IF it wasn’t for the CPP broadcasts blaring from trucks outside photographer Kim Hak’s workshop, it would have been easy to believe we were in Stockholm. Within the air-conditioned, minimalist confines of the studio’s white walls and slate-grey floor, the sticky heat of the midday sun outside quickly fades.
Hak, 32, says the studio is personal rather than office space, which he shares only with friends and his students, who come to read books or discuss his pictures.
His most recent photography series, DRIP, is headed for the HASY gallery in France where it will be shown from July 6, after exhibiting at the Institut Francais between April and May.
What are your expectations for the French exhibition of DRIP?
My expectation from the exhibition is to make people more aware of heritage. I don’t really think it’s going to be more successful than my exhibition in Phnom Penh but people can understand my work more after seeing my three series of work [his previous two: On and Someone have already shown in France] as I always work with buildings.
What is the story behind DRIP, which features images of walls in very close focus?
The King-Father Norodom Sihanouk and the French government tried to transform Kep into a luxury city. Around 150 villas were built there in the ’60s and ’70s.
All those villas were nearly destroyed by the Cambodian-Vietnamese war and the Khmer Rouge. Later on they were nearly destroyed by the local people who were in poverty after the Khmer Rouge. They went to those villas and the locals started to destroy them to get the iron and so on.
Since I started working on the project in Kep I’ve seen that the villas have started to disappear. I realised that I needed to do something, to take pictures, to create new life before all the villas disappear, and to document the layers and the history at Kep.
Some reports say that they are ghost villas, but I don’t consider them ghost villas. When I entered them I always saw someone there. People still live in some of the buildings and even the villas where no people live are taken care of by someone local who comes to clean them.
The private owners want to destroy the villas, they just want the land and to create new buildings. They don’t know the history of the villas or perhaps they didn’t really connect with the buildings.
What can we see in the pictures?
I photographed the walls of these villas, which had been affected by nature. After that I photographed the drawings that people made there, but at the end, after photographing all these paintings, I felt disconnected, so I had to draw something for myself. I drew things related to Kep, to nature: fish, crabs, flowers.
Do you have any particular favourites among the 100+ images from the DRIP series?
My favourite images show what on the wall is affected by human life. For example, how the villagers stripped the wall to find iron, wire and copper. Through these images I think we can learn a little bit about history.
In one villa there is a drawing of a flag [the flag of the Khmer Republic]. Immediately when I see this I think about the flag between 1970-75 and about the B52s [bombs dropped by the US during the Cambodian Campaign].
What inspired the name DRIP?
When I worked on this series I considered it like painting and when I saw the walls it looked like something had been dripping. The drip is made from many layers, which have been created over the last 40 years. First the people that lived there painted the house, and afterwards plants and animals. When the sh*t from animals drips on those walls it’s like painting again.
Do you think there’s a changing tide in perceptions of Cambodian art – or is it more of a drip, drip effect?
Even for myself I start to collect the work of Cambodian artists. Only one or two of the photos here [in the studio] are mine. Here people buy my work, but not yet any Cambodians, still foreigners.