This entry is a snapshot of the Phnom Penh, Cambodia leg of the Ho Chi Minh Trail project, an internationally traveling exchange of artists and scholars in Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos and China organized by Beijing art space Long March Project to facilitate interaction in the region. We hope that this post also serves as a brief introduction to the spaces and a few faces that make up the rich contemporary art scene in Phnom Penh. We—Huong, Chris and Viet—researcher, development NGO worker and artist, respectively, are flat mates in the heart of the city who share a love for culture and all things boundary crossing, including DVAN.
“How can we, the younger generation, preserve a past that is too traumatic for our parents and grandparents to uncover and share?” a local Cambodian man asked. Billy S. Lor, an architect from Long Beach, then shared his story of being born in Cambodia but having left the country when he was a young boy. The history of his family and his country during the Pol Pot regime remains a murky legacy for him. He has recently moved back to Cambodia in search of this past by working closely with the next generation of Khmer architects in Cambodia to rebuild the country that was destroyed during the war.
In a packed room of about 70 people at Meta House on a rainy night, we observed Cambodians/non-Cambodians, artists/non-artists and scholars/non-scholars alike fervently sharing their perspectives on historical amnesia, political reconciliation, and psychological healing in the aftermath of the Pol Pot regime. The event was part of the greater project called “The Ho Chi Minh Trail Project” (HCMTP), organized by China-based intellectuals and artists associated with the Long March Project, and Beijing-based Long March Space.
The HCMTP “aim[s] to be a collaborative contemporary art project in the implementation of artistic and educational activities between China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.” According to Long March’s announcement, the Ho Chi Minh Trail served as a starting point to think across international lines about historical and contemporary interaction within the region: “though internationally understood as a logistical supply route created during the Second Indochina War (1969-74), [it] formed a vast network of passageways across China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.” From June 12-July 3, 2010 a core team of “Marchers” consisting of twelve invited artists, organizers and scholars from East and Southeast Asia made a journey through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Danang, Dansavanh, Savannakhet, Vientiane, the Marchers visited significant historical sites and exchanged ideas with local cultural institutions, artists and organizers through presentations by host institutions and artists, public panels, and meals shared by the Marchers and local participants.
The event at Meta House was part of a 4-day tour in Phnom Penh, Cambodia from June 13th to June 16th 2010. Other stops in Phnom Penh included Java Café & Gallery, Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, Sa Sa Art Gallery and Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture. These are spaces which are pivotal in the Cambodian arts and culture scene. Other thematic topics discussed included “culture and art research in Cambodia,” “transnationalism,” “memory and history in artistic creation,” “time-based communities,” “the consumption of trauma,” and “how can history be shared without boundaries.” These topics sparked lively discussions and raised challenging questions for both participants and organizers.
“Why was this project called ‘The Ho Chi Minh Trail’?” a man asked at the Meta House program. The answers given to this question were not totally comprehensive or clear to the Cambodia-based artists and activists. This ignited a series of questions about the philosophy and motivations of the project. There were some disparities in viewpoints between Long Marchers and Cambodia-based artists and activists about these issues. Yet these tensions regarding transnational frameworks and cultural translation sparked productive and lively dialogues.
Recently, we sat down for lunch with a group of Cambodia-based participants who were involved in the HCMTP in order to learn more about the interactions between Long Marchers and Cambodia-based participants. Among them were long-time Phnom Penh residents; Sa Sa Gallery co-founder and photographer Lyno Vuth; arts activist Fleur Smith; a Cambodian filmmaker (who wishes to remain anonymous) and Meta House curator Lydia Parusol.
Explaining her interest and involvement in the HCMTP, curator Lydia Parusol states, “I am interested in transnationalism and identity. Coming from a communist country I am very interested in how people deal with the legacies of the communist past. I was hoping that people from China can open up and share how they see things. I really believe in exchange.” Parusol co-organized the Meta House event, inviting artists, filmmakers and organizers to engage in a vigorous—others described it as intense, and perhaps even tense—exchange.
