Sandal-Chewing Artist Won’t Let Trauma Eat Away at Him

“No taste, hard on the teeth… and it smells very strong,” artist Svay Sareth said of the shoes he chewed for his upcoming exhibition, “I, Svay Sareth, eat rubber sandals.”

The mix of installation, sculpture and digital film opening this Saturday at Sa Sa Bassac in Phnom Penh is tongue-in-cheek.

A still image from 'I, Svay Sareth, eat rubber sandals' (Svay Sareth/Sa Sa Bassac)
A still image from ‘I, Svay Sareth, eat rubber sandals’ (Svay Sareth/Sa Sa Bassac)

In a videotaped scene, Mr. Sareth tears apart and gnaws on rubbery soles, devouring them alongside a pot of tea.

But as in Mr. Sareth’s past works, beneath the facetious facade are serious reflections on a history of war and conflict.

Mr. Sareth was born in Battambang province in 1972, three years before the Khmer Rouge took over the country, and moved to France in 2002 to study at L’ecole superieure d’arts et medias in Caen. He now works in Siem Reap.

The idea for this series began, Mr. Sareth said, when he met a street vendor in Siem Reap selling plain, black sandals.

“He piled the sandals on the back of his old motorbike,” Mr. Sareth said in an interview. “When I saw the sandals, it affected me strongly…. The Khmer Rouge wore those sandals. It’s the same sandals.”

The moment was deeply personal. Mr. Sareth, like countless others, fled from the Khmer Rouge to a refugee camp on the Thai border. “I grew up in a camp in the forest,” he said.

Decades later, the sandals are devoid of the violent context that was seared into Mr. Sareth’s mind. Yet seeing them on the streets again made him realize that although the wars are over, the resulting psychological aggression continues.

“It made me think of the Khmer Rouge,” he said, “and it made me think of the war with Vietnam and the territorial problem.”

Mr. Sareth channeled that distress into a quirky project: He bought the sandals and ate them, both metaphorically and literally.

“I want it to be comedy, to make people laugh,” said the artist, who recently exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris.

The single-channel video of Mr. Sareth’s performance is accompanied by works including a sculpture made out of the street vendor’s rickety motorcycle, and LED lights spelling out the Khmer words for “eat.”

By imparting the form, texture, and even taste of the sandals, Mr. Sareth implores his audience to digest history—but not without a dose of humor.

“When we are hungry, we eat, and when we eat, we put it in the stomach and forget about it until we go to the toilet in the morning,” he explained. “But what happened has happened.”

“The object is a very strong symbol of history in Cambodia,” he said. “I wish people to see it as a witness, but not to live in fear or traumatic history.”

“I, Svay Sareth, eat rubber sandals” opens on Saturday and runs until November 28 at Sa Sa Bassac gallery in Phnom Penh.

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