Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang (b. 1982) is a multimedia storyteller whose work proposes both innovative and embodied narratives in response to the current challenges that are facing his country. He combines poetry, magic and beliefs with deeply factual and real contemporary issues, such as the destruction of the environment, the vanishing of traditions, the impact of pollution, land grabbing and forced population displacement.
TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
At Edouard Malingue Gallery in Hong Kong, Khvay Samnang is showing Preah Kunlong (2017), a two-channel film and a series of animal masks. This was created in collaboration with local villagers and the choreographer Nget Rady, who will be performing at Wing on September 15th. Based on the artist’s own research on a small indigenous community in Cambodia, the work invites us to rethink our conception of nature beyond the classical and binary opposition between human and non-human beings, and in doing so, he opens up alternative responses to the global ecological crisis and disappearance of traditions.
Preah Kunlong takes place in the Areng Valley, part of a southwest province of Cambodia. This is known as one of Southeast Asia’s last great wilderness areas and is home to about 60 endangered species.
Over 16 months, and during many long visits, Khvay Samnang and Rady Nget immersed themselves in the Chong community, the ethnic minority that lives in this region in order to learn about their beliefs and livelihoods. Like an ethnographer, Khvay shared all the local habits – eating, drinking, praying and sleeping with the indigenous people – and created strong ties with them. The Chong people are animist: they believe that every living and non-living creature on Earth has a soul, just like human beings. In particular, they worship the spirits of the animals living in the forest. With the help of the villagers, Khvay learnt about the art of weaving vines, and inspired by their tales and totems, created 11 original animal masks that Rady Nget wears in the film and during his performance, and which are also exhibited as sculptures.
The 2-channel video features Nget dancing alone, half naked and with his face covered by the masks in this part of the rainforest. His movements are actually more similar to a state of trance than to a dance as he turns himself into each of the animals he is embodying by crawling in the mud, jumping from rocks to rocks or hiding like them. Inhabited by the spirit of the animals, his body remains always on the edge of human and animal behaviour in a constant state of ambiguity. In fact, he improvised for hours and only caught the very moments when he suddenly stopped acting like a human and started to transform into a hybrid creature.
The camera follows the movements of the dancer, immersed in nature, without any apparent narrative or structure, and the film can be seen as a loop, suggesting the eternal repetition of the cycle of life and nature. When the film starts, Nget is already standing in the left screen. He can be seen from afar against the backdrop of a mighty waterfall whose noise pervades the gallery space. He wears the mask of the deer. We feel that he has always been there, and is a small part of a vast, pristine and beautiful landscape. On the right screen, we can see him closer, lying on the top of the waterfall, wearing another mask – this time of the crocodile. He unhurriedly stands up, as if waking up, extending his muscles one after the other. He faces the landscape, but is also above it. Dominating nature and simultaneously being dominated by it… the duality of the images constantly negates traditional oppositions and proposes a continuum that, instead, expresses a solidarity between all the elements involved: time, nature, space, animals and dancer, all connected and deeply united. From time to time, Nget goes from one screen to another, breaking the rigidity of the frames and the rigidity of our usual vision of nature, which is constructed in opposition to culture.
The daily life of the Chong people, like that of many other small communities spread all over the world (see, for example, the Achuar in the Amazon) is deeply tied with nature and the animals living in the rainforest, who they depend on for their survival. They respect and fear the animals’ spirits, called Arak, and regularly organize ceremonies to celebrate them. When they are lost in the forest, they follow the footprints of the animals to find their way back. These practices have been passed on from generation to generation.
This sense of trust and respect can be perceived in the video, whose title could be understood as ‘The Way to the Spirit’ (Preah means god or spirit and Kunlong means way or footprint). Like the Chong people, the viewer follows the spirit through the forest, as if being guided by it. The viewer either observes the dancer or sees what he sees and, therefore, becomes the dancer/animal himself. This sense of fusion is reinforced by the sensuality of the framing and editing. Khvay’s direction alternates between close-up shots, which linger on details of the dancer’s movements, skin and muscles, and wide-angle views of the environment. Mud, soil, water and vegetation are intimately sticking to the dancer’s body. Jerky rhythms alternate with static plans. In the middle of the film, Nget starts to growl and squeak, mixing his voice with the sound of the environment, making himself one with nature.
From the outset, Khvay sets the time of the film in a mythological era. Myths, indeed, develop during sacred times that can be infinitely be recalled through rituals. Nget replays the origins of nature, but in the present, and the duality of the screens also subtly questions the continuity between the two and the possible future of such beliefs in the era of globalization.
At the end of the film, Nget suddenly disappears from one screen, before reappearing on to the other, only to finally abruptly vanish. After the long and slow flow of continuous movements, these cuts are highly noticeable. They express the local tensions about a dam project said to be about to destroy the natural habitat of the Chong’s community, as well as the global threat of deforestation, animal trafficking and rapid modernisation. What is actually striking in the work is the absence of the Chong people themselves, despite the fact that the artist spent so much time among them to get to know them. We see in the video what they produce (vine’s objects), what they believe in (animals’ spirits), where they live (the rainforest) but we never see them. This absence stands for the threat of their disappearance as a community.
However, the hybrid figure of Nget also embodies liberty and resistance: the dancer is like the water flow, always alive and free, elusive but grounded in the real. He does not need to own the land; the land is part of him as he is part of the land. At a time when the relationship with nature needs to be globally reinvented, Khvay’s vision suggests a reactualization of traditions and an integration rather than an exclusion of these ancient systems of beliefs in order to move away from the usual anthropocentrism and find a new balance with the environment.
About the Artist
Khvay Samnang is a multidisciplinary artist of photography, video, performance and installation. His work is inspired by news sources and everyday life experiences, and uses art to express stories he believes require intervention, even if only symbolically. With subtlety and hints of humor, Khvay is a widely recognized artist who has exhibited at Jeu de Paume, Berlin Center for Contemporary Art, The Jewish Museum and the Singapore Art Museum, amongst others.
Khvay Samnang – Constructing Mythologies
14 Sept – 25 Oct, 2018
Edouard Malingue Gallery, Central
14 September, 6pm
Khvay Samnang and Nget Rady in discussion with Caroline Ha Thuc on art and ecology in Cambodia
Edouard Malingue Gallery, Central
15 September, 6pm
Performance – Khvay Samnang and Nget Rady
WING | Platform for Performance, Wan Chai
15-16 September, 10am-4pm
Two-day workshop: Khvay Samnang and Nget Rady.
WING | Platform for Performance, Wan Chai
Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. Specialized in Asian contemporary art, she contributes to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity/Am Post in 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 recently 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 language Nouvelles Editions Scala, France 2014 & MIP, Hong Kong 2015 for the English and comprehensive version).
As a curator, she focuses on promoting dialogue between artists from different cultures, while reflecting on social and political contemporary issues. Her recent exhibitions include Radiance (French May, Hong Kong, 2014), Hong Kong Bestiary (Platform China, Hong Kong, 2014), Shelters of Resistance an in-situ installation by Kacey Wong in the courtyard of the City Hall (YIA Art Fair Paris, 2015), The Human Body : Measure and Norms (Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015) and Carnival (Hong Kong February 2017). She is on the International Curatorial Advisory Board of the Open Sky Gallery in Hong Kong and curated the 5th Large-scale Urban Media Arts Festival, 2016.
One thought on “Khvay Samnang: The Way to the Spirit”
Thanks for sharing this lovely piece Caroline.