Ruptures and Revival: Cambodian Photography in the Last Decade

I have been invited to guest curate a show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, titled “Ruptures and Revival: Cambodian Photography in the Last Decade”. The show will run from 8 March to 1 April 2012 at ICA Gallery 2.

The years of turmoil in the 70s and 80s ruptured the energetic beginnings of “modern” Cambodian arts in the 1950s. Ironically, this break has also allowed curators and writers today to proclaim that Cambodian photography emerged out of nowhere in the last decade or so. Indeed, its revival started in the 90s. However, Cambodian photography has always existed, even from a creative or cultural perspective—in the imperfect view of the colony seen through the picture postcards of the early 20th century, in the debates over painting and photography initiated at the School of Cambodian Arts (predecessor of the Royal University of Fine Arts) in the 1950s, in the movie posters from the 1960s to the mid-70s, in the images made by local photojournalists before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, and in the horrific portraits made at the S-21 interrogation centre.

This exhibition, on the other hand, is a testimony of the recent revival. Featuring seven bodies of work made in the last decade, this is the first attempt to showcase three “generations” of Cambodian photographers within the same exhibition. From a redeeming portrayal of Khmer Rouge (KR) cadres forced into the revolution to a critical response against the filling-in of public lakes in Phnom Penh, from naked self-portraits that challenge the norms of society to an archaeological study of homes and a telecom office, this exhibition counters the cliché imageries of temples and beggars produced today in the name of documenting Cambodia.

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The Victims of History: Voices of the Khmer Rouge Victims and Perpetrators (2002); Heng Sinith

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In this work, Heng Sinith uses the ID photos taken in the 70s, tracks down the S-21 staff and photographs their lives now as spouses and villagers. Today many of them are very poor, living in fear at faraway villages. Sinith is not trying to normalize the cruelty of the KR. He is arguing for a more nuanced understanding of history.

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Water is Life (2009-2010); Mak Remissa / Asia Motion

The striking use of colours in this project serves to differentiate it from the photographs that Mak Remissa produces as a fulltime photojournalist for European Pressphoto Agency. He hopes that the series will remind the audience of the importance of protecting our water resources for the future.

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Looking In (2005-2006); Vandy Rattana

Untitled (2011); Khvay Samnang

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Shot at Boeung Kak and several other lakes, Khvay uses his body as a vessel of attrition to question the wisdom of this development. Despite the tightening of control in Cambodia, this is the first photographic project made in the last two decades that has adopted a critical stance on a specific issue.

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Wrapped Future (2009-2010); Lim Sokchanlina

Nude Series (2010); Heng Ravuth

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Computer Light Portraits (2010); Sovan Philong / Asia Motion

In this work, Sovan Philong illuminates his sitters with light from the computer screen. In these portraits, it is possible to imagine a kind of vague commentary about technology and society, although it is clear that Sovan is ultimately drawn by the “look” of his eerily lit subjects.

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