At an awards ceremony in Singapore this coming Tuesday, the winners of the third edition of the Prudential Eye Awards will be announced. The pan-Asian contemporary-art event offers awards across five categories, and a $50,000 prize to one overall winner. Among the 15 nominees is Cambodian artist Svay Sareth, who has been nominated in the Sculpture category for a body of work that takes as its starting point the materials and practices of war. In anticipation of the ceremony, Harriet Fitch Little spoke to the awards director Niru Ratnam about Cambodian art in a regional context, and the East-meets-West nuances of Asia’s contemporary scene
What do you think it was that the judges saw in the work of Cambodian nominee Svay Sareth?
Sareth’s work, from a Western point of view, is an amazing story: he grew up in a refugee camp, and he’s made all this work about very tough times and tough history. But I think the reason he’s
been nominated is more than the context of the work. He’s obviously got something to do with this resurgence of interest in performativity, performance art and durational performance.
Do you think there’s an issue with Western art critics and curators primarily viewing Cambodian art in relation to the Khmer Rouge?
It’s really interesting. There is no way of escaping that a country’s art is seen through a particular lens for a particular amount of time. For example, in Pakistan for a while, all anyone was interested in was artists making miniatures but with heavy political statements on things – guns and war. So if you were a Pakistani artist and you wanted to make a pop bit of work or something, people weren’t so interested. But that at least brings the art world in. It’s a way in to that contemporary scene, and hopefully then it’s something that will expand.
Staying on the topic of international influences, what’s your take on the presence of Western curators and thought leaders in Asian markets?
In Cambodia it’s the same as for a lot of new art scenes. There’s definitely a pattern where at first there are a number of Western curators that come in, but there is a process where that does feed into developing local curators. For example, somewhere like Sri Lanka, [with Britain's] Annoushka Hempel setting up the art biennale. But now I think she’s stepping back a bit and handing it over to the local scene. So it tends to work itself out.
How’s Cambodia holding up next to the competition?
We get nominations from almost all the countries, and we don’t really expect two artists in consecutive years from what is a very small art scene [Khvay Samnang was nominated last year]. So there’s obviously something going on in Cambodia. I don’t know what it is. It’s the same in Bangladesh. There’s certainly a moment in both those scenes.