Yim Maline, "Spring" (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Yim Maline, “Spring” (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Dark charcoal skyscrapers loom on a studio wall; below them bright, tiny sculptures bloom from soil beds. In another studio, women’s underwear in every shade and style hang from wires, while letters unfolded, scanned, and folded again reveal a glimpse of a lost father.

These are just some of the projects underway by a group of ten artists in residence as part of the citywide Season of Cambodia, a two-month festival of dance, music, film, visual art, theater, and symposia. Cambodian Living Arts, a Phnom Penh–based nonprofit, organizes the festival, which is supported by dozens of academic and art institutions both in New York and Phnom Penh.

The festival has provided an unparalleled international platform for the artists, all from Cambodia, but it’s not without its drawbacks. The narrative of Cambodia as a post-conflict nation, emerging from years of genocide and “seeking renewal through artistic expression,” is prominent in the festival’s promotional materials. This has left the program’s visual art curators with the challenge of encouraging viewers to focus on the artists as individual contemporary art practitioners rather than representatives of their country’s recent past.

Vandy Rattana, "Takeo" (2009), digital c-print, 90 x 111 cm (click to enlarge) (courtesy the artist, via asiasociety.org)

Vandy Rattana, “Takeo” (2009), digital c-print, 90 x 111 cm (click to enlarge) (courtesy the artist, via asiasociety.org)

“Much of Cambodian art of the past decade has been produced, in one way or another, in response to more or less external demands that Cambodians assume responsibility for the Khmer Rouge as both an historico-political event and traumatic experience,” writes Ashley Thompson, fine arts professor at Leeds University in the UK, in a 2012 essay in Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art. These demands are grounded in the “Euro-American commemorative aftermath” of the Holocaust in Europe, argues Thompson, and are connected to 20th-century notions of remembrance and democratic political rehabilitation.

They’re demands that Leeza Ahmady, Season of Cambodia’s Visual Art Program Director and Co-Curator, knows well.  “You say ‘Cambodian art’ so it’s a way of getting people to say ‘OK, it’s familiar’, but then you’re constantly breaking that down, saying there is no such thing as Cambodian art, because contemporary art and modern art is a practice that has always been international and universal,” said Ahmady in a conversation with her Season of Cambodia co-curator Erin Gleeson at a recent Independent Curators International event.

Gleeson herself has worked in Cambodia for 11 years, witnessing the emergence of contemporary artists who are experimenting beyond the traditional teaching of the country’s art schools.

“What I’m proposing is that right now, only this year, is really the first time that we are starting to see work that is not easily connected to the narrative that we know of Cambodia,” Gleeson told Hyperallergic by telephone. “It’s only now, when artists are not necessarily using narratives that people know of their history, that are not identifiable iconographically, symbolically, or in conversations about the work and materials, even though they are present. It is not the first, second, or third reading of the work that people get, and that is so new.”

What’s also important about the Season of Cambodia residency is the emphasis on process, rather than product. Ahmady notes a trend towards art production based on performance and demand — producing work for a fair or exhibition — rather than practice. The residency, in contrast, gives artists time and space to explore their own ideas. “It’s not about the product, or the end result of that work, but how it actually develops your practice. What happens when artists are able to go out of their specific environment is they get to test out their ideas and their medium and formal practice in every dimension,” said Ahmady.

Ahmady and Gleeson made a conscious choice in the early stages of the program’s development not to stage an exhibition. Not only did they not have the time or budget, they didn’t want to stage “Cambodia, as an exhibition, in New York,” said Gleeson at ICI. They wanted to give something to New York, but also to the artists. “It was really clear that if you have a group show and you have one or two pieces or a series hanging on a wall or on the floor and the artist can’t come, what impact does it have, other than an extra line on a CV, for the artists’ lives?”

Artist Vandy Rattana in his LMCC studio on Governors Island

Artist Vandy Rattana in his LMCC studio on Governors Island, with his piece “Monologue” (paint, pushpins, wall) behind him

Five of the ten artists are currently in residence with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council on Governors Island, which will hold an open studios event this weekend. Among them, Vandy Rattana has perhaps seen his work undergo the greatest transformation. Vandy began taking photographs in 2005 to record Cambodian life and history. His “Fire of the Year” (2008) documents a house fire outside Phnom Penh in stark, almost cinematic clarity.  An exhibition of his photographic series Bomb Ponds (2009), currently on display at the Asia Society, quietly depicts the bomb craters, now ponds among rice fields, created by a four-year bombing campaign carried out by the US during the Vietnam War.  A total of 540,000 tons of ordnance was dropped on eastern Cambodia, which served as a base for North Vietnamese forces operating against the South. Cambodians who lived in the area at the time had no idea why they were being bombed. It’s a period of Cambodia’s history that is still largely undocumented, and only recently received official recognition.

