With her textile installation, “The Buddhist Bug Project”, Cambodian artist Anida Yoeu Ali meditates on urban displacement and spiritual turmoil.
Anida Yoeu Ali, a performance artist and “global agitator”, speaks with Art Radar about the metamorphosis of contemporary art in Cambodia and about her most recent artistic staging, “The Buddhist Bug Project”, which she recently brought home to Phnom Penh.
“The Buddhist Bug Project” was created by Anida Yoeu Ali (b. 1974) as a response both to her own “spiritual turmoil between Islam and Buddhism” and the quickly changing urban and rural landscape of Cambodia. The Bug is constructed of Lycra, expands to over forty metres in length and can “coil up into a small orange ball”.
To date, the Bug has been shown in Chicago at the North Park Nature Centre and Sullivan Galleries and in Singapore at the third Singapore International Photo Festival. Its latest stop is a celebratory one, as Ali has brought the Bug back to Cambodia, the place of the her birth. The Bug’s current exhibition is being held at JavaArts in Phnom Penh from 1 March to 7 April 2013.
Ali, who was born in Battambang, Cambodia and raised in the United States, returned to Cambodia in 2011 and established Studio Revolt with collaborative partner Masahiro Sugano. Ali is a “writer and global agitator”, who uses performance art to examine the “artistic, spiritual and political” aspects of contemporary society. A recipient of the 2011 Fulbright Fellowship to Cambodia, Ali was awarded a BFA in Graphic Design from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and an MFA in Studio Arts/Performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Read on for our extensive interview with Cambodian artists Anida Yoeu Ali about her “Buddhist Bug Project”.
Buddhist Bug 101
Where was “The Buddhist Bug Project” born?
The Bug is a result of my transnational hybrid refugee experience. The Bug originated in Cambodia, but was sketched out in Chicago, where I was raised. When s/he [the Bug] came back to Cambodia… I carried her back to Cambodia with us when we moved back here in 2011. In 2012, s/he reappeared in Cambodia, where the project seems to be more fully realised.
[Editor's note: During the interview, Ali referred to the Bug as "s/he" and, in some instances, "her". Art Radar has left these references intact.]
Did any traditional Khmer performance arts influence your design?
No. I am not referencing any traditional Khmer performance arts. The influence and inspiration came after giving birth to my first child. We had this collapsible play tunnel that really intrigued me structurally. What it was able to do was expand into this tunnel in which my daughter could climb into and have loads of fun, and then it could easily collapse and be put away. That structure really appealed to me. As I looked at it for a long time, I started to sketch things in my notebook that ultimately became the Bug. That idea of creating a soft sculpture from an expansive fabric that could easily fold up and be carried on my back is a direct reference to the refugee experience and the fact that we left our countries and arrived at the camps with nothing but the clothes on our backs.
Tell us about the construction of the Bug. How long did it take to fabricate the piece? Did you make it by yourself or with a team of fabricators?
This body of work that I am premiering here in Cambodia is what I am referring to as the ‘first generation’. It’s the first generation of “The Buddhist Bug Project”. What that means is that it is using the prototype fabric, it’s using the prototype installation/costume that the Bug has embodied. This particular piece was designed by myself, inspired by a child’s play tunnel. It was very difficult for me to find a seamstress to get it [the concept] and want to help me problem solve it and make it the way I wanted to make it with thirty metres of fabric. I found a young fashion student designer named Max Horn, and he really liked the idea and took on the challenge and really made it happen for me in that early prototype phase. The costume that I brought to Cambodia is essentially his design, I mean, his construction.
What I did was I remade the head and the tail because it wasn’t looking the way that I wanted it to look in the photographs. It was looking a little too DIY, homemade. I actually rethought it and worked with an amazing head teacher at the Friend’s Sewing Workshop. Friends is also part of Friends-International, a huge non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works with street kids and their families to get them jobs. One portion is the restaurant business, training them in the restaurant field, and the other one is in … sewing and in making products. Their sewing workshop is open to the public to come and get things made. Dana Langlois actually was the one who told me about the Friend’s Sewing Workshop and that I should give them a ring and visit it and see if I like it. I was looking for someone who could problem solve what I was trying to do with this project.
I found an amazing head teacher [at the Friend's Sewing Workshop]. She just figured it out and showed me samples and was so enthusiastic about the project. She’s [the head teacher] just been the person I turn to for all my crazy dresses. She helped with the Red Naga and the crazy black and white … Vertigo Dress. That one [the Vertigo Dress] was me and her working side-by-side figuring out what materials to use and how to make this circular, tent-like dress that I wanted.
She started with the Bug. The Bug was the first task. The biggest part of the Bug was making the hijab part, what I call the hijab, the head scarf portion, and making it as clean and seamless as possible, and to cover my hair fully. You [still] know [that the Bug is] a human, of course. I was trying to make something that covered as much as possible.
