Cambodian Artists Explore Legacy of the Pol Pot Regime

A local gallery has gathered together work by 10 artists around the theme of “The Legacy of Absence” as part of a worldwide Rockefeller Foun­dation-funded project supporting the production of work from countries that have suffered extreme trauma.

The Reyum Gallery exhibition focuses on the trauma of the Pol Pot regime of 1975-79 when more than 1 million people died through forced labor, disease, starvation and execution.

Elsewhere, the Legacy Project is backing work on the genocide in Rwanda, the Cultural Rev­olution in China and the Holo­caust in Europe. The best works produced will tour the world next year.

“It starts with the Holocaust as a model,” said Ingrid Muan, co-director of the gallery. “But there were many traumas in the 20th century.”

Last year, Cliff Chanin, the US-based director of the project, visited Cambodia, leaving behind a page-long statement asking artists to ex­plore the “em­p­ty spaces” left by people who are no longer there.

The result is eclectic and innovative both in subject matter and the materials used. The age ran­ge also is wide including work from art­ists who lived thr­ough the reg­ime as adults and now live with their memories, and those who were young children and barely remember the time.

The show goes beyond pictoral or sculptural representation and includes the modern art phenomenon of room-size installations and multi-media sculptures.

Ly Daravuth, who is also a co-director of the gallery, has filled a small room with grainy portraits of Khmer Rouge child messengers interspersed with pictures of today’s children. A recording of Khmer Rouge messages plays in the background.

Soeung Vannara, a Polish-trained painter, has created perhaps the most intriguing piece of the crowded show combining found objects, old photos and ultra-violet light.

Using a sculpted head created by his father—who died during the regime—as a base, he has covered the crown with photos of those who died interspersed with neon-color scraps of paper that glow from an ultra-violet light inside the head.

“I wanted to create something new to show to Khmer,” he said, adding the finishing touches with a neon-yellow highlighter Mon­day morning.

Vann Nath, who is best known for his paintings of his experiences in Tuol Sleng prison, is showing a painting of an idyllic scene of a Cambodian farmer playing a flute under a tree while cows peacefully graze nearby in the field. “It’s the ideal of how Cambodia could be,” said Muan.

None of the work makes any blatant statement on the political hot potato of the moment—the long-discussed trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders. “It’s about the fallout to society and what loss means to people personally,” says Muan.

“The Legacy of Absence” opens today from 5 pm-8 pm at the Reyum Gallery, Street 178, across from the National Muse­um. The work will be on show until Feb 14. The gallery is open seven days a week from 8 am-6 pm.


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