Building Homes of Resistance and Shrines Questioning History

Svay Sareth, The Heart Healer, 2018
Svay Sareth, Stake or Skewer, 2015
Maline Yim, Colorful Decomposition 11, 2018
Maline Yim, Colorful Decomposition 4, 2018
Svay Sareth, Head & Power , 2018
Svay Sareth, The Heart Healer, 2018
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Steeped in heritage, a new art gallery just opened its doors in Siem Reap. Named after the two grand-mothers of the founders, Lyvann Loeuk and Yves Zlotowski, Batia Sarem aims at becoming an open space for Cambodian people and artists dedicated to contemporary art. The inaugural exhibition, Home, lost and found, features Cambodian artists couple Yim Maline (b. 1982) and Svay Sareth (b. 1972) who show their works for the first time together.
 

Text: Caroline Ha Thuc
Images: Courtesy of the artists

Svay Sareth, Stake or Skewer, 2015

 

Artists Yim Maline and Svay Sareth develop mythologies based on their personal legacies and on the history of Cambodia, relying on and revealing all characteristics of memory – even those which are flawed – holes, jolts and silences.  Despite very different mediums and styles, they both reflect critically on the situation of the country today, caught between frenzied development and a political stand-off, as if trapped in a renewed form of war.

Svay’s Warning House (2018) welcomes the visitor as they enter through the garden. In creating houses with recyvled and found materials collected on site, the artist alludes to his past as a former refugee who grew up in a camp during Khmer Rouge regime and after. The work is almost a gesture, offering shelter to anyone searching for a safe haven.

The theme of freedom is prevalent throughout most of Svay’s works.  The promise of freedom arose as Cambodia became indepdent and Khmer Rouge declined, yet it still remains to be fulfilled. His new series of installations consist of long and colorful lilies flowers made from fabric, and held captive in iron cages. The cages are not fully shut, but are closed on the top by a grid which prevents the plants from growing. In the larger pieces, viewers can physically step in and experience the feeling of being imprisoned, relaying a pressure which is not only physical but also psychological.

In a recent, provocative performance at Angkor Wat, Svay conveyed a similar perspective on the notion of captivity and freedom.  Wearing a large sunflower hat that covered his face, he played a traditional Khmer instrument which emitted a squeaky, almost inaudible sound, his appearance recalled that of a cynical clown’s.  To him, the sunflowers were symbolic of Cambodian people, who like the flowers turn to face the sun (or in this case their leaders) but are presented with a false sense of hope and are actually being deceived and taken advantage of.

Circling back to the exhibition, surrounding Svay works, Maline Yim’s organic drawings offer another reflection on freedom. The series Colorful Decomposition (2018) are striking in their vitality: cells, membranes, seeds or stems expand and melt, combining their diversity to create very specific and strange creatures. For a long time, Yim restrained herself to using black and white, because in her words, she could not “find the light.”  Now she dares exploring vivid greens, pink and oranges, and her compositions explode. Like the adjacent lilies, the forms crave to breakout and outgrow their frame.

 

Maline Yim, Colorful Decomposition 11, 2018
Maline Yim, Colorful Decomposition 4, 2018

 

Yet, and beyond this emancipatory appearance, each element develops at the expense of the others, pushing, crawling and struggling to exist and to occupy space like invasive fungi. Their fight takes place underground as seen on a microscopic scale. While some areas seem well organized, with delicate and detailed strokes, there are still traces of violence inside some of the cells, left in black and white, echoing the holes that the artist created by burning parts of the paper. The title, Decomposition, bring us back to the soil, a hidden place of transformations and metamorphosis. Despite their chaotic manifestation, these places might actually be also places of resistance. What really can be seen from the surface?

Like four guardians of the gallery, Svay’s Head & Power (2018) watch the space from their eight fixated eyes. Modeled from Angkor Wat’s sculptures but made out of camouflage and stuffed with kapok fibers, they embody authority and the power of surveillance. Camouflage is a recurring pattern in Svay’s art language. It is ambivalent as it simultaneously evokes security (in being masked) and war (symbolic of standard military gear).  For the artist, it also emphasizes alludes to the hypocrisy of the government, its inability to fulfill its responsibilities and the hollow promises and deceptive language spoken by politicians. In fact, the word kapok, in Khmer means mute.

Sitting in the middle of the second room of the gallery, and installed like a religious statue within a temple, The Heart Healer (2018) features Svay’s mother in a combination of camouflaged and civil clothes. She also survived the refugee camps and today she helps the artist make the lilies. Attentive to her work, she radiates serenity. The work was inspired by a true story when Svay, aged 13, brought back her a bouquet of lilies, escaping the camp, in exchange of his own independence. Here, the flowers assume meaning as offerings for reconciliation and freedom.

 

Svay Sareth, Head & Power , 2018
Svay Sareth, The Heart Healer, 2018

 

The curation of the show highlights the dialogue all the artworks have with each other, reflecting the complexity, tensions, and contradictions within contemporary Cambodia. Both artists question the present, through the past and future. Time is not presented as linear, but as a succession of distruptions within a continuity most aptly expressed through Yim’s punctuated figures.  The comprehension of history and time, is questioned in a video of Svay’s performance, I, Svay Sareth, eat rubber sandals (2015).  In this, he attempts to eat and digest sandals (humorously presented in the gallery on a skewer adjancent to the video), which were worn by the Khmer soldiers, getting one step closer to understanding the atrocities of history. The trauma of the Khmer Rouge regime can not be undone, and for Svay, it is only by crossing the barriers of fear,  and those erected by a state of mistrust, that a future can be built up.  Actively taking taking steps to actualize this envisioned future, both artists are in the process of building a free art school in their own house in Siam Reap

 

 

Yim Maline, Svay Sareth – Home, lost and found
Batia Sarem
Siam Riep, Cambodia

 

 


 

Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. 

Specialized in Asian contemporary art, Ha Thuc contributes regularly to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity in Hong Kong. She is currently a PhD student at SCM, City University Hong Kong.

Prior to moving to Hong Kong, Ha Thuc spent two years in Tokyo and published ‘Nouvel Art Contemporain Japonais’(Nouvelles Editions Scala 2012) about the post-Murakami Japanese art scene. Her book ‘Contemporary Art in Hong Kong’ (Asia One, 2013), which was first published in France (Nouvelles Editions Scala, 2013), provides essential keys to apprehend the city’s vibrant contemporary landscape and exposes the countless links between art, history, culture and identity. She then published a book about Chinese contemporary art analysing the interactions between the art scene and China’s rapidly changing society (‘After 2000: Contemporary Art in China’ published in French and English (2015). She is now working on a book focusing on research-based art practices and the emergence of alternative modes of knowledge production in Southeast Asia.

As a curator, she focuses on promoting dialogue between artists from different cultures, while reflecting on social and political contemporary issues. Her main exhibitions include ‘Constructing Mythologies’ (Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong 2018), ‘Documenting Myanmar’(Charbon Art Space, Hong Kong 2018),  ‘Carnival’ (Amnesty International Hong Kong, 2017),  ‘Human Vibrations’ (5thLarge-scale Urban Media Arts Festival, 2016), ‘The Human Body: Measure and Norms’ (Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015), ‘Shelters of Resistance’ an in-situ installation by Kacey Wong in the courtyard of the City Hall (YIA Art Fair Paris, 2015), ‘Hong Kong Bestiary’ (Platform China, Hong Kong, 2014), ‘Radiance’ (French May, Hong Kong, 2014). 

 

 

 
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