Jane DeBevoise (JD): For those of you who don’t know, I am Jane DeBevoise and I am the Chair of an organization that is based in Hong Kong called Asia Art Archive. We have a small space here, really only this room [laughter], and an office downstairs on the ground floor. Please can come by any time.
For the last month, we have had the pleasure and honor of hosting Svay Sareth and Yim Maline who are participating here in New York IN RESIDENCE, the Visual Art Program of ‘Season of Cambodia,’ organized by Leeza Ahmady, who many of you know, and Erin Gleeson, who many of you don’t know. Erin has been living in Phnom Penh for the last 11 years and runs a contemporary art space there called SA SA BASSAC.
Cambodia has multiple art scenes, including Battambong, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh, which are growing into increasingly vibrant sites of creativity and work. Sareth and Maline, who will be speaking tonight, are based in Siem Reap, although as you will see, they also spend time in Battambong. Tonight Erin will do the introductions and provide some information about the recent symposium in which we have all taken part. She will also help with translation, as will Lyno Vuth. But Sareth and Maline have lived in France and speak very good French, so the conversation will be a bit of a mélange.
Erin Gleeson (EG): Thank you, Jane. Jane asked me to speak briefly on contemporary art practice in Cambodia as a general introduction. To do this I will refer to the symposium we held at MoMA last week titled Contemporary Art in Cambodia: A Historical Inquiry. There are a limited number of scholars and curators considering contemporary art in Cambodia, thus the symposium organizers (myself, Leeza and Cornell PhD candidate Pamela Corey) thought it important to ground contemporary practices in that which came before them. The first panel focused on colonial as well as modern practices through the 1990s. Cambodia was considered a different project than that in the rest of Indo-Chine and particularly different than Vietnam. The French ‘used’ Vietnam as a modern state and Cambodia for the opposite, in many ways, pulling the reigns on its self-initiating efforts to be modern. The second panel of papers considered contemporary practices, noting particular artists and artworks and patterns, while the third was a dialog between Leeza and two artists. In the eight hours, eight papers, four discussions, and a lot of questions, a particular notion that returned to the forefront of thought were the so called anomalous aspects of Cambodian history and contemporaneity. Of course one particular aspect that was addressed over and again was the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, a regime that killed 90% of educated people, including artists. Although some of the artists address this legacy in their practices, a lot of them were born after the regime into another civil war, and so there is a layering of histories. We also heard that some artists are very much resisting historicizing the past in an effort to record the present, partially motivated by an archive fever in the absence of one having been destroyed by wars and neglect. In the process some artists are forming a very new language within the history of visual cultures in Cambodia. What is wonderful is that there is going to be a related symposium, for three days, in Cambodia in December of this year, in collaboration with the Center For Khmer Studies and other universities and institutions. It is great that this initiative will be further developed at home.
For IN RESIDENCE, Leeza and I tried to shape something that allowed artists to bring their own experiences and to speak for themselves, to go through a process and be able to communicate that on many different platforms and to various publics. I am from Minneapolis – and on the wall of the Walker Art Center, there is a work by Lawrence Weiner that says ‘Bits and Pieces Put Together to Form a Semblance of a Whole’. I think about this work and its words as it relates to IN RESIDENCE – in the way Jane was just saying – in that artists are communicative to each other and within the schools and communities they are from and those live and work within. The expression of a responsibility to the artistic community/communities and to history as a strategy of caring about the future – of being active in shaping a future that differs from their past.
Tonight we look at Maline and Sareth’s work, with time to consider only a few works each that draw out their histories and practices. We will start with Sareth and close with Maline.
Sareth Svay (SS): First I would like to say thank you so much to Jane for having us here with a lot of love and freedom and for offering us this occasion to talk about our work. To introduce myself, I was born in 1972 in Cambodia in Battanbang, just three years before the Khmer Rouge. In 1979, I was moved to a refugee camp at the border of Thailand. In that time, there were many camps, and I don’t want to leave this out because Jane asked me to mention it [laughter]. I spent 13 years in the camp. For me, it was a middle world, a waiting room. All the refugees living there were in small houses. I was among friends and a French volunteer who was an artist and art teacher working at the camp. Her name was Veronique de Crop. I started to learn to draw and she would give me candy! Finally, when I was 19 years old, I discovered my country. When I moved back to Cambodia in 1993, it was really amazing for me.