The Bomb Ponds series led Vandy to reflect on the nature of individual and collective responsibility, among both Cambodians and the international community. He’s continued that process on Governors Island by putting aside his camera and creating a conceptual work that he describes as a monologue, a conversation with himself. The work evolved out of his exploration of what it means to be free. Arriving for the first time in the United States at the start of the residency, he was struck by the way in which values, beliefs, and ideas had been imposed on him throughout his life, through American films and music as much as family and society. Sticking hundreds of brightly colored pins to a paint-spattered wall, he is engaged in a personal, meditative process. “After the bomb ponds, I decided to educate myself very hard,” Vandy told me. “I have to read, I have to know about America, why it’s so powerful.” Now he’s trying to find “another way of seeing, thinking, and understanding,” he said. “What I’m doing — [with each pin] I have to kill part of myself, kill my heroes.”

Performance artist Svay Sareth is also exploring freedom, and in just a few months on U.S. soil, he’s tapped into contemporary anxiety around security and protection. Arriving in New York after a lifetime of viewing America as a place of great freedom, Svay soon began to connect his experiences of “security” and “protection” here to the ones he had as a child growing up in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. 

From his studio on Governors Island, Svay was confronted with the striking view of Lower Manhattan. He began to think, “maybe one or two of those buildings, maybe they are built in the same period when I was born, or before, or during my childhood in the camp. So then I start to move back to my past, when I was living in the refugee camp.

Svay Sareth's tree

Svay Sareth’s tree

“My question is, what does liberty and freedom mean for me?” said Svay. “I was here in the studio for artists, and there are security cameras. So okay, I try to find, create my own place to work. Then I find the material from the street that’s taken out by the people in New York, and build the same style, same house as in the refugee camp. This is the result.”

Svay has built his own protection — a replica of the house he grew up in at the refugee camp. The façade shields him from the security cameras and gives him a sense of freedom in his space. Outside his house, a tree made of yellow wire and LED lights stands on a bed of sand, inscribed with images of knives, bombs, and numbers. Svay explained that this represents his experience of school in the camp, sitting beneath a tree in the forest and writing in the sand.

“The camp is 8 by 4 km. More than 300,000 people live inside the fence. Outside, the camp is surrounded by Thai military, called ‘security.’ So how about the freedom, and what does it mean when the freedom is protected by security?”

Memories of childhood also feature in the work of Yim Maline, Svay’s wife, who is based at Transparent Studio at Bose Pacia in Brooklyn. I visited her there and saw haunting drawings that have their origins in the war years of the 1980s, when she was denied a carefree childhood.  “It’s my memory,” Yim told me. “I think about my life, my past. I think about education. We had school but no education, we had hospital but … nothing. Life was very fragile, dangerous.”

Yim Maline, "I want to be a sunflower" (2013), graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper, 60 x 39 in/152.4 x 99.06 cm (click to enlarge) (courtesy the artist)

Yim Maline, “I want to be a sunflower” (2013), graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper, 60 x 39 in/152.4 x 99.06 cm (click to enlarge) (courtesy the artist)

Her graphite drawings and watercolors feature a recurring image of a girl who’s physically constrained in some way — by her dress or her hair, trapped inside a bubble or confined to the dark side of a wall — but trying to break free.  In “I want to be a sunflower” (2013), the girl leans, hunched, head pressed against a wall, and surrounded by graying flower petals. On the opposite side of the wall, huge, vibrant sunflowers bloom. “The sunflower can move with the sun,” said Yim. “It has liberty and life.” It’s a poignant image — the girl’s bare feet and arms make her appear vulnerable and alone in the gray space, juxtaposed against the unreachable warmth of the sunflowers. It speaks of inequality and deprivation as much as isolation and loneliness.

These themes the artists address —memory, childhood, freedom and security — are intensely personal, yet also universal. Memories of war are present in their work, but they are not easily readable as such, or distinctly “Cambodian.”

As Leeza Ahmady observed, “I don’t have to know that they’re Cambodian — that’s the point. You can just look at the work and say okay, that’s the experience of this person, who happened to be born in Cambodia.”

Season of Cambodia continues until the end of May throughout New York City. The artists’ open studios at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Art Center at Governors Island will take place this weekend, May 25–27. Yim Maline’s work is on view at Bose Pacia (163 Plymouth Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through May 29. Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds are on view at Asia Society (725 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 2.

Natasja Sheriff

Natasja Sheriff covers politics, religion, and media around the world, with a focus on South and Southeast Asia. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Reuters, WNYC, Malaysiakini, and The Revealer....