Art of Survival, a group show by Cambodia artist dealing with the Khmer Rouge regime. At Meta House on extended display.
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"How do artists respond to momentous acts of violence? Some are stunned into silence, others rush forward to express their feelings with a poem or a painting. But many allow for a time of reflection until they can begin to grasp the meaning and approach it within a creative context."
The quote is from an article written by Mel Gussow soon after 9/11 (The Art of Aftermath, Distilled in Memory). This statement, in a succinct and clear manner, directly relates to the "The Art of Survival" exhibition -- an attempt to address the Khmer Rouge period presently on display at Meta House art gallery in Phnom Penh.
"Art of Survival" reflects the diversity of styles on view in Cambodia's contemporary art scene. The show includes a range of methods such as traditional oil painting (Vann Nath, Svay Ken, Hen Sophal, Denis Min-Kim), watercolor on handmade paper (Sokuntevy Oeur), conceptual photography (Rattana Vandy) and assemblage wall sculpture (Chhim Sothy).
The manner in which each artist deals with this loaded subject is by definition highly personal, thereby making the content all the more intriguing. For example, the venerable master painter Svay Ken contributes a mossy green view of a field hospital and almost makes the dismal scene seem appealing with his rich paint strokes. Vann Nath, perhaps the most famous name because of his amazing survival of Tuol Sleng, offers one of his artworks from his epic and dark series of memories during that trying time. This quite literal imagery from the Khmer Rouge period is contrasted sharply by the abstract and evocative photography from the erudite and incisive young conceptualist Rattana Vandy.
The context of this exhibition could not be more relevant. It is taking place in Phnom Penh, a city that was emptied by the Khmer Rouge in May 1975. Now in 2008, an exhibition with a blend of artists from a variety of backgrounds is being mounted in a private space next to Hun Sen Park.
"The Art of Survival" is ostensibly one more visual art exhibition and usually that means just that -- a display of contemporary art imagery and objects. Yet because of its intense and loaded subject matter it takes on more import within the community -- especially this community.
The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, an international court established to try Khmer Rouge crimes, has begun. The complex systemization of working toward the pursuit of justice with the few surviving Khmer Rouge leaders is now in process.
Given the timing, the weight that this exhibit is expected to bear might be somewhat unrealistic. One reading of the show is that it is a welcome event that has been long overdue, while conversely it can also be viewed as unabashedly opportunistic.
One complicating feature of the exhibition is that there are two independent and yet interrelated aspects of the artwork itself. There is the formal physical presence of each individual piece made by a different artist. What specific methodology is the artist using to communicate his or her idea? Then there is the conceptual/philosophical content of the artwork. What is the artist actually trying to say?
From any perspective, the artwork is uneven in concept and execution. This might be taken as a given with all group shows, but this exhibition is using as its source a society that was culturally beheaded just 29 years ago. All meaningful and progressive cultural production was arrested and all the cultural workers and teachers were annihilated. What can one realistically expect to see less than three decades later?
But is the quality of the artwork the issue at hand? Perhaps it is the implied meaning of the artwork? Maybe the most critical question is asking what is not being shown and said. At the core of this exhibition is the monumental significance of memory. In "The Art of Afterwards" Clifford Chanin wrote, "The next question is inevitable: When living memory is no longer present, what will remembrance be?"
After all, the artwork is simply reflecting some form of direct experience or passed down impressions about the Khmer Rouge period. This practice of recollection, personally or by proxy, is, by definition, an uncertain and messy process.
"The Art of Survival" is exactly what it should be and only can be at this moment here in the capital city of Phnom Penh -- imperfect and incomplete.
It is also a brave and commendable effort.