JD: Just so people understand, Sareth went from age 6-17 in the refugee camp on the Thai side of the Cambodian border. Then you came back.
EG: Not only did Vernoque de Crop establish an art school in the refugee camps, but afterwards, with a dedicated team of her former students including Sareth, she co-founded the art school Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang in 1994. The school has grown incredibly since then to include dance, theatre, circus, music and more. The wooden house they built as the visual arts classroom – the school itself back then – still stands as an art classroom today. As one of Phare’s founders, his life was immersed in art, and he decided to continue his studies formally in France. Sareth holds a BA and an MA from Caen.
Let’s move on to Sareth’s work, his journeying. One strand of Sareth’s practice, if I may be so basic in my description, is to move through time and space with an object… objects that have seemed to grow bigger over time. This work we are looking at is called Bouclier (Shield), made in 2008, and marks the beginning of his durational performance work.
SS: Before making this work, I made drawings or paintings. I started to be unsettled in this practice and wanted to try something different. I was in university at the time. I felt very ill and decided that I was sick because I didn’t have any idea what to do next in my practice. In Cambodian culture we have a healing practice called ‘coining.’ We rub a metal coin repeatedly and sometimes roughly across the skin with an ointment, and believe this adjusts and balances energy or ‘wind’ in the body. The coining healed me, and I realized this process was a metaphor that I wanted to share. I wanted to share my story that no one was talking about – the history of the camps. We talk a lot about the Khmer Rouge, but from 1979 until 1999, all through the war, at the border, how many people were there and are responsible for that? Who are the actors of that cinema? I felt responsible for sharing this, symbolically. I went back to my studio and fabricated a coin shape and decided to attach it to my bicycle. I began to drag it on the ground…10 kilometers…30 kilometers…and further. And I decided to do a long journey from Normandy to Paris…
JD: It’s a flat metal disc, like a shield…
SS: I tried to do something that I didn’t have to ask permission for. I went on the road, inside the subway. No police stopped me. There is a wonderful freedom in France! [laughter] The work made a very loud noise, like the noise inside me. Rubbing it on the ground was healing. It acted as kind of scanner, sliding across surfaces of my stored memories. On my journey, in a very small village I met a group of people along the road. Unfortunately those people had uniforms that looked like my father’s.
JD: His father was a soldier in the anti-Vietnamese resistance during the civil war.
SS: They had guns for killing wild animals and it made me recall the war: ‘Where am I,’ I thought? ‘How will I …I can’t just walk quickly past them.’ I wanted to meet them and have a conversation but it was difficult because of my past. I finally approached them and asked them to pose for a photograph with me. I held my shield, and they held theirs. I kept this photograph with me for a long time. I hung it in my studio at my working table, and every time I looked at it, I thought these people look familiar. Finally it occurred to me that I wanted to process the image by hand, in the metalworking technique called repoussé [in which a malleable metal is ornamented or shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief].
Audience member: What is the size?
SS: 140 cm x 75 cm.
Audience member: After you made it, what did it resolve for you?
SS: It was like a release, physically. I spent time to follow the lines of the image, of the people, of our shields. As I punctured the metal I was able to process this encounter of histories colliding. It is punctured by numbers actually – random numbers make up the outlines you see. For me this was a way to think about the uncountable number of people who have died and are dying in wars. This work is called Hunters.
EG: Thank you, Sareth. Let’s now consider your work Tuesday (Mardie). For this work, Sareth decided to build a boat without consulting boat-building plans. He undertook this with available technologies and with a lot of scrap material.
He ended up creating the boat you see here, and he pushed it through the city of Caen to the Sea of Normandy – significant waters, where 5,000 Allied Forces ships arrived to begin their move through Nazi Germany, destroying the city of Caen in that process. In Tuesday, Sareth is going the reverse way, out into and away from the Sea of Normandy, to symbolically try to reach home. Sareth is calling on the experience of the refugee. Not knowing if his boat would sink or float was a metaphor for the life of a refugee, not having the resources or privileges of being able to plan but rather taking risks to survive.
And here we see documentation that indeed Tuesday could float! In one of Sareth’s statements about this work he said he said, ‘You must imagine that I was happy.’ This Sisyphean idea of satisfaction and futility returns in many works.