Why a bug?
This project is so very layered for me and has so many meanings and so many points of engagements and encounters. I think that first I thought about the Bug and the word ‘bug’ in English. Coming from a poetry and spoken-word background, I play with words and I play with their meaning. People who know me personally know that I am a very ‘punny’ person, so the issue of religion has literally bugged me for so long that whether I call it spiritual turmoil or just an issue that has literally ‘bugged’ me, that’s really where it came from. I thought, I am already thinking of the creature and I’ve got this itch that needs to be scratched. This itch is called religion and I am not really sure from where the place of religion is for me. But I would really like to explore it within the aesthetics of religiosity, like using the hijab and looking at the colour orange in relationship to saffron robes. Let’s tease this out in its visual form and see if I can enter into this realm through its aesthetic presentation.
Is there anyone else in there with you? Typically, how long does a Bug performance last?
There’s always someone who helps me embody the Bug. The actual Bug, when s/he appears and is in full character, s/he is there for a really short amount of time. In many ways, s/he is performing for that moment that is going to be captured on this still or the video. However, the performance can be considered the whole thing. From the days before, when we go into the communities and scout and talk to people and see what the possibilities are, until we show the piece, that entire duration can be considered part of the performance because that is the project.
How does the audience react to the Bug?
People become very curious, you know, they don’t get it. Even in translation, when I translate [the project] into Khmer, they think it’s an orange coloured caterpillar. At the same time, I am not saying that people’s reactions and the way that they suspend belief in the moment [is wrong]. They know. They see me getting into the body of it. They see two people in it. Once we are in it and in character, they are still amazed. They are like part of this new reality, this surreality, that we’ve created, and they are engaged. They definitely point and laugh and have conversations. Others just watch, watch to see what [she or he] does in there.
Performance art is very new to Cambodia. Contemporary art is also very foreign to Cambodians. People essentially enjoy watching so that they can experience something. That end experience, I don’t think any of us knows what kind of impact it makes or what kind of impression it makes upon the audience and the people witnessing it. I think that it’s okay that it goes unanswered and unplanned. My performances are ephemeral and [that's] why I love to perform in the moment. It doesn’t matter what people’s expectations are, it’s about engaging in that moment and reacting in the moment.
Children love the Bug. They totally engage. They come up to her. They get freaked out and then they want to play, tease and taunt her, hold her and pet her. Children have the best reaction.
Does the silence of the Bug disturb the audience?
Silence is provocative. Silence says so much. As Americans, you want to fill that silence in all the time. As audience members, we poke and prod and heckle when we don’t get what we want to see, but for her [the Bug], I think that the silence is really a powerful space for her to be in. In each moment, this is the part of spirituality that kicks in, s/he’s trying to transcend in each moment. It’s just that s/he gets distracted in these encounters and then s/he has to deal with these human aspects of what it means to exist in the real.
What is the significance of the Bug being able to expand outside of normal human boundaries and then become very small?
Portability. S/he’s a kind of paradox in many ways. S/he’s supposed to be this being that takes up so much space, and her own persona and [her] actions are such that s/he is a very slow mover. It’s really painstakingly slow for her to travel. We’re not sure if s/he eats. S/he definitely doesn’t speak. S/he just tries to exist in the moment. In that moment, s/he decides, when s/he looks at a space and looks at the environment, s/he kind of decides how her body is going to navigate that terrain and how her body is going to blend, but s/he knows s/he is not going to blend. That’s the quirky and strange and paradoxical thing: s/he tries to blend and s/he tries to adjust.
In the cyclo shot [photograph], s/he’s trying to figure out how to get on the cyclo so that her entire body is on there, and then you see this beautiful composition it created from this knot of a being who tries to coil herself up so she can be transported. A cyclo is such that s/he can’t be this really long being. It would be impossible for her to travel on it. However, that spiral staircase that s/he found in that back alley, s/he just thought it was so perfect. It was almost like it was calling out to her because her entire body fit so beautifully. It was like s/he was home for an instant.
What can the bug teach us about Contemporary Cambodia?
Aesthetically, does the saffron colour signal that the Bug is Buddhist to your audience in Cambodia? What about in other places that you have performed?
Yes, people definitely see the orange and they do remark. First of all, they do not necessarily automatically make the association to Buddhism, [but] they can’t help but notice that that’s quite a lot of orange. If you are from Southeast Asia, you know that that orange is quite distinctly related to some kind of monk robe.
I think that’s why the project wasn’t as successful in Chicago, because of the codes within. The only clue is the name. Of course, if I reference it as the Buddhist Bug, then people would go, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I think that’s okay, too. It’s supposed to be kind of a quirky project.
How does “The Buddhist Bug Project” communicate your turmoil between Buddhism and Islam with the audience?
