A co-founder of Sa Sa Art Projects and one of the most promising artists from Cambodia, Lim Sokchanlina explores and documents the current socio-economical changes that radically transform his country and its inhabitants’ modes of living. First exhibited at Phnom Penh Photo Festival in 2018, his series “Wrapped Future II” has been selected for the 2020 Sovereign Asian Art prize. Caroline Ha Thuc delves into the artist’s practice and drive.
TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist
A large, blue, metal sheet emerges from a romantic field of lotus under a perfect blue sky. Just like the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Lim Sokchanlina’s fences obstruct spaces and natural landscapes to impose their enigmatic, yet powerful presence. Each photograph from the series “Wrapped Future” features a barrier or a makeshift wall: incarnations of human made constructions and, in particular, of Phnom Penh’s recent urban development. Metaphorically, these opaque fences also block the view and bar any horizon. What will Cambodia’s future be like? The title ironically suggests a wrapped gift, but there might be no surprise when opening it.
Born in 1987 in rural, south-eastern Cambodia, Sokchanlina moved to Phnom Penh early in his life. In 2006, while studying economics, he joined a photography workshop where he met the artists with whom he founded Stiev Selapak, one of the earliest independent collectives in the country (which later developed into present-day Sa Sa Art Projects). Together, they experimented with photography for the first time and discovered the documentary power of this medium. Until this point, local photography had been dominated by foreign photographers, or tragically associated with the famous black and white portraits from S-21, the Khmer Rouge extermination prison. These young artists, including Sokchanlina, thus felt the need to re-appropriate photography in order to document Cambodian reality. Besides, at that time the focus of contemporary practices was still on the Khmer Rouge period (1975–79) and, while they felt concerned about history, the artists wished to turn towards the present, with a strong desire to document the socio-economic transition that was—and still is—radically transforming the country. Sokchanlina chose to work with what he calls conceptual documentary, an original combination of fieldwork and expressive artistic compositions.
“Wrapped Future” is one of Sokchanlina’s earliest series, started in 2009 and originally supposed to end in 2019. However, according to the artist, a few images are still missing. The series documents Cambodian aforementioned urban changes and, in particular, how the artist witnessed the emergence of new high-rise buildings in the city centre, while the periphery, hitherto covered by fields, became the home of satellite city megaprojects. All the photographs have a precise title that indicates their shooting location: places chosen by the artist for their contentious or historical burden. Independence Monument (2011), for example, offers a disrupting perspective on the Monument that symbolises the country’s independence from the French in 1953. In the photograph, rather than being valorised, its structure is barely recognisable: its lotus-shape top is out of frame, while a long, green metal fence occupies the foreground. Implicitly, we wonder what is missing from this edifice and, above all, from the freedom it was supposed to embody.
The photograph selected for the 2020 Sovereign Asian Art Prize, Lotus Field, Prey Veng Province (2017), was taken in the artist’s native province. Here, the lotus field refers to a time when lotus seeds were fetching a higher price than rice, pushing farmers to plant them instead of rice. Sokchanlina has always been interested in the economy and in the impact of globalization on Cambodia. His research component is insidiously combined with the spiritual motif of the lotus flower, suggesting a connection between the recent development of capitalism and the religious situation of the country. Yet the strength of these images lies in their ambiguity and in their multiple possible interpretations.
Another reading could revolve around the walls, understood as boundaries. In Cambodia, most indigenous cultures share a particular relationship with topography and the way in which territories are distributed. There is, for instance, a strong distinction between the human territory, called srok, and the wilderness, or forest, called prey. The latter is the place where mighty and unknown spirits are active. It becomes srok after land clearing and once a neak ta, or guardian spirit, has been installed by the local inhabitants. Hence, the definition of boundaries is dependent on the spirits, but it can change as a result of human activities. By installing fences across landscapes in an authoritarian manner, urban development projects break this traditional balance, pushing back wilderness while creating new and empty zones deprived of any spirituality. They also impose a new dichotomy between private properties and shrinking public spaces. A sense of absurdity emerges from Sokchanlina’s aestheticized partitions, which offer nothing but inhabited spaces.
The issue of land is at the core of the artist’s practice. This was made clear recently through his field research on the working and living conditions of Cambodian migrant workers, forced to leave their country to earn a living in neighbouring nations. With the rise of property costs, many farmers sold their land to cash in on short-term money, only to soon fall into poverty. Others accumulated debts due to the low price of rice and had to work in factories in Malaysia, Korea, and Japan, or on Thai fishing boats. Sokchanlina’s ambitious, current series focuses on the stories he has collected from these people since 2015, while traveling from Singapore to Bangkok and Tokyo. The artist’s research findings are then transformed into multi-media installations as a way to give a voice to these communities.
Fieldwork is the key approach to Sokchanlina’s artistic research processes, as he enjoys learning from people more than from books. In fact, this empiricist slant reflects today’s general sense of mistrust, which pervades a country where autonomous scholarly work remains rare and where the media is still controlled by an authoritative government. It is also the result of a deficient and biased educational system. Moreover, it reflects a culture based on apprenticeship, where knowledge is orally transmitted. In this context, artists feel the need to engage physically in their own investigations, and it is not surprising to see Sokchanlina embarking on this long journey around Southeast Asia in order to learn things for himself and reflect on Cambodia’s socio-economic situation.
 Stiev Selapak (meaning “Art Rebels” in Khmer language) was founded in 2007 by six Cambodian artists including Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina, and Vuth Lyno, who remain active members of what became the non-profit collective Sa Sa Art Projects in 2010.
6 June – 19 July
About the artist
Lim Sokchanlina (b. 1987, Cambodia) uses photography, video, site-specific installation and performance to work across documentary and conceptual practices. Using different strategies, he calls attention to a variety of social, political, cultural, economic and environmental changes in Cambodia in relation to the globe.
Barriers, walls, fences, borders, obstacles and panels are all human constructions used to obstruct the landscapes we reside in: Cambodia’s landscapes are no exception. Wrapped Future II is part of a series that contemplates the combination of human-made and natural landscapes that have been hidden: places that we know exist but are not sure what they look like. Two forms of beauty confront each other: that of a flexible nature and that of hardness with strict forms invented by man. The large metal plates in the Wrapped Future series can also serve as a metaphor for obstacles that prevent the passage of people in a world experiencing one of the greatest migrations in history: whether for economic, political or climate change reasons. The viewer is forced to confront this manmade form obstructing the beautiful landscape and question its presence there.
Lim has exhibited work in many solo exhibition, most notably at NCA Nichido Contemporary, Tokyo (2019), at Singapore Biennale 2019, Sunshower, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan, Singapore Art Stage (Sea Platform), Singapore (2015), and Sa Sa Art Bassac, Phnom Pen (2012).