Sights and Sounds: Cambodia

November 8, 2013 - January 30, 2014

Sights and Sounds: Cambodia features new work by Than Sok, Khvay Samnang, Svay Sareth, and Studio Revolt + Khmer Arts, selected by Erin Gleeson.

Installation view of Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video in the Goodkind Media Center. Photo by David Heald.

The moving image was one of the most popular art forms during Cambodia’s culturally rich Independence years (mid-1950s – early 1970s). Combining available modern technologies with inventive do-it-yourself techniques, full-length feature films rich in magic realism often explored folkloric and mythical themes, starring humans, spirits, and serpents in love triangles and cycles of creation and destruction. These forays were interrupted during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975–79), when an estimated 90 percent of artists and intellectuals were executed, leaving traditions and developing practices to stagnate for decades. Film and video have only recently become strands in the practice of today’s artists. Since 2007 some twenty works have been made by local and diasporic Cambodians.

This selection for Sights and Sounds is a representative sampling of common approaches to video art thus far in Cambodia. Mon Boulet is a document of a public performance centered on catharsis. Untitled, also a performance, but one made explicitly for the camera, symbolically confronts the conditions surrounding today’s aggressive land grabs and forced evictions. The meditative Negligence Leads to Loss; Attention Preserves and the fantastical Neang Neak expose contemporary tensions between spiritual customs and modernization.

Erin Gleeson

Erin Gleeson is Artistic Director of SA SA BASSAC, Phnom Penh, a nonprofit gallery, reading room, and resource center cofounded in 2011 by Gleeson and the Stiev Selapak artist collective. She divides her time between Phnom Penh and Berlin.


Than Sok, Negligence Leads to Loss; Attention Preserves, 2009, video, sound, 9 min., 42 sec. Artwork © Than Sok. Shrines stand guard outside of most Cambodian homes as a site of communion with ancestors and Neak Ta, an omnipresent, divine figure. Titled after a Khmer proverb of warning, Than Sok’s video points to the increasingly perfunctory and distorted nature of ritual offerings in Cambodia today. The shrine here is made by hand of incense sticks; thus, lighting the incense—the intermediary material of prayer—becomes a hypnotically violent act.

Khvay Samnang, Untitled, 2011, video, sound, 4 min., 22 sec. Artwork © Khvay Samnang. Phnom Penh’s lakes are vital to urban hydraulic systems and vibrant residential areas. As the Cambodian government privatizes the lakes, filling them with sand, they have become contested eviction sites. Before this became global news, Khvay Samnang stood in the lakes, among vegetation and refuse, and at different stages of their “development,” to pour a bucket of sand over his head. His poignant gesture serves as a document for posterity of this complex environmental, infrastructural, and humanitarian concern.

Svay Sareth, Mon Boulet (My Ball and Chain), 2011, video, sound, 8 min., 25 sec. Artwork © Svay Sareth. Mon Boulet documents a five-day durational performance in which Svay Sareth dragged a cumbersome reflective metal sphere 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the ancient capital of Angkor to the present capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. A former refugee himself, the artist also carried a few basic amenities symbolic of refugees worldwide. This public enactment of Sisyphean futility confronts both personal and collective history while acting as a cathartic move into the future.

Studio Revolt + Khmer Arts, Neang Neak (Serpent Goddess), 2012, HD video, sound, 3 min., 50 sec. Artwork © 2012 / Studio Revolt LLC and Khmer Arts Academy / All rights reserved. This video by the director Masahiro Sugano (b. Osaka, 1972; lives in Phnom Penh) explores displacement and the journey to self-discovery by juxtaposing contemporary and ancient storytelling techniques. In Neang Neak, a classical dance choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro (b. Phnom Penh, 1967; lives in Phnom Penh), a serpent goddess, performed by Keo Kuntearom, arrives on earth to live among humans. This unique staging reflects Cambodian culture’s ever-evolving relationship between the traditional and the new.

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