At this time last year, Svay Sareth was pulling a huge aluminium sphere two metres in height and one hundred kilograms in weight along national road 6A from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.
The 40-year-old artist and Siem Reap native made the at-times gruelling trek as part of an installation entitled Mon Boulep or Prisoner Ball, which will be on display this coming month at Institut Français du Cambodge.
Svay Sareth pulled the sphere more than 300 kilometres on foot as a way of expressing the past hardships endured in his life while proceeding towards the future.
“Our past suffering is like the ball shackled to prisoners,” he said. “It locks us down and burdens us all the time. I want this work to remind me of my past, but also tell me how I should move forward.”
As a child, Svay Sareth fled to a refugee camp in Thailand while the country fell into chaos at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. From one day to another, he was always waiting to return home because he hated his life as a refugee.
“I didn’t realise what a coconut tree, a river or a paved road looked until I was 19. In the camp, we didn’t have those things. We were locked in, and we waited for peace,” he recalled.
While at the refugee camp, he had a chance to learn arts from Westerners and after being repatriated to Cambodia in 1993, he and other refugees founded the now-renowned circus school, Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) in Battambang.
In 2003, Svay Sareth had the opportunity to study art in France and has been based in Siem Reap since his return in 2009.
It was last May that he undertook what he had planned to be a 10-day trek to the capital, a journey he allowed to progress naturally. At the end of each day, he slept at whatever village he found himself in.
The trek was not without its challenges. Two days and 70 kilometres in, he injured his ankle in a pothole and had to stop to rest. But he got help from police officer.
“I was so exhausted after pulling a 100 kilogram sphere for two days. While I stopped, a police officer from Preah Vihear province helped to bring me and my sphere to Skun, Kampong Cham. Then I understood that in life there can trouble but one can also get help sometimes,” Svay Sareth said.
He then continued from Skun for four more days. As he passed through villages pulling the sphere, local people eagerly interacted with and reflected on the meaning of what they saw.
He says some elders compared his hard work to their life during the Khmer Rouge era.
Younger people always asked questions, but since he did not have enough time to stop and reply, he let them write or paint pictures of what they thought on the sphere itself.
The words and images left by villagers will be there for all to see when the sphere goes on display today. A 19-minutes video of the journey will also be shown.
Svay Sareth’s Mon Boulep will be displayed alongside Cambodian-American Khiang H Hei’s sculpture entitled Home and a series of landscape photographs, as well as an installation entitled Yell, made of glasses and scarves, by designer Hiek Vila
The group exhibition will open this evening, Thursday May 31 at 6:30pm with presentation by the artists, and will be up for the next three weeks at Institut Français du Cambodge, #218 Street 184, Phnom Penh.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]