SS: It was amazing for me to make Tuesday not knowing if my boat would float. After sharing with my colleague that I wanted to build a boat and go back to my country, he asked me if I knew how to build a boat, and I replied, ‘Why would I want to do it if I had experience?’ Only after the boat was complete did I realize the inconvenience of the studio being so far from the sea! This ultimately led to another time moving long distances with my sculpture. My collegue offered his car and I replied ‘No. It’s my boat. I feel responsible to get it to the sea.’ I needed to do it myself, to push it there. In my head, the landscape was flatter than it actually is in reality!
EG: And it was 27 km to the sea!
SS: I pulled it and pulled it. Maline followed me some of the time and took some photos. She asked if I needed help and I said, ‘No Maline. It’s my boat!’ [laughter] So many people stopped their cars and asked if they could help… It was almost funny that it could float…
EG: When Sareth went back to Cambodia in 2009, he continued these kinds of journeys. One in particular, Mon Boulet, he called a ‘moveable sculpture.’ He is often in costume – normally a military commando uniform. Which brings me to mention that a lot of Sareth’s work employs materials or associations to military. Many works are in metal, ‘the material of war,’ the material of his military family. But his references and histories remain layered, for example the title Tuesday was inspired by Robinson Crusoe, who named his slave/companion Friday after the day he found him.
SS: Please do not say that I copied Robinson Crusoe… [laughter]! No, it is true that I found great resonance with the ideas of adventure and survival as Robinson Crusoe was stranded on the ‘Island of Despair.’
EG: We now will move on to Sareth’s process here in New York, on Governors Island hosted by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. It may be the right time to note that Leeza and I had incredibly generous partners who took a great leap with us in very short notice to bring and host these artists, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council was one of them, hosting 6 artists. Of course we had to be strategic about who went where. In some cases we selected artists for particular spaces and in some cases the artists were selected by our partners. Because Sareth’s practice draws out his histories related to war, Leeza and I selected him for a space at Governors Island Building 110. As you can see in this slide, Sareth’s working space commands the central window looking out to lower Manhattan. I told him recently, I am so sorry. For him, being on Governors Island is no joke.
LA: I thought it was wonderful actually…
EG: Yes, it is wonderful…but what is the reality of getting off the strictly scheduled ferry boat to cannons that point at you, and how does that experience effect a person whose father’s military career was funded and outfitted by the USA? So Sareth, I want to say publicly, I am sorry. However, at the same time, I admit and I think you will too, that it has been a worthy experience. Could you share with us why you have built yourself a shelter?
SS: Good question. I had some ideas before I came here. It really felt like an honor to be here in New York. I began by enjoying by taking the ferry to Staten Island – happy to see the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. And then I saw on each side of our boat two guard boats with guns, one left, one right. Maline and I felt as if we were in a movie. I tried to find a cameramen calling ‘Action!’ There was a constant presence of helicopters –like the sound of the city itself saying, ‘Welcome to New York!’ I don’t know what those boats were supposed to be doing besides following the big boat. These questions were in my mind during the welcome and logistics meeting on Governors Island. To my surprise, we had to review 8 pages full of rules.
The paper said ‘Welcome to Swing Spaces 110 and I thought ‘Wow, this is my father’s experience.’ A code number and rules of the game.
JD: The space has surveillance cameras affixed to the ceiling. Resident artists must lock in and lock out. They have to have passes to go on the ferry, otherwise they need to be escorted. They must record their time-in and time-out…
EG: The whole island is a reserved space…
JD: It is or was a military space…
EG: Well, let’s say it is a de-militarized space with a lot of enforced regulation…
SS: Every morning I was ‘welcomed’ by two cannons and a USA flag. Many days I just asked myself, ‘Why am I here with these beautiful views of Manhattan in front of me?’ I thought a lot about my freedom and what kind of freedom I had, about what free space meant. I tried to find some free material from the road. And I began to re-build my old house – in the style from the refugee camps – to protect me and to escape from the surveillance cameras. I wanted to be free to find a moment to think alone. Sometimes, I didn’t understand what kind of security I needed, but I wanted the freedom to do something here and to share it with Manhattan….
JD: The material in this work was all found in the street and a free supply store.
