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Live art project explores border tensions

Mami and Sopheak’s project saw them head to the border together. Photo supplied
Mami and Sopheak’s project saw them head to the border together. Photo supplied

Live art project explores border tensions

At work, documentary filmmaker Sao Sopheak and multidisciplinary artist Tuan Mami employ similar styles: probing, crosscutting, even brash.

Sitting together this week, they share, joke and disagree like the good friends they are.

But their partnership is something rare – a Cambodian and Vietnamese artistic collaboration. “I think we might be the first,” Mami joked this week.

Cambodia and Vietnam share a 1,137-km border, and plenty of sensitive sentiment. Sopheak and Mami’s dual exhibition In/visible Borderlines, which opens next week at Meta House, seeks to probe these tensions.

The work, which consists of live performance, video footage and found-object sculpture, takes as its starting point a three-day research trip the duo took along the Mekong River to the border earlier this year.

In practice, that involves several kilograms of palm sugar, which Sopheak and Mami plan to mould into border posts in front of an audience, as well as water and sand collected in situ that they will use to draw a map on the floor of the gallery. They carried all the materials back with them in a shared taxi. The sugar – which is traded across the border and exported to China – represents commonality.

Sopheak and Mami spoke with dozens of people, from border-crossing tuk-tuk drivers to floating-village residents to border officials. Many appear on video. In Phnom Penh, the research continued. This week, they were headed to another village near the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge. Their work, in a sense, was still coming together.

For Sopheak, the project presents a counterweight to ongoing anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia, much of which revolves around the political nature of the physical border: allegations of erroneous maps and misplanted posts.

Documentarian Sao Sopheak and artist Tuan Mami.
Documentarian Sao Sopheak and artist Tuan Mami. Athena Zelandonii

The filmmaker places its roots in the Vietnamese occupation from 1979 to 1989, though some would argue it stretches back hundreds of years.

“The people there [along the border], they don’t really understand politics,” Sopheak said. “We wanted to figure out what they shared.”

But Mami views these sentiments from another side. “I think the young Cambodian people, they hate the Vietnamese. But I don’t know why. Most of us . . . we haven’t heard anything about the conflict,” he said with an uncommon candour.

And so the artists, too, found a middle ground: to counter the political with the personal.

This sort of project comes naturally to both artists: Mami frequently challenges social concepts and physicality in his work, and Sopheak is interested in telling oft-silenced stories.

Live art – on the upswing regionally – seemed a natural way to share their experience. The duo invites the audience to bring their own narratives and objects to share on opening night.

For the pair, dismantling preconceptions may have simply begun with their unlikely partnership. “Borderlines only exist in perceptions, there isn’t any mark,” Mami said. “This [artistic] process is already something.”

In/visible Borderlines opens on Thursday, May 26, at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Blvd. Sopheak and Mami’s performance will start at 6:30pm. The exhibition will run through June 12.

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