“Newspaper Man just wants to share information with the people about what’s going on,” says Khvay Samnang, who wrapped himself in the pages of four local newspapers on March 7, 2011, and had his friend, photographer Lim Sokchanlina, film him walking around the sand that has filled in much of Boeng Kak lake.
In the 6-minute video, now showing at SaSa Basaac Gallery in Phnom Penh, Mr. Samnang is not so much a messenger as he is an alien explorer. Newspaper Man stumbles over the crumbling walls that still protrude from the sand that is steadily making the lake, and its surrounding communities, disappear. The camera follows him as he lumbers over the sand, steps over walls, stops briefly at the shore, where sand meets the remnants of the lake, and loops back toward the camera. The foreground seems to be a post-apocalyptic vision. The background is the not-so-distant skyline of a city on the rise.
Without headlines, Newspaper Man is just a wanderer in a land where destruction and construction occur simultaneously. As he lifts himself over the remnants of a torn down house, two excavators can be seen across the lake, opening up the ground so that a foundation can be built. “[The construction] never stops,” says Mr. Samnang, who moved to Phnom Penh 28 years ago at the age of 2. “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Up and up.”
As Newspaper Man walks over the sand, the camera does not pan along with him, but rather settles on four different segments of the skyline looking southwest over the lake, remaining still as Mr. Samnang walks across the frame. First is the construction site; as old communities are being evicted, glimmering new office buildings are going up. Next is the Council of Ministers building next to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Peace Palace. The camera then pans to Canadia Tower, which dwarfs the rest of the city; within a year Vattanac Tower will rise above it, but those headlines were yet to be written, or worn by Newspaper Man. The last frame captures the clutter that still remains on the west side of the lake; one gets the sense that it is only a matter of time before the gold-domed mosque and surrounding hotels, restaurants and residences are replaced by something more expensive and more modern.
What one doesn’t see during the video is what is going on behind the camera, in the houses that still remain intact and among the families who have refused to move out of them. “You don’t see people crying in the video,” says Mr. Samnang. “Or people who have money or don’t have money.” It’s not that these things do not interest Mr. Samnang. Over the past few years, he has visited Boeng Kak regularly to shoot documentary footage of protests and demonstrations. His 2010 work “Untitled,” which he said inspired “Newspaper Man,” was a direct commentary on the fate of the Boeng Kak residents and other evictees. In the photographs from “Untitled,” he is half submerged in marshes, ponds and lakes adjacent to eviction sites in Phnom Penh, pouring a bucket of sand over his head.
Sand, Mr. Samnang insists, is what his latest exhibit is really about. “Sure, I want people to think about what has happened and what will happen” at Boeng Kak lake, he says. “But I really just want to show how much sand they put on the lake and where they put it.” He even decided to cover the floor of the gallery with sand because, he says, “I love sand. I want people to come enjoy my sand.”
Considering that sand has been encroaching on Boeng Kak residents and invading their homes for years now, it seems strange for Mr. Samnang to embrace it with such enthusiasm. But in the same way that guns do not kill people (people do), sand does not evict people (people do that too). Sand is what makes up beaches, Mr. Samnang points out, and beaches are beautiful. Ultimately, Newspaper Man does not try to tell the viewer what to think about the surface he is exploring. He is there to note its existence. Where there was once a village, there is now sand. And on the horizon, a new city is being built.
“Newspaper Man” will be shown at the SaSa Bassac Gallery, located at No. 37 on Sothearos Boulevard, through October 7.