THE PHNOM PENH POST – Master of Lands and Waters – or Mchas Teuk Mchas Dei in Khmer – is a group exhibition by Cambodian arts collective Stiev Selapak with artists Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina and Vuth Lyno presenting their artwork together for the first time at Sa Sa Art Projects in an exhibition running until March 31.
The exhibition displays recent work by all three artists consisting of videos, sculptures, photographs and a light installation, all of which are focussed thematically on beliefs about nature and spiritual practices dealing with the supernatural in animism and the powerful spirits that Cambodians traditionally believe take care of people and their homes as well as the land and its animals.
“It brings to the fore the interaction and complex relationships between nature and the supernatural, humans and non-humans, the tangible and the intangible – and between states – which continue to shape our politics, economies, cultures, traditions, livelihoods and essential social structures,” said Manager at Sa Sa Art Projects and the curator of the Master of Lands and Waters exhibition Chanveasna.
Samnang’s mixed-media artwork Popil (2018) and Sokchanlina’s Letter to the Sea (2019) have both been presented in international galleries and biennales previously, but this is the first time they’ve been shown in Phnom Penh.
New for this exhibition, Lyno has created an architectural installation made of neon lights and images of Chumneang Pteah or spirit houses.
Samnang’s Popil consists of dual videos of a performance by dancers wearing dragon mask headdresses made from vines along with five photographs from actual popil, which are rituals Cambodians often perform ceremonially for baby showers, weddings, funerals and other important occasions. The passing of the popil in a circle symbolises the cycle of life.
“People perform this ritual to call the 19 souls a person has back to their body, because if any of the souls is missing that person will become sick or unstable. At weddings, people perform popil to call back the couple’s souls and ask for prosperity and children,” Samnang said.
Two Cambodian classical dancers – Mot Pharan and Sot Sovanndy – perform a choreographed dance for Samnang’s Popil that tells the story of the courtship between two dragons. In their energetic performance in the video, the pair flies, twists and twirls as they traverse the Kingdom.
Their movements and gestures express not only intimacy and love but also tension and conflict between them as they enact ritual narratives. Their presence across Cambodia’s geography suggests that beyond a romantic relationship there is also one that is political.
“Popil presents a love story describing the geography and changes in environment from the northern part of Cambodia to Phnom Penh and then the southern part of Cambodia, passing through mountains, forests and the rapidly growing cities on their way to the sea.
The dance is performed in the Cambodian classical style with different narratives of rituals that make offerings to the spirits of land, forest and water,” Samnang said.
Lim Sokchanlina’s Letter to the Sea is also a video and is accompanied by documents, a letter archive and related objects. It is focussed on Cambodian fishermen working in Thailand where that industry is notorious for its exploitation of labour, human trafficking, drug use and other illegal activities.
After visiting Thailand and learning the stories of many of the Cambodian fishermen working in boats in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea, Sokchanlina wrote about their experiences and then read what he’d written out loud at the bottom of the sea near Koh Kut, which is an island along the Thai-Cambodia border. “Back when I was doing my research in many places along Thailand’s coast from Pattani province to Trat province and even Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, I was asking myself how I could connect with the stories I was hearing from the Cambodian fishermen in Thailand,” he said.
He describes some of the hardships faced by Cambodian fishermen. They are exploited, abused and trafficked. Some become addicted to drugs and some become mentally-ill.
Sokchanlina dedicates his words to the spirit of the sea and to the spirits of the Cambodian fishermen who have died at sea.
“They live hard lives and some of them die while out at sea. I wanted to share their stories with other people but at the same time I also wanted to pay tribute and send condolences to all of them,” said Sokchanlina. The bubbling sounds from his lungs expelling air into the water as he tries to speak while submerged and the blurry imagery of him in the depths of the sea combine to drive home the poetic and haunting tales of gloom and crisis lived by Cambodians who work on fishing boats.
“I hope that the babble that emerges from my undersea reading allows my voice to reach out on their behalf to the rest of the world,” he said.
Lyno’s work Shrine (2022) is about Chumneang Pteah or Spirit House practices, which are influenced by traditional Chinese beliefs about the spirits who take care of each home that have been adopted by other Asian cultures over the centuries.
Cambodians also commonly follow the practice of placing a Chumneang Pteah – which look like miniature houses or temples – on the ground facing out to the entrances of their homes or businesses and they leave offerings to the spirits there. In contrast, Lyno’s Shrine is a human-scale Chumneang Pteah in skeletal fragments made of neon light tubes suspended in space. It radiates a fiery red glow and faces down from up above, confronting the exhibition goers as they walk into the gallery.
The other four wall pieces are made of alluring golden stainless steel that outline Chumneang Pteah in various forms. They are shiny and reflect like mirrors, producing ever-changing reflected images as the audience walks past them.
Between the lighting and the reflections reminiscent of fun house mirrors, Lyno’s installation creates a new experience through a vision of an otherworldly space where the audience and the house spirits can interact directly.
“I have created artwork using neon lights suspended in space before. However, this time, it is not installed in a grid structure that is parallel to the ground like last time. The neon light is presented angularly and tilting downward 20 degrees as if the Chumneang Pteah is flying from above towards the audience,” Lyno explained.
“The ceiling of the gallery’s front yard that the artwork is suspended from is also tilting downward one side. These two factors introduced a new challenge to the technique and the way we installed. It took us sometimes to figure it out. On the other hand, the four pieces of mirror shrines are made of golden stainless steel. It’s a new material for me to work with locally. It went through some tests for me to learn the nature of this material and how to best present it.”
Lyno said people easily made the association between his neon and steel creation with Chumneang Pteah because of their iconic shapes.
Exhibition attendees find the installation fascinating and they often pass back and forth in front of it several times to see the changing images in the reflections, which are unsettling in the way they warp everything, producing a visual sensation that can only be described as very strange.
“I’m very curious to learn more about how people in this neighbourhood and passers-by on the street respond to the red neon lights as it is all highly visible from the street,” said Lyno.
Sa Sa Art Projects was founded more than a decade ago with a mission to support the development of contemporary art in Cambodia. Chanveasna said they assist and promote younger Cambodian artists and their works locally and regionally through their education and residency programmes and exhibitions.
“I think we’re known best for our openness to experimentation in terms of both our programming and in what artists working with us are able to produce as well as our commitment to quality with everything that we do.
“We’ve also tried to facilitate a sense of community and listen to the changing needs of the artists. Our programme has evolved over the years to accommodate those needs, which are essential to the growth of the field.
“Looking back, the nature of Sa Sa Art Projects is that we learn and grow together and that is at the core of why we remain relevant,” said Chanveasna.