EG: Can you tell us about the mannequin inside your house?
SS: Oh her! Beautiful! One day I rescued her but I am sorry that she lost her hand somewhere. Having her there kept me company. I love her. [laughter]
Another piece you see here is a tree. In the camps, the tree was the school; my school was the tree. I learned how to write there, with my finger in the sand. And I learned to follow the shadow – the shade – of the tree. This is my work in process. Now in Cambodia are the official Khmer New Year celebrations. We have a specific tree with bright yellow flowers that blooms at this time, and so I found this yellow material and light bulbs.
EG: There is one more work by Sareth that we don’t have time to discuss, but I must introduce it briefly. Churning is a 17 meter long site-specific banner that is on display now as a part of IN RESIDENCE which is hosted by Arts Brookfield at World Financial Center, just across the way from Sareth’s view at his studio in fact. For those of us who don’t know Phnom Penh or the histories Sareth is pointing to, his banner may look like an obscure advertisement for Cambodia. Churning is a digital rendering showing a modified view of one of Phnom Penh’s busiest pubic plazas where the contested Vietnamese Cambodian Friendship Monument stands. Sareth has replaced the monument with an appropriation of the Hindu myth which is famously depicted as a bas-relief at Angkor Wat called Churning of the Sea of Milk. Sareth has digitally camouflaged the scene showing Vishnu at the center mediating cooperation between the creators and the destroyers in order to churn up an immortal elixir, which to their surprise also draws out a lethal elixir capable of destroying the world. Power struggle between Cambodia and Vietnam has deep and long roots and remains today one of the nations great tensions. Churning is a powerful work that would speak perhaps too loudly at home but here speaks quietly enough to exist.
SS: Thank you very much. (Clapping)
EG: Yim Maline is also from Battambang. She was born in 1982 and also was a student at Phare Ponleu Selpak, the school that Sareth helped co-found. She also went to France to study, and she holds a BA in Fine Arts from Caen. She returned to Siem Reap to live and work in 2009. Maline principally is a drawer and also a ceramicist. Today we will look at select works that span the last three years.
MY [via a translator]: I was born in 1982 in the period directly after the civil war. There was still an after affect on my generation. I am interested in how those affects play out our lives. My work almost always deals with my memory. My childhood was a time for me and other kids when we were concerned with wanting to eat well, but we could not. We wanted to use good materials for making art, but they were not available. There was an eager desire for a greater fullness of life. Even today, I still have scars of what happened. Most of my work is grey or black, referring to a period of darkness, a condition of confusion, of not knowing which direction to go.
EG: This is an installation view of Maline’s first solo show following her studies in France. This is the central space at SA SA BASSAC. In this view we see in the background a large work shaped like a traditional Khmer kite seemingly floating, however its tails gently rest on the ground. Titled Hope, this impressive work is made of around 30 kilos of clay and is suspended from the ceiling. In the foreground we see a work titled Dinnette, also made of clay as well as dirt, which Maline will talk about soon. The drawing series you see on the right wall is titled Scar, and I will move through them individually to take a closer look and then return to Maline.
There are four graphite drawings on paper in the Scar series. Only recently has Maline introduced colored pencil in her drawings. Their height measures between 100cm and 160cm. These are her most abstract drawings.
For IN RESIDENCE, Maline’s host is Bose Pacia. She was chosen for the two-month Transparent Studio program there, which is open to the public daily. These drawings are here in New York at Bose Pacia, and speak more explicitly to her memories while remaining fantastical.
Audience member: When were these produced?
MY: The Scar series between 2009 and 2010. The works at Bose Pacia I drew in 2012.
When I was a child, if I wanted to have things to play with, I had to create them. So in my drawings I recreated some of the activities and inventions, for example, I made a horse out of a banana tree and ran with it. I liked the idea of imagining where we could go, how fast we could go… and enjoyed running with animals like the butterflies do.
When I was about 13, I had a garden and I grew vegetables and I remember I had ducks around the house so this comes in to what I am doing.
When I was young, we played with nature. We made toy dolls we made from water reeds for example. There was an eagerness, wanting to play, wanting to be happy, but at the same time there was a sorrow, this sadness – this combination is somehow reflected in my work.
