Phnom Penh is an attractively languorous place compared to other major cities in Southeast Asia. Its evolving art scene reveals how cultural history is being written and how the future might unfold. This is all the more interesting because, inevitably, the matter is vexed. This year, local controversy over issues of representation and vested interests was generated by ‘Season of Cambodia’, a two-month festival of visual art, performance and symposia in New York. The Guggenheim’s recent exhibition ‘No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia’ (2013) didn’t include any Khmer artists, and one might wonder if this was the result of the curatorial avoidance of explicit themes of national identity. International journalists continue to render a bleak picture of Cambodia, from the despotism of prime minister Hun Sen to mappings of a largely impoverished and structurally corrupt society. It’s obvious that the stakes are high for contemporary art’s role in the context of a globalized art world, and the kinds of pressures experienced locally.
Albert Samreth is a 25-year-old graduate of CalArts in Los Angeles. American-born to Cambodian parents, he currently commutes between the US and Phnom Penh. The notion of a ‘reverse émigré’ is a neat category for artists who choose to work out of the country of their ethnic background rather than national heritage, and India’s Bharti Kher is probably the most famed. But for artists who, unlike Kher, don’t seek to embrace, or particularly identify with, their ethnic heritage, certain questions don’t go away – from the cynical (career move) to the political (contribution and representation). We can also consider the recent case of the poet Kosal Khiev, who was deported to Cambodia after serving a prison sentence in the US, and the socio-cultural apparatus that insists on drawing conclusions about relationships between ethnic and national identity.
Titled ‘… Know Know’, Samreth’s show at SA SA BASSAC – a collectively run gallery that bucks strict distinctions between non-profit and commercial models – didn’t have an introductory wall text or an accompanying press release, but the title may have been a pun on the issues I’ve sketched above. Samreth is clearly versed in the history of Conceptualism; the objects on view were minimal, impeccably produced and highly considered. One series, ‘Untitled (After Dancers on a Plane)’ (2013), was named after a work by Jasper Johns and played with ideas of support, autonomy, illusion and representation. A series of five wooden stretchers for paintings contained trompe l’oeil prints of cheap functional materials, including one in which a scraped section of the wall was elegantly mediated by a sheet of acetate. The idiosyncrasies of post-Conceptualism could be detected in A Million Hang-Ups (2011), a collection of small mirrors inspired by the satellite aerials of Khmer households, which suggested a surreal interpretation of a coat-stand. Just Enough Room for Space (2011) and If It Weren't For Bad Luck I'd Have No Luck At All (2013) most explicitly drew on the Cambodian context: the former is a small cube derived from the technology of wrought iron gates used for monied, private homes and referenced the shift from Khmer Rouge collectivism to Hun Sen’s so-called land grabs, whereby community land has been leased to private developers. The latter is a plastic rug emblazoned with the words ‘Pure Luck’, a welcome mat that begets the apoliticism of blind faith and local superstition.
Samreth’s deft weaving of his concerns into the language of Conceptualism appeared less alien than one might expect in a city caught in often violent conflicts between modernity and tradition, indigenous values and a globalizing market place. The curatorial work of SA SA BASSAC has previously acknowledged how artists here more typically articulate their work in biographical or visceral terms. But ‘… Know Know’ was caught between its indebtedness to a North American art-school training and the potential for local impact among artists and audiences less versed in the histories of Samreth’s artistic language. The artist reported that not many people attended the show. One can wonder about the constraints, challenges or expectations that underlay this disinterest and how the various players in Phnom Penh’s art scene see the future in this regard – an all the more urgent concern, given the increased international attention toward the region and the inevitability of foreign art-market interest.