A Haunting Exhibition in Hong Kong

See also: A Difficult Defense(15 February 2009)

Three decades ago, Vann Nath was one of seven people who managed to survive the notorious Tuol Sleng concentration camp in Cambodia. His training as a sign painter was what kept him alive. The Khmer Rouge kept him alive with the idea of painting official portraits for the murderous regime of Pol Pot.

Today, two paintings by Vann Nath are being shown at the 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Hong Kong, alongside the work of 13 other Cambodian artists. His work serves as a visual testimony to the Cambodian genocide and as an inspiration for emerging contemporary artists in Cambodia. The curator , Erin Gleeson brings this heritage directly to light, as the show, Forever Until Now, covers three generations of artists that grew out of this recent chapter of their history, which saw the death of 1.7 million people.

12,000 people died at Tuol Sleng, known as S-21, now the Genocide Museum. Its sirector, Kaing Guek Eav, or “Duch”is the first of four Khmer Rouge leaders to be brought before the UN-backed war crime court in a long-delayed trial that is due to start tomorrow.

Vann painted medium format oil paintings, usually of scenes from his imprisonment. As the Hong Kong exhibition is at both the gallery’s SoHo and Chai Wan spaces, there is one of his paintings at each venue. Pray for Peace, is a departure from his usual scenes, as it is more symbolic and religiously oriented. There is a biblical feel to it as a praying horde kneels by a turbulent sea, with storm clouds with lightning overhead. His colors are as piercing as the emotive context and the style is naive which contributes to the force of the work.

The second painting, “First Day of Bath” depicts the first bath Vann was permitted to take during his prison term. He is sitting by the bath with a towel around him, looking at his bearded face in a small mirror. Gleeson and one of the exhibiting artists remember the painting when it was hanging in Vann’s studio, up in a dusty attic area, with Vann recounting the scene.

Rithy Panh made a documentary video on Vann walking through S-21 with the guards who were there with him, asking questions and re-enacting certain scenes. Even though the popular Cambodian filmmaker staged the overall scenes, its emotional charge is undeniable. He has Vann confronting his oppressors face to face in a ghost-filled encampment. Panh’s video dresses the stage for the rest of the exhibition which gets surprisingly lighter with each step.

10 Chancery Lane’s Director. Katie de Tilly, describes Leang Seckon as the “Basquiat of Cambodia.” Seckon belongs to a second generation of artists (born in the 1970s), who took advantage of the government’s non-interest in art to produce politically explicit images in such a colorful way that their message isn’t understood locally as criticism. Once the collage-like compositions are examined, images of the six regimes since the Khmer Rouge in a ladder form, with accompanying visual commentaries (The Ladder), the message is hard to ignore.

Most of the other artists are of the third generation, born in the 1980s, and although they are as resourceful as Vann and Seckon, they have freed themselves of political heaviness and produce work that is intelligent, whimsical and full of hope.

Sopheap Pich creates large-scale sculptures from rattan and steel wire. The pieces are organic and take on a life of their own in the studio, growing into almost embryonic forms. They are light and airy but the intricate shadows they give off enable them to take up a huge visual space.

Khvay Samnang presents a video of secondary school children’s identity pictures. They are somewhat mundane at first glance as they are all taken with the same light blue back drop and the same uniform, from the same distance. Ethnological study? In Cambodia, the image of S-21 prisoner identification pictures became so recognizable that even today, having more than one passport-style photograph is avoided. The confusion and discomfort in the eyes of these children becomes apparent. When interviewed afterward, all commented on feeling self-conscious (like any teenager) and like a prisoner. The title is simply Reminder.

See also: A Difficult Defense(15 February 2009)

From 13 February to 22 March at The 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, www.10chancerylanegallery.com.