PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The mapping and the drawing borders has been an especially violent and contested activity here for centuries. Poetic Topographies, at Sa Sa Bassac, featuring a sleek, post-minimal array of imaginary maps by two young Khmer artists, Eng Rithchandaneth (who goes by Daneth for short) and Kong Dara, are especially fresh. These artists are creatively tackling mapmaking in a land where the interpretation and the writing of maps is a brutal process, seemingly dictated by money and power. Do their works meet that colossal challenge?
Khmer elders can recall when Cambodia was part of French Indochina (up until 1953). However, French occupation in the region is just one instance of a long history of changing borders for The Kingdom, an empire that, as most Cambodians will gladly tell you, at its peak spanned much of Thailand, Laos, southern Vietnam, and even into Myanmar. Since the French, it has undergone a series of revolutions, coups, and border shifts. Even the United Nations ran Cambodia for a while.
In the news and in political debate in Cambodia, the rights to land and, more importantly, who holds the rights to demarcate land, are fodder for constant discussion and at times up for vicious debate. Seemingly daily, violent land-grabbing by the rich from the poor for rapid urban development is documented by journalists and citizen journalists. The tenuous situation of contested borders with neighboring countries — especially Vietnam — is the object of much nationalistic fervor. As a trained community organizer, Daneth has been involved with several protests against land-grabbing. Now, as her own family faces possible eviction to make way for a larger road, shifting borders take on a whole new and darker meaning. These violent negotiations of borders and land rights at both national and personal levels serve as a ripe source of inspiration for Poetic Topographies.
Daneth’s installation, “Inside Out,” (2016), uses unfired clay in various colors — the very earth so hotly contested — molded into flat fragments suggestive of maps. As an analogy for the problems caused by greedy developers, the clay dries out over the course of the exhibition, and Daneth’s precise map slowly changes color and begins crumbling back into dirt. What were defined and seen as clear cut boundaries remain brittle in Cambodia. In 2009, a study found that “more than a quarter of a million people have been affected by land-grabbing and forced evictions [in Cambodia] since 2003.” Between 1990 and 2009, more than 10% of the capital city’s population was evicted. The maps Cambodians draw of their homes, the land on which they live, are tenuous. Much of the world is now debating immigration and border protocols, even as data and money flow ever more easily between them. This crumbling installation serves as an meditation to these paradoxes.
Dara presents us with two series of very simple line drawings. Along the wall is Sareirak (or “organism,” 2015), which consists of quick sketches from observations of passengers on public transit in Bangkok during the artist’s residency at Tentacles Art Space last year. Some human-like forms can be found cuddling, while others are unidentifiable, abstracted doodles and microbial in nature.
The exhibition was curated by Vuth Lyno, a founding member of the art collective Stiev Selapak (usually translated as “Art Rebels”) and the host gallery, Sa Sa Bassac. Lyno is also the Artistic Director of Sa Sa Art Projects, which is housed in the historic White Building and serves as the community engagement arm of Sa Sa Bassac. Dara and Daneth are both students at Sa Sa Art Projects, where Dara also works as Technical Coordinator. This places them all in an exciting group of young, talented, and educated creators, eager to capture, and maybe even shape Cambodia’s contemporary culture. But what power do they really have?
In a country where clear and legally accepted maps are also direly needed, why is it important to consider the poetic maps of artists? “Political and legal maps can give protection, but they also set boundaries, they force us to conform and fit in, they include but also exclude,” Lyno told me over email. “This is the same for a process of setting standards and norms, for example on gender. Daneth and Dara’s works remind us about these issues, while also allowing us to imagine other ways of mapping that we can associate with, not limited to physical space, but also emotions and memories.”
This notion of the violence of demarcation can be very detrimental especially in relationship to gender identity, particularly in more conservative countries like Cambodia. So, Dara’s Journey Line (2016), a series of poetic mappings of queer communities in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, are intended as rebuttals to our desire to define and demarcate. In Dara’s new and queer — in every sense of the word — maps, segments of real-world borders and waterways blend into a soup of line-drawings.
But do Dara’s forms adequately suggest these powerful questions about the painful processes of marking bodies and boundaries? Does Daneth’s use of clay forms to reference such deeply fraught and complex issues as land-grabbing in Cambodia feel sufficient? While all three series featured here are enchanting in their own ways, I was left with a nagging feeling that something is missing in the formal and material choices to fully describe the content.
While visiting Poetic Topographies, I was reminded of Ai Weiwei’s installation “Straight” (2008–12), which consists of hand-straightened rebar steel salvaged from buildings destroyed by the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. The installation is a powerfully emotive record of the destruction in the region — made worse by corruption and governmental ineptitude — with a a fault line violently rupturing the piece’s otherwise smooth visual field. This installation expertly welds form, medium, and message together into a conceptually tight and cohesive piece that is deeply critical and relevant to discussions about contemporary China.
While I could criticize Ai for articulating too obvious of a message, Daneth and Dara both require a bit of a leap of the imagination. As these artists grow into their work, I hope to see more exploration of material and form to match their lofty concepts. Poetic Topographies was smartly curated and I enjoyed the pieces, but I sense that much better work from these two artists is still in store.