Artists preserve Khmer Rouge memories in half a ton of salt

Monks examine Sibiski’s salt-covered installation
Monks examine Sibiski’s salt-covered installation. Kimberley McCosker

Artists preserve Khmer Rouge memories in half a ton of salt

Artist couple’s new exhibition takes Picasso’s contention that ‘art is a weapon’ and applies it to a new enemy: the danger of forgetting the past

When the luggage of artists Phousséra “Sera” Ing and Julianne Sibiski went through the airport scanners on arrival in Phnom Penh, it may have raised a few eyebrows among security staff.

One suitcase contained almost 40 kilograms of paint, resin and glue. Another housed a taxidermied hare so big that many who saw it mistook it for a dog. The hare was half coated in salt crystals that Sibiski had started growing on its fur.

These strange parcels were destined to become part of Unfinished – a joint exhibition by the couple at the National Institute of Education intended as a commemorative event to mark the 40-year anniversary of the arrival of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh. The show is the first to take place in the new temporary quarters of the Sleuk Rith Institute, which will be active while the permanent building of its genocide studies centre is under construction.

Séra’s paintings are positioned so as to cover all windows
Séra’s paintings are positioned so as to cover all windows. Kimberley McCosker

Wednesday’s opening night drew large crowds keen to explore the new premises. Inside a canary yellow building with high ceilings, two opposing walls were hung with eight panel paintings by Séra, the boards positioned so as to entirely block the room’s tall windows.

The monumental slabs were coated in mottled earthen colours, the tones blended by applying pure pigment as powder and working it either by hand or using a straw broom. On to these backgrounds, the artist had painted a series of ghost-like burial urns in white.

Séra’s inspiration comes from a story that made the news back in February: the discovery of hundreds of funeral urns in a vault underneath Wat Langka. The urns, some of which date from before 1975, were deposited at the Wat for safekeeping by families who never reclaimed them.

Youk Chhang, the director of DC-Cam who publicised the existence of the urns, was also the man to approach Séra about holding an exhibition to commemorate the 40th anniversary. Speaking with Youk about his discovery, the artist was struck by the personal poignancy of these forgotten vessels of mourning.

Born in 1961 to a French mother and Cambodian father, Séra escaped Phnom Penh in 1975 via the French Embassy. His father was not allowed to join them and was later executed under the regime. “It’s almost like the grave of the unknown soldier, except instead of a flame you have a painting,” said Sibiski, who often speaks on her partner’s behalf. “And in this way it becomes like an urn in itself because it holds inside it the ashes of a life.”

Artists Séra Ing and Julianne Sibiski in front of a painting by Séra
Artists Séra Ing and Julianne Sibiski in front of a painting by Séra. Kimberley McCosker

Sibiski herself has no connection to Cambodia independent of Séra, but her two abstract paintings revealed on Wednesday – hung at either end of the room – mirrored the energy of her partner’s work.

The exhibition’s most striking feature was her installation: two long wooden boats, one upright, one upturned in the middle of the space. Salt was piled in and around the two boats, and the corpse of the taxidermied hare poked out from under the white heap – like an animal caught by surprise in a snowstorm.

Sibiski said she knew that as an outsider she could not contribute her memories to the discussion of the Cambodian genocide. As an alternative, she has paid attention to weaving Cambodia’s material heritage into her work: her paint incorporates threads of fabric like those tied by monks during blessings, and the half-tonne of salt piled on the boats comes from the salt fields of Kampot province. The buried hare is a historical reference: it was the year of the rabbit when the Khmer Rouge seized power.

The choice to stage an exhibition about memory featuring two artists who did not live through the Khmer Rouge may not meet with universal approval. Sibiski explained that it was a result of Séra’s discerning approach to choosing who to work with. “If he didn’t do it [with an artist who lived under the Khmer Rouge], it’s because there are none that inspire him enough. He’s very demanding in this way,” she said.

Séra added that the very personal way in which every Cambodian related to the Khmer Rouge period also made working collaboratively uncomfortable. “We all have our own personal experiences, and I can’t share what I have lived with someone else – that’s very difficult to do,” he said. Working with an “outsider” like Sibiski avoided the challenge of competing memories.

Sibiski said she did not doubt that it was possible for someone who had not lived the Khmer Rouge to memorialise the experience through art. “What I try to do with the art is have a perspective that is not necessarily outside or inside, but underneath in a way,” she said. “That’s why I went into the earth for my materials.”

Unfinished is on show at the National Institute of Education (Building H), Preah Norodom, until September 22.

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