With many different vantage points, there was bound to be differing opinions. Some felt enlivened by the influx of differing ideas; others wished for more input into the structure of the programming. “I felt it [the Ho Chi Minh Trail program in Cambodia] was very staged and they had their own ideas,” said Fleur Smith. The other three participants echoed in agreement. They had hoped for less “formal” encounters and more opportunities for in-depth engagement between the Long March organizers, participants and local audience. Perhaps it was the very structure of the short visits and public presentations did not allow for a sense of sustained dialogue. Nonetheless, speaking as artist Leang Seckon’s representative (he couldn’t make it to the lunch interview due to other commitments), Smith said Seckon was happy to be involved since he “felt close to the project’s themes” of historical memory and representation. Smith and Seckon shared their experiences of working on the Rubbish Project together during the HCMTP, among other presentations, to an attentive crowd. In all, each night’s presentation was well attended by local and expatriate communities, including artists and the general public.
The breadth of issues included sensitive and timely topics. On the issue of historical representation, Lyno Vuth was taken aback by a Long Marchers’ comment that reconciliation is more productive than focusing on trauma, such as archives of stories of Cambodian people’s experiences. As a Cambodian who was born after the Pol Pot regime, he sees first hand the traumatic past continuing to live inside his parents, still haunting and affecting them today, and he believes that reconciliation cannot be possible without the recognition of their experiences.
Some of the questions raised by the Marchers resonated with Vuth, particularly ones challenging the “neutrality” of institutional archives and documentary as a medium. He welcomed the chance to think critically about what he had taken for granted as truths: “When the question came up through the Long March team [about the biases of archives, documentaries and institutions], I felt like I shouldn’t always accept what I’m presented but question and reflect on what I see, hear and read.”
The debates were an opportunity for all to think critically about institutions, cultural gaps, postcolonialism, and even the role of international projects such as the HCMTP. Postcolonial thinkers such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha have challenged conceptions of “center” and “periphery.” The intellectual and cultural divides inherent within the international art world—which still privileges a Western conceptual artistic world view, with an emphasis on continental philosophy—was reflected upon by some participants. The filmmaker questioned the inherent intellectual elitism and paternalism in the HCMTP. “I do not need to go to a university [to learn about the Pol Pot regime] because I have recorded it here in my brain,” he said. For him, the danger of intellectualism is its distance from reality. Take communism as an example. He shared his belief that it is an ideal philosophy but also a dangerous one that killed three million of his people in less than five years. “It [the communism during the Pol Pot regime] affects us up to now…[like] trauma, people get sick because it’s something still stuck in their brain.”
Lydia Parusol noticed that elitism in the HCMTP also runs along the line of gender imbalance. Almost all of the Long Marchers are men while the women, except for an anthropologist, were in supportive roles and did not have direct influences on the project. “We live in an inter-connected world,” she said. For her, separations based on any differences, may they be gender, class, or nationality, could only perpetuate the parochial view of “us vs. them” mentality.
While there were some areas for growth with the HCMTP (as with any ambitious, complex endeavor), nonetheless Parusol was glad that the project brought together speakers, organizers, social activists, artists and filmmakers from various countries to tangle, deliberate and debate with some of the issues at hand. All involved felt that it was productive to meet other artists and activists from East and Southeast Asia, as well as meet other creators and organizers that they had not met before in Phnom Penh; they agreed that more interregional interface in the future would be good.
CONCLUSION: Even after a month after the program had finished, participants from Cambodia were still talking about the HCMTP events and were very eager to meet up and reflect about what happened. The week certainly stimulated discussion and communication across borders and it provides an opportunity for participants from various backgrounds and cultures to learn from one another as many countries in the region have through similar histories, and share similar traumas and memories. Through the HCMTP, the participants built new ties with those from other countries and it simulated greater awareness of activism and art within a larger regional setting.
