The Lost Spirit

The Rubber Man came to artist Khvay Samnang in a dream while he was researching the provinces of northeast Cambodia. “I saw a spirit coming to me, to warn me to say something…then I saw the man walking around the forest, the rubber forest.”

Mr. Samnang journeyed to the rubber plantations of Ratanakkiri province and created an eight-and-a-half-minute film that makes up the core of his latest exhibition, now on display at the Sa Sa Bassac Gallery in Phnom Penh.

Khvay Samnang’s Rubber Man installation (Sa Sa Bassac Gallery)
Khvay Samnang’s Rubber Man installation (Sa Sa Bassac Gallery)

The film opens with a scene of a car driving along the red roads of Ratanakkiri, passing by ethnic minority villagers. The scene changes to focus on a rubber tree, showing the tapping process as sap is collected into a bowl. In Rubber Man, as in his previous works “Untitled”  (2010, 2013) and “Air” (2011), Mr. Samnang repeats the action of pouring a natural substance over his head using a bucket. This time it is the sap from a rubber tree, which sticks to the artist’s skin and leaves a thick white stain on the ground.

Then, suddenly, he disappears and reappears at other plantations. This dreamlike sequence is interchanged with scenes following the ghostly figure, sometimes at a distance so that he is almost walking out of frame, at other times so close that we can hear him catch a breath as the liquid latex engulfs him. The Rubber Man walks through the plantations, searching for something.

But the film never reveals what the Rubber Man is looking for; neither does it explicitly show the social problems created by the expansion of rubber plantations in Cambodia’s northeast.

“People, they lost their land, their house, their rice, they come to Phnom Penh and they shout in front of the government’s house.” Mr. Samnang says of villagers protesting against the loss of their lands to agri-business firms.

The Rubber Man, as conceived by Mr. Samnang, represents the spirit of these lost lands. In several dreams, Mr. Samnang followed the Rubber Man, chasing after it after it appeared to him. It is these dreams that Mr. Samnang has spent the past year attempting to capture on film.

“He comes to me because he wants me to show him something, bring me to Ratanakkiri,” he said.

Having observed the objects and sculptures that are placed at Tampuon cemeteries to represent the deceased, the artist decided to create something similar for his Rubber Man. In the middle of the exhibition room is a large patch of red Ratanakkiri soil, on which 15 wooden sculptures are placed­­—  seven depicting endangered or extinct animals in Cambodia, their homes destroyed by deforestation and its effects, their bodies carved out of the trees that their natural habitats were replaced with. The other eight sculptures depict types of machinery used to cultivate the earth. According to the narrative Mr. Samnang has woven around his exhibit, the wooden animals are furious at the machinery, railing against it even as they were being carved.

“I think that Rubber Man’s [message] is that…they lost their land, they lost their house, they lost their forest. The ethnic people believe they lost their spirit already,” he said.

“Rubber Man” is showing at Sa Sa Bassac Gallery, located at No. 18 Sothearos Boulevard, through July 12.

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