A rare residency in China prompts artists to investigate and reflect on their shared history
Engaging with history is simply about knowing our identity. History is not only war and the Khmer Rouge...
In 2002, with no sponsorship and nothing to sell, Chinese curator Lu Jie and artist Qiu Zhijie set out to reinvigorate the avant-garde through a project called The Long March.
The project was established as a contemporary art collective based in Beijing, whose first endeavour in 2002 was called "A Walking Visual Display".
It aimed to retrace the historical Long March - the 10,000-kilometre retreat, between 1934 and 1936, of China's Red Army from Kuomintang forces - and include artistic performances and displays at 12 sites along the route.
Today, the historical Long March continues to provide a metaphorical framework for a range of projects.
A commercial element was added when a prominent gallery, The Long March Space, opened in Beijing's art district.
In early 2008, when The Long March Space's commercial endeavours were being criticised as contradictory to its avant-garde undertakings, Lu Jei, together with Australian curator Zoe Butt, began a project to map the cultural landscape surrounding another historic trail.
In doing so, Lu Jei reminded China that there is more to the world than China and the West. Specifically, there is a part of Southeast Asia that overlaps a complex and continuing history with China, some of which can be explored or mapped.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
A supply route created during the Vietnam War, the Ho Chi Minh Trail formed a vast network of passageways across the borders of China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
There are fraught, interconnected, influential and overlapping histories in this region.
Long March Space invited 11 artists, curators, writers and arts managers from Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, New York, Seoul, Hangzhou, Beijing and Phnom Penh to collaborate in a curatorial and artistic residency at Long March Space in Beijing for the month of July. From Phnom Penh, Vandy Rattana and I were invited.
As residents of the host countries on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, our requirement was to share perspectives as well as engage in lectures, film screenings and etymological investigations, as well as studio visits and presentations by leading Chinese artists and thinkers.
Together, we produced hundreds of hours of thought, both recorded and transcribed. We also initiated an ongoing archive of songs, films, texts, a glossary, artwork and interviews that broaden our collective memory of this shared history.
To enliven the content and significance of this uniquely discursive residency model, I interviewed both the Ho Chi Minh Trail project director Zoe Butt and the Cambodian resident Vandy Rattana.
Zoe, why did you and Lu Jie begin the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project?
ZB: The motivation for the project is to understand that knowledge is critical to the production of culture.
A particular geographical pathway indicates a shared history between China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Ho Chi Minh Trail project stresses the importance of remembering lesser-known histories and learning from our neighbours.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail project is ongoing. How do you see the contributors from these countries engaging with each other in the future? Specifically, how do you see Cambodian artists contributing?
ZB: I think it's important to understand that this project is considered educational. The knowledge produced in July serves as a foundation for how this project will manifest in the future, outside of Beijing.
This could be that artists from the region who visit Phnom Penh share the methods of their practice.
In return, it is hoped that Cambodian participants begin to share their thoughts on why they do what they do and how they think it matters.
Contemporary art practices in developing countries often emerge without a formal education, such as in Cambodia. I find that in the absence of theory, there is little self-reflexivity and scant critical exchange. Why are these things important?
ZB: The diversity of Asia lies in its stories, in the cultural traditions and myths that are handed down.
Tradition is something that is alive and undergoing constant innovation. In the modern world it is critical this is articulated, because the West dismisses tradition as a symbol of the past far too easily.
Rattana, in light of Zoe's answers, why do you do what you do and why does it matter?
VR: I make photographs. Firstly, I make photographs for myself; it is natural to me.
Secondly, I do it to show the human condition. Whether my photographs are conceptual or documentary projects, my goal is to show life and invite people to examine life.
At this time it is important to create images because in Cambodia we lack an archive. Documentation is both a reflector and creator of history. We need documentation to help us understand the changes from generation to generation.
I want my pictures to have the smell of my mother's food and the sound of my father's stories.
Was the residency beneficial for you?
VR: A Khmer proverb says you can hear something a thousand times and you don't know it, yet if you see it with your eyes just once, you know.
It is important to travel and see with our own eyes. We talked for one entire month about history and artistic practice in a professional and critical learning environment.
We had a diverse combination of people who were very honest, so we increasingly understood the situation in each country.
After spending so much time with both emerging and established Chinese artists, is it useful to compare their backgrounds and practices to those of emerging Cambodian artists?
VR: Yes, we can learn by comparing.
When I visited the Buddhist Institute, a venerable monk shared with me a Khmer proverb: Knowledge is like a sword, and morality is like its sheath. This means knowledge is dangerous unless it is protected.
Morality comes from our parents who pass it down; very simple rules help us to establish our own morals.
We cannot shout or run around while older people are talking, our gestures and speech should be appropriate for different situations.
I think about this often. It has both good and bad implications.
For example, we have kind mannerisms that are sincere and generous, which can spread to others, but when teachers ask us if we have any questions, we don't, because we were not encouraged to question.
The Chinese government understands the influence contemporary art can have on the economy and also its significance for history.
The government started to encourage artists; they developed academic art schools to train people in a professional and critical way.
As a result, the Chinese artists and professors have more knowledge than the Cambodian artists - not only about art, but also general education. China is also a voracious reading culture, whereas Cambodia is not.
Even though the young Chinese artists have so much knowledge, in many ways I feel that China has the sword but not the cover.
There needs to be a balance, and neither Cambodia nor China has it.
Knowing that the international art community is now inviting Cambodia to participate, what advice do you have for artists and cultural workers in Cambodia?
VR: Artists need to get themselves ready for integration because people around the region are trying to learn from each other now.
We have a very important and complicated history, and artists need to be able to articulate this. Currently they don't know it. It's not only them, it is the Cambodian school system, too.
As the system is unlikely to change, my appeal to artists is to read more, think more and research what was going on, and think about its significance. I think learning history does not need to result in making art about history or politics.
This is not the idea. Engaging with history is simply about knowing our identity. History is not only war and the Khmer Rouge, it is also changes in the way we dress or the way we speak.
There are many elements to it. It's a question of personal identity more than national identity.
Don't try to be someone else and do not be scared about money.
Artists should be searching for themselves and more knowledge, not money. Money may come later, after we work hard and stay honest with ourselves.
This is the best way because it is sustainable.