18E2 Sothearos Blvd. Opening night September 26, 6pm