SELECT PHNOM PENH ART SPACES/ PROJECTS: Below is list of the spaces and projects which participated in the HCMTP in Phnom Penh (in alphabetical order), with descriptive information and images excerpted from their sites:
The Audiovisual Resource Center has adopted several missions: collection of the images and sounds of the Cambodian memory and making them available to a wide public, training Cambodians in the audiovisual professions by welcoming foreign film productions and by its own artistic projects.
Java Café & Gallery was established by Dana Langlois in 2000 as a combination of a café and gallery to support the growth of a dynamic art scene in Cambodia. At the time there was very little happening in contemporary visual arts and Java offered an opportunity to both local and international artists to exhibit and sell their work to the number of people that frequented the café. Since then, Java Café & Gallery has hosted over 90 exhibitions as well as artist presentations, international exchange projects and forums. The gallery has brought international attention to the work of Cambodian artists, helping renowned creators such as Leang Seckon, Pich Sopheap, Oeur Sokuntevy, Chath Piersath and Meas Sokhorn become known to the public at large.
Up until 2008, the gallery was non-profit and supported exhibitions and projects entirely by its own funds. As the art scene has developed significantly over the years, JavaArts aims to promote sustainability through the development of a viable commercial sector, generating funds from sales which in part are then channeled into community projects or sponsorship of artist initiatives.
Boasting more than 100 sq. metres of art exhibition space and an open-air media lounge on the rooftop overlooking Phnom Penh, the gallery offers an excellent space for artists-in-residence and visiting artists to interact. META HOUSE actively supports Cambodian artists and promotes the development of contemporary art in Cambodia through local and international exhibitions, workshops, community-based projects, artist exchange programs and by fostering links with South East Asian and international universities, galleries, curators, non-governmental and governmental organizations.
META HOUSE has not only established itself as a meeting place for artists and art lovers, but also as an intercultural and interdisciplinary networking platform for Cambodian-based artists, Cambodian artists living overseas and their international colleagues.
Reyum is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation dedicated to Cambodian arts and culture. Reyum was founded by Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan (1964 – 2005) in December 1998 in order to provide a forum for research, preservation, and promotion of traditional and contemporary Cambodian arts and culture. Through exhibitions, events, and publications, Reyum aims to stimulate an exchange of ideas, while fostering creative expressions and encouraging further research. All activities presented by Reyum are free and open to the public. Located directly across the street from both the southern campus of the Royal University of Fine Arts and the National Museum of Cambodia in downtown Phnom Penh, Reyum offers a space of encounter for students, professors, townspeople and foreign visitors.
The Rubbish Project, founded by Leang Seckon and Fleur Smith in 2006, is a grassroots indigenous environmental arts movement. Recent activities include the making of a 225m long naga installation from recycled plastic which was installed on the Siem Reap River for World Water Day 2008. Also, in 2009, Leang Seckon was an artist in residence at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum for the 4th Fukuoka Triennale (F4), where he made a Makara (a mythical Khmer dragon) made of plastic. This was used for a performance piece involving 110 performers. Leang Seckon and Fleur Smith hope to recreate this performance in Phnom Penh very soon.
Sa Sa Art Gallery is Cambodia’s first artist-founded and operated gallery by a group of photographers and artists called Stiev Selapak. Opened in 2009, our programming focuses on promoting Cambodian contemporary art through showcasing new bodies of work by emerging Cambodian artists. Located in central Phnom Penh, the Gallery hosts five to six exhibitions each year and encourages engagement with community by welcoming student groups.
In early 2010, Sa Sa rented a project room in a legendary low-income apartment bloc called The Building on Sothearos Boulevard not far from the Gallery. Named Sa Sa Art Projects, the space aims to foster a community of knowledge sharing and create opportunities for young artists to realise new ideas and bodies of work. The Art Projects does this by serving as an experimental venue to accommodate installation art, residencies, artist talks, meetings, and classes.
– post by Thien-Huong Ninh, Chris Hearle and Viet Lê
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