The Bug communicates her turmoil just by existing; her ability to want to blend in with these various communities; to take a boat ride with the Cham lady who is trying to row her someplace. How does s/he know where to row this bug when the Bug doesn’t talk? Those kinds of situations that arise are all metaphors that I am trying to unravel for myself and then trying to better understand where I am with my relationship to a divine energy.
Is there a large Islamic community in Cambodia?
There isn’t a large Islamic community, but at least there is [one]. Before the Khmer Rouge, the Islamic community numbered 5 percent, after the Khmer Rouge, half of them [the Khmer Islamic community] were killed or targeted. That left behind only 2 to 2.5 percent of the population. It really scarred the community and demographics.
What has “The Buddhist Bug Project” told you about displacement in contemporary Cambodia?
In terms of issues of displacement, in her existence s/he is a result of this displacement, but at the same time, this makes her more empathetic to various communities that s/he is in.
For example, s/he goes to a Cham fishing village. This village is very interesting because they are currently at the river-front on the side of the river where this giant hotel is about to be built and has been trying to be built for two or three years now. An enormous hotel run by this mega-wealthy, rich man. That small fishing village, the more that the land gets developed and constructed, especially recently, was actually pushed and displaced further away from the river, further from where they were used to docking. So we went into that community, and as an artist I wanted to make that relationship to the urbanisation and the displacement of this community. Even if you don’t see it in the photos, there is a reason why this community was selected for the Bug. Not only because they were a Muslim community particularly, but because they are a small fishing village that is being displaced by [the] rapid urbanisation that is happening.
What has “The Buddhist Bug Project” told you about belonging in contemporary Cambodia?
I think it’s going to take the Bug a lifetime to figure out what belonging means and what acceptance means for her, and what it means for the people that s/he encounters and the community that s/he gets to engage in. Belonging is both: Does s/he belong to the world and to these communities as much as s/he wants belonging herself? Is her presence as a contemporary art piece enough because it is a presence in which we shift the engagement of contemporary art outside a gallery space and into the performative moment, into these communities and ordinary places?
Why do you think the Bug is able to move freely within Cambodian society?
I think the Bug speaks to the transnational ability of art. It [art] crosses borders and enters neighborhoods, enters communities, travels into imaginary spaces, inventive spaces as much as geopolitical spaces.
Is there a difference in people’s reactions in urban and rural locations in Cambodia?
I don’t see a difference. I think the dichotomy is false in terms of distinct differences. It’s more about it being different communities and neighborhoods and kinds of people that gather. We’ve not had any terrible experience at all with her. I think that the only moment as a team that seemed like it was a little more like a “freak show” was when we put her on the remorque [a flatbed trailer] and s/he started to travel in the streets of Phnom Penh. That felt a little unsettling, because why was s/he being hauled on this remorque to this destination? Then, is s/he like that kind of creature that has to be chained down? It did feel like that for a moment. I was in persona the whole time, and, of course, I was quiet and moving and looking as much as they were looking and gawking at me all over the streets, and people pulled out their cellphones to take a picture of her. The traffic slowed down and people would gawk and look. I am still trying to tease out and figure out what’s the right balance to make it not be like a freak show and be more about just an experience that can be beyond that initial façade of it being too strange to be part of.
Contemporary art in Cambodia
Can you speak about the social landscape in regards to contemporary and performance art in Cambodia?
It’s a really exciting time to be an artist in Cambodia. I think that the community here is charged with an interest in innovation and in self discovery. It’s a very small community here, but it’s a growing community. That is what is going to keep propelling artists as they learn to talk about their work, see other people’s work and talk amongst their peers critically about their work. It’s an emerging scene.
I have such a deep respect for the artists who were educated here or who learnt to be artists here because there is no institutional support for contemporary art here in Cambodia, but yet an ecology of the arts still exists to the point that artists have been extremely resourceful in creating some of the amazing work that is here. Performance art is a big part of that scene.
How is the practice or action of performance art different in Cambodia and the United States?
There aren’t a lot of people doing it here [in Cambodia] and there isn’t a lot of historical knowledge and historical referencing of [local] pivotal pieces. Learning about performance art in the United States [means] learning about key artists that have paved the way, and their iconic pieces. All of that is within the frame of art history. In Cambodia, it’s anything goes. This is maybe even more freeing. Nobody is tied to anything. So what if people here are supposedly copying something and are not aware [that] it’s already been done. It’s okay. Art history doesn’t begin in the West and doesn’t have to be in relationship to Western notions of modernity or a contemporaneity.
People should experiment and see. So many of these young artists have access to the Internet and they are downloading and watching so many different things and acquiring knowledge through the digital media, which is becoming their resource and source of education. Within that, there’s not always context. They can do a Google image search on something or video search and it does not necessarily give context about the work and the significance of the work and where it was coming from and why that point of time in history is significant or topic important. Context is different here: the past is so recent here.