This installation is called Dinette. It features sculptures of clay knives, imitation dolls and bowls scattered in a pile of dirt. When I was young, my parents always told me not to play with knives because they are dangerous. I was thinking about what was actually dangerous. I remembered the sound of bombs going off near my house and people being injured and yet there was still this sense of playfulness and danger happening at the same time.
SS: In this period, people still had the mentality to think of the enemy, of the war. If people were angry, if they were hungry, they might shoot you. It was like a rogue state.
MY [via translator]: So the bowl in the previous pictures were made from hand and some of the bowls broke and could not function or hold anything. It is kind of like us and our bodies. We had our bodies but they could not contain anything.
EG: Let’s continue to your new body of ceramic work you are currently making.
This is an image of Maline’s studio at Bose Pacia. Drawings on paper hang on one wall, and the opposite wall is full of charcoal drawings made directly on the wall, which is a part of a larger installation with the ceramics you see.
MY [via translator]: Before I came to New York, I didn’t have a plan of what I wanted to do. I just wanted to learn something new. So, when I came, my first big impression was of the buildings. I went to Wall Street and I saw a lot of high-rise buildings that made me feel suffocated. I felt pressure and I leaned back to my previous story.
I spent days drawing the buildings on the wall of the space. After I had been walking around the neighborhoods, I noticed people not only throwing away construction materials but also food and other very useful things. I saw that people threw away food in front of shops that appeared fine to me – apples, grapes. Perhaps it cannot compare to my home country but we do not have that much excess food or material on the street. So I started to think about this material and I stopped drawing on the wall and I started working with clay and making those materials. Also I remembered that when I was young, I had an apple and because it was very rare, I just left it for one week because it was so beautiful. It smelled so good. I kissed it. I played with it. I carried it around and showed people that I had it… and because it looked beautiful, I thought, if I cut it, it wouldn’t look nice anymore. I would destroy the shape of the apple.
As I was walking to the studio every day along the river, I noticed that spring was coming and people were starting to go outside in colorful new dresses. The trees were growing. The leaves and flowers were popping and it was a great new feeling for me. I also went to visit galleries and met new people. This was kind of a transition for me. It was kind of like the shadow on the wall became kind of like the garden of colorful materials. Interestingly, it was so hard for me to find dirt here in New York. I asked people if I could have dirt from their gardens and they said no, so finally, I had to buy dirt! I am so happy to show dirt to people in New York. This is dirt! [laughing]
Bose Pacia staff member: It was quite a funny story actually. They came by and asked me for bags to collect dirt. I asked if they were going to Home Depot, because they would sell the dirt in bags. But they were just going to get dirt outside, so I gave them trash bags and they came back empty…
MY [via translator]: I just wanted to add that, about the stuff that I found on the street like the luggage and food and shoes, et cetera…I brought it back to the studio but it still wasn’t quite my work. I wanted to make something by hand, an object that has a spirit that is connected to me.
JD: What are you going to do with those objects now?
MY [via translator]: I sort of feel that if I don’t use my body to make things, I can’t have them, so I am going to give them away. Even though I did make these with my hands, they are really only imitations of what others offered. I collected the things for free so I want to give something back for free. So I am going to bring my sculptures to the city on a tray and walk around and give them to people. I will do it on a beautiful day with no rain…
JD: Maline and Sareth, that was a great presentation, but I think we need to stop now and continue the conversation there. Thank you very much for sharing you work with us.
MY: Thank you so much.
SS: Thank you too.
Transcribed by Daisley Kramer, edited by Erin Gleeson.
SARETH SVAY Born in 1972 in Battambang, Cambodia, Svay Sareth lives and works in Siem Reap. A member of the small and historic group of children who studied art in the Site 2 refugee camps with Véronique Decrop, Svay went on to co-found Phare Phonlue Selepak, an art school in Battambang where he was a teacher. Svay holds an MFA/Diplôme National Supérieur d’Études des Arts Plastiques, Caen de Mer, France (2009).
YIM MALINE Born 1982 in Battambang, Cambodia, Maline lives and works in Siem Reap. Yim studied art at Phare Ponleu Selapak in Battambang (1995-2003), and holds a BFA/Diplôme National Arts Plastique (DNAP, Art Option) from École Supérieure des Beaux-arts, Caen la mer, France (2010).