Tith Kanitha’s “Bright Future” (2017) (all photographs by the author unless otherwise noted)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Tith Kanitha’s solo-exhibition Instinct, at SA SA BASSAC, is a collection of endlessly suggestive sculptures.“Bright Future” (2017) could be an abstract sculpture of a witch’s hat, or perhaps a frayed textile, heavily used during arcane rituals. The possibilities are endless, and the exhibition is a pleasure to explore. All made of the same steel wire and through the same process, it’s a marvel the variation Kanitha evokes.

Kanitha bulk orders the .70 mm-thick steel wire from Japan. It arrives neatly coiled, ready for a variety of industrial applications: like binding rebar into grids for reinforced concrete. Instead, Kanitha slowly unwinds the reels from their ten-inch circle, only to tightly furl them once more around a rod of much smaller diameter. Oddly enough, she refers to this whole process as “untangling.” It takes many, many hours.

Installation shot of Instinct (image courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC)

Once Kanitha has many tightly wound, spring-like tubes of wire, she begins an instinctual process akin to weaving or knitting. Coils are entwined here, unraveled slightly there, and entangled and woven into a mat here. Standing in the gallery during installation Kanitha tells me, “I never push the form, I always follow.” She also says that she knows a piece is done when, “it can breathe on its own.” This process and material has become Kanitha’s signature style.

Installation shot of Instinct (image courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC)

Her works feels somehow ancient, like artifacts from some forgotten, ancient civilization. The industrial material complicates this impression, yet doesn’t erase it. While the forms and material came to her organically, through her meticulous process they emerge as a variety shapes and sizes — all ripe for interpretation.

Kanitha was born in 1987 in Phnom Penh and graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts in 2008 with a BA in interior design. While having exhibited throughout Cambodia, Kanitha’s most notable recent exhibition was Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia, 1980s to now, at the Mori Museum in Japan. Although it’s her sculptural practice that I was first drawn to, Kanitha is also an important member of Cambodia’s independent film industry, working most notably as artistic director of Diamond Island, which was awarded the SACD Prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. More recently, Kanitha — along with two other Cambodian women, Meas Sreylin and San Danech — just received funding to direct her first film.

Tith Kanitha working at TINI cafe in Phnom Penh

Kanitha has long struggled with the shift in gaze as work moves from studio to gallery exhibition. Working in art direction in film, Kanitha thinks a great deal about how mise en scène can build a narrative. Accordingly, she is cautious of the transition her sculptures take, going from a studio setting into the white cube. For Kanitha, the creative act is a never-ending process, with the actual finished object of less importance than this process. For example, in 2011, in response to forced evictions in her Phnom Penh neighborhood, Kanitha turned her home into a performative exhibition called Hut’s Tep Soda Chan. In 2017, not wanting to lose the project’s feel, she reinstalled the work for the Mori Art Museum by simply moving much of her house into the gallery space.

Tith Kanitha’s, “Instinct Series #14” (2017) (image courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC)

The treatment of her sculptural work as finite, precious objects is a deep source of conflict for her. “I hate the white cube. I want to present the work in a proper way, yet still not too formal,” she told me as we walked through the gallery.

Mitigating this tension, the works in Instinct are hung with steel nails, not hidden, but not eye-catching either. Most of the podiums have at least one facade missing, revealing their inner construction to the viewer. This is conceptually cohesive in its prioritization of process and sense of ongoing construction. However, by drawing attention to the act of display, I ultimately found the unfinished podiums distracting from the mesmerizing wire forms.

“Instinct Series #8” (2017).

Instinct’s forms are a pleasure to take in at any distance, from the fine spiraling shadows cast on the walls, to the bulbous organic shapes as a whole. As Kanitha continues her career, resolving the ripe tension regarding where her performance, process, and finite sculptures begin and end will be her great challenge.

Tith Kanitha’s solo-exhibition, Instinct, at SA SA BASSAC in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, runs through April 26th.

Ben Valentine

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...