Art

The Human Stories that Bind Cambodia and Vietnam

Installation shot of In/Visible Borderlines. All photographs by the author.
Installation view of ‘In/Visible Borderline’ at Meta House, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — What makes a border? A change in ecology, language, laws, military? Upon closer inspection, borders are never truly the definitive boundaries they claim to be. They are conversions of various cultures, rules, environments, and ways of life — never a finite or distinct dividing line. In Cambodia this couldn’t be more true and yet more deeply contentious; Khmer people largely pride themselves on their unique Angkorian past, both in the splendor and size of that empire, which stretched well into today’s Thailand and Vietnam. 

Through a multimedia installation and social exchange with the audience, In/Visible Borderline, the latest exhibition at Meta House in Phnom Penh, explores Cambodia’s history of shifting bordersThe exhibition is a collaboration between Khmer documentarian Sao Sopheak and Vietnamese artist Tuan Mami, focusing specifically on the Khmer-Vietnamese border, presently the most fraught.

The most recent tensions between the two countries are traced back to the French colonialists, who ruled much of the region from a distant Hanoi, and had more vested interests with the Vietnamese. This relationship ended with several land disputes settled in Vietnam’s favor. Furthermore, the Vietnamese-American war spilled over into Cambodia, with the Ho Chi Minh trail funneling Vietnamese troops into neutral Cambodia and American planes illegally bombing that trail. Many historians believe this to be a major cause of the Khmer Rouge, which was eventually quelled by the Vietnamese. 

Photo of film, “Business Zone,” (2016).
Sao Sopheak and Tuan Mami, “Business Zone” (2016), film still. Translated text captions read, “Politics do not affect us” (left) and “We are living in peace” (right).

The two artists met when Mami exhibited at Meta House in 2012, where Sopheak was an employee. While in Cambodia the border dispute is a topic of endless debate, Mami told me over email that in Vietnam, and especially in Hanoi where he lives, there is “almost no information about the conflict.” He noted instead that China’s encroachments on Vietnam, especially on the South China Sea, is up for much more impassioned debate.

Entering the gallery, the first piece we encounter is “Business Zone” (2016), which shows a split-screen shot of interviews with boat taxi drivers working on either side of the border. Their businesses, like the Mekong river on which they rely, is all about the flows between the two countries: together, they carry fish, goods, money, tourists, and workers across the border, on one river. Despite political rhetoric, protests, and even rare mob killings throughout the country, these men are simply surviving by assisting in carrying what is requested of them and doing their jobs as best as they can. In this way, the film shows us an example of cooperation between the two countries. Can the same become true, it asks, for more of Cambodian and Vietnamese relations?

One half of “Found Resources,” (2016).
One half of Sao Sopheak and Tuan Mami’s “Found Resources” (2016)

Moving on, one sees the large mural “Borderline Landscape” (2016), an abstract, mountain-like mural in mud. The work represents the borderline between Vietnam and Cambodia and is painted with water and dirt collected at the border sites. Sitting on the floor below the mural is “Endless Flow” (2016), an old TV showing a wake from a motorboat, with the loud engine blaring away. “Endless Flow” connects “Business Zone” to the mural, and we imagine that just above this engine are the boatmen we’ve just seen interviewed, inviting us to project these very human stories onto the iconic borderline painted above us.

“Found Resources” (2016) is similarly comprised of two jars of water and a clump of earth taken from border sites. While the water display did little to move me, seeing this hunk of clay hit me in the gut. This earth — the true material on which abstract borders rest — at once evokes and pales in comparison to the amount of ink and blood spilt over fighting for its ownership. 

Detail of “Free Border Pole Trade,” (2016). Text translates to, "Cambodia," written in Khmer script.
Detail of Sao Sopheak and Tuan Mami’s “Free Border Pole Trade” (2016). Inscribed Khmer script translates to “Cambodia.”

The Cambodia National Rescue Party, currently the only significant opposition party in Cambodia, stokes hatred of Vietnam as a political tool to fight the Cambodian People’s Party, the ruling party, which is perceived as being more friendly with the Vietnamese government and its business interests. It is within that context that Mami and Sopheak set up a hopeful exchange market. “Free Border Pole Trade” (2016) is a performative installation wherein the artists offer up 15 border markers, cast with palm sugar, for trade with the audience. The payment? In a relational aesthetic or social practice style, instead of money, Mami and Sopheak ask only for personal stories or memorial objects relating to the Khmer-Vietnamese border in exchange.

The piece, however, seems to have failed. As of June 1, 12 sculptures still remained, with an eclectic array of materials traded and boring scribblings on the wall. The wall text was unclear as to the exact guidelines of the piece, and nobody was present at the gallery to further explain. With no text or documentation, we are left unsure as to whether the objects on the table were donated by audience members or left by the artists. I yearned to know the stories behind them but their potential relevance and messages fall silent.

“Free Border Pole Trade,” (2016). Installation detail.
Sao Sopheak and Tuan Mami, “Free Border Pole Trade” (2016), installation detail showing Khmer music cassettes and two books in Vietnamese

What drew me to the exhibition was the question of the artist’s role in the face of great political drama. In the end, I believe the collaboration between the two artists embodied an exciting model for civic exchange. Their mutual respect and engagement with each other in spite of the political divide and their consequent investigation and research into that divide is a powerful act. Is it one that can inspire and instruct the audience on how to move beyond national and international politicking? I don’t know.

Nevertheless, these works quietly remind us of just how artificial borders really are, even as those in power seek to politicize this border for party gains. We see that on both sides there is largely the same mud, water, and, yes, humans, working hard to earn a living on a famous river that has for millennia flowed across this land. In the political climate this is a necessary story to tell.

In/Visible Borderline continues at Meta House (#37 Samdach Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh, Cambodia) through June 12.

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