Did moving to Phnom Penh add to or distract from your artwork?
It completely inspired and sparked me. I’ve never been this prolific, or haven’t been this prolific in a long time.
Current and future installations
Tell us about the involvement of the Philanthropic Museum with “The Buddhist Bug Project” and the current installation at JavaArts Gallery in Phnom Penh.
Patricia Lavasseur de la Motte is an independent curator. During our tour in Singapore in early 2012, she caught one of our lectures. She was really interested in “The Buddhist Bug Project”. In fact, she was the one who introduced the work to the Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF 3) and that was when we premièred the first five photos from the first generation of work [that] we did. When we did finally put that out there for the world to see, I was really kind of reluctant to display the Bug on that scale because I didn’t think s/he was ready yet.
After the SIPF 3 exhibition, I felt that I didn’t want to exhibit the Bug in another country before Cambodia. I feel a responsibility to give it to the land and the people who are currently hosting the Bug right now, where s/he is travelling , being filmed, performing and being documented through this landscape. I thought that 2013 is the year that I am going to realise the Bug and to really pull all of my resources together, to really give her to the world, but that begins in Cambodia. Dana [Langlois] at JavaArts had an opening slot coming up for a solo exhibition and I just thought that it was time. I really wanted to showcase the work, not the photographs, with the installation, with live performance, to see the Bug in the moment and then see the photos and the video that archive the Bug’s presence and performance through the different sights and within [the] different communities that she had come into contact [with].
Patricia helps run the Philanthropic Museum. She’s been such a big fan and [has been] trying to help me figure out a way to get the work supported. One idea was to host it on the Philanthropic Museum’s site. We thought it would be great to pull all the resources together and do an exhibition that is both live at JavaArts and then can have another layer to it, which is to have an exhibition online for one month on the Philanthropic Museum’s [website]. They are offering to post the photos and videos, which have never been seen by a wider public, and for one month only people will be able to see her [the Bug] video, which explores more of her narrative. We’re hoping to unveil, specifically through the Philanthropic Museum, one new video that is not shown at JavaArts so that the museum can get something unique. JavaArts has its own unique presence of the Bug.
Click here to view the two “Buddhist Bug” videos on the Philanthropic Museum website. (Available for viewing until 7 April 2013.)
I am getting a lot of interest for it [the Bug]. I am just really excited to share the Bug with others. It’s a homecoming, and just celebratory. People should want to know more about her. It takes a village to raise a Bug. I am very proud of working with the Friend’s Sewing Workshop and the team, led by Srun Srey Peou and her assistants Sreylen Kung and Tep Yav. They have been partners through this, and they are very excited to come to the show at JavaArts.
Tell us about your involvement with the Season of Cambodia festival, which is being held in New York in the spring of 2013.
I am involved in Season of Cambodia and I was involved in its early stages as it was part of my Fulbright work. Cambodian Living Arts actually introduced me to [the] Season of Cambodia idea in its very early stage, and I helped [to] do a survey of the visual artist community and to develop a relevant theme based on the curators at the time that I had spoken to and surveyed. I also ended up helping them put some presentations together…, giving them language, presentations and context, so that they can talk to funders and other people about the significance of the work.
For the festival, they asked me to be the coordinator for the diaspora panel that is being pulled together for NYU (New York University), and that’s my contribution to the festival, which is “The Legacy of Now” panel with Pete Pin, Prumsodun Ok, LinDa Saphan and Amy Lee Sanford, all of whom I am a huge fan of and I know their works. I am looking forward to having this facilitated discussion with all of them.
How significant do you feel Season of Cambodia is for Khmer art, both nationally and internationally?
I do think that the Season of Cambodia is an extremely significant event because it is taking Cambodian and Cambodian diaspora art to a world stage. It’s a moment where we get to redefine ourselves beyond that global image of Cambodia being stuck with just Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields. It moves the conversation beyond that to one of creation, innovation and not destruction and trauma.
- DEEP S.E.A.: Khvay Samnang, Aditya Novali and Donna Ong’s tales of three cities - February 2013 – three Southeast Asian approaches to urbanisation
- Indian artist Nikhil Chopra’s performance work premiers in Australia - October 2012 – Indian artist evokes history and memory with perfomance piece
- Red stools central in first JavaArts Cambodian artist residency-picture feast - September 2012 – more art from Anida Yoeu Ali
- Hermès, Hiroshi Sugimoto collaboration results in wearable art photography - August 2012 – Hermès and Hiroshi Sugimoto join forces to print art onto silk scarves
- Phnom Penh artists respond to vanishing lake, rapidly changing lifestyle-curator Erin Gleeson - May 2012 – rapid urban development drives next generation of artists in Phnom Penh
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