A lean, ambiguous figure − face veiled behind an eerie, alabaster mask − glides over the tiled floors of Romeet Gallery towards a colossal, looping sculpture.
He reaches the intestine-like shape and begins slicing through its patchwork skin, a mosaic of vibrant krama and sarong scraps, and mosquito netting scrawled over with charcoal. Artist Srey Bandaul looks on intently as his sculpture is dissected.
The performance last night sent a bold message at the opening of Bandaul’s latest exhibition, Digestion.
For Bandaul, the giant intestine represents the tension in modern day Cambodia between traditional life and foreign influence – objects appear to have been swallowed by the sculpture and jut out from the organ.
The same goes for several wall-bound sculptures: the totem-like figures resemble Australian indigenous art, constructed with chicken wire and covered with colourful materials.
The figures are symbolic of a traditional Cambodian family, according to the artist – once again, objects, or swallowed influences, seem to protrude from their bellies.
The day before the opening, while installing his piece, Bandaul explained that the physical ripping of the sculpture is a metaphor for the ruptures to Cambodian society caused by the dependence on foreign aid and outside influences.
“I think Cambodia is having trouble digesting these things. The Chinese culture, the Korean influence… We’re adopting these ideals so fast and are not taking time to digest the meaning or significance,” the 40-year-old artist, whose drawings and paintings have appeared in New York, Australia and Singapore, says.
“After the 2009 financial crisis it became even more apparent, our reliance on foreign aid, NGOs, suddenly the money slowed down. How can Cambodians be independent? That’s the question I want to ask,” he says.
The process of Digestion was arduous: Bandaul spent almost a year on the sculptures, moulding the wire, gluing and unpeeling each layer of cloth, often working deep into the night.
The common Cambodian materials used hark back to the artist’s melancholic memories of childhood and adolescence, the majority of which was spent in refugee camps flanking the Thai border, including the notorious Site 2 – at one time the largest in Southeast Asia.
“I have strong memories of resin. As children in the camp, we would eat it like candy. We’d go and hunt for it in the forest, and when my mother found out she’d yell at me. It tasted so good, and we were starving. But we were getting sick from it − they said we were becoming jaundiced. Even so, we kept eating it, for years! It was important for me to represent this experience of my early life. The cloth used has some sort of protective element – the krama from the sun, the mosquito net, the sarong as a blanket. Charcoal to me symbolises fire, the war.”
“I had it on display in my house and older people would wander past and think it was frightening. They’d say ‘What on earth is that?’ But I think the younger generations are really open to contemporary art. I’m not too worried if people like it or not, as long as it generates discussion,” he says.
Bandoul believes drawing to be a crucial skill all artists need to grasp, but one which he fears is neglected by many young contemporary creators.
“You ask them to draw a simple sketch, and they cannot... This was the first thing I ever did at Site 2.”
It was something Bandaul was determined to instill in his younger students at Phare Ponleu Selpak, the acclaimed Battambang arts hub he helped found and at which he is now a full-time visual arts teacher.
He says it has been challenging, at times frustrating, with swathes of younger, poorer generations completely unaware of the country’s cultural and art history.
“I always encourage political discussion, the current landscape, the environment, what is going on right now. Of course it’s important to make something beautiful, but it’s also important to know what’s going on, to also have these things inform your work.
“This [art and cultural] education can be valuable in all areas of life – you look, observe, absorb, form your own opinion. Even if you go to work in bank these things help you be calmer, a critical thinker, reflective.
In 2010 Bandaul was awarded a six month fellowship in New York through the Asia Cultural Council residency program, a time that shaped his art immeasurably, he says.
“Being bombarded by so many senses, so much pop culture really made me realise I had to find my own voice.”
Still, the art pouring out of Battambang now excites him.
“It’s good and these guys are working hard. It takes time though, because of the conditions in Cambodia. Not so long ago we had no access to internet, no paintings, no cinema, books. Now people are writing about Khmer art, from its history to now – amazing! Me, I’m 40-years-old, but I still think I have a long way to walk.”