Cambodian performance art: “Roundtables” seminar

A recent seminar in Phnom Penh turned the lens on performance art and the city.

A day-long seminar entitled “Roundtables: The Body, the Lens, the City”, held in Phnom Penh on 22 March 2014, discussed Cambodian performance art within the context of the cityscape, as well as the experience of using the body to make art.

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Performance artist Tith Kanitha, one of the participants in “Roundtables: The Body, the Lens, the City” day-long seminar held in Phnom Penh, March 2014. Image courtesy SA SA BASSAC.

Artists and the city: Introducing the seminar

Cambodia’s cities may well provide an exceptional case study for demands that the contemporary urban environment can make on artists: from the unbridled development of infrastructure to the brutality of their governance. Performance art may prove to be a particularly appropriate medium to address the urgency of attendant aesthetic-political issues.

These were some of the tacit implications of “Roundtables: The Body, the Lens, the City”, a day-long seminar organised by SA SA BASSAC and co-sponsored by Singapore’s Center for Contemporary Art (CCA). Furthermore, the seminar explored critical questions of documentation for performance and related practices. Here the question of not only who writes history but how history can be written hangs heavy.

The seminar was led by SA SA BASSAC Director Erin Gleeson, with Roger Nelson, a researcher and independent curator, and CCA Curators Vera Mey and Anca Rujoiu. There were approximately 30 participants, including artists Anida Yoeu Ali, Khvay Samnang and Svay Sareth. The enthusiasm of the participants was tangible throughout the day, suggesting the extant need for this type of event.

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“Roundtables: The Body, the Lens, the City” day-long seminar held in Phnom Penh, March 2014. Image courtesy SA SA BASSAC.

Performance art in Cambodia

Gleeson’s introduction pointed out that there has been a proliferation of performance practices in Cambodia since 2010, and she announced the discursive contribution of roundtables to other recent events, such as Para Site’s conference “Is the Living Body the Last Thing Left Alive?” in Hong Kong and New York University’s “Who Can Write About Performance Art?”

Mey’s keynote paper addressed risk in performance art, pointing to the paradoxically-named Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, where protests are only allowed at the discretion of Prime Minister Hun Sen. She explored the differential consequences of what it means for an individual to express their personal values and ideas in public: from the lone man famously photographed in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square to Lee Wen’s evocation of conflicts between his ethnic and national identity with Journey of a Yellow Man (1992), a performance that was banned in Singapore. Drawing on Foucault’s famous lectures Discourse and Truth, Mey ultimately challenged her audience with questions of who has the right to speak, and what it can mean to take a stand against laws and political institutions.

The three roundtable discussions which followed were structured around issues such as:

  • the experience of using the body
  • whether there is something distinctly ‘Khmer’ about making art using the body
  • whether the space where art is performed in belongs to the artist or the public
  • the need to document performance art.

Using the body beyond the body: Artist experiences

The artists participating in the conference shared their opinions and experiences with the art form. Than Sok stated:

I find it is important to use the body as it is related to place. In ‘You and Me’, I sit by the Vietnamese-Friendship Monument. I cover my head and show my big belly. Sometimes the body can perform itself and its shape can show social status.

Tith Kanitha said that she uses her body “to go beyond the body; to forget myself”. Anida Yoeu Ali spoke about the complexities of her return to Phnom Penh from a childhood in the US as a refugee. Che Kyongfa asked how the artist can take control of his or her story. Meanwhile, Svay Sareth provided a near-definitive sum-up of the nature of performance, saying

Performance is opposite to the process of how we learned to paint. It is only after I finish making a performance that I make a sketch. This is the process of editing video. I don’t pretend that video documentation can do much more than sketch a small impression of the process of my performance.

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“Roundtables: The Body, the Lens, the City” day-long seminar held in Phnom Penh, March 2014. Image courtesy SA SA BASSAC.

The seminar concluded with artists mapping performances that they have carried out in Phnom Penh and Battambang, highlighting their particular relationships to these cities. This allowed for insights to stem from semiotic understandings.

Therein lies the challenge: to hear and discern a cacophony of interests from Southeast Asia’s performance artists. If artists don’t speak about their practices, who will or should? And, moreover, what resources can be utilised to distribute knowledge? As the very idea of ‘Southeast Asia’ heats up for contemporary curators, writers, dealers and other vested interests, what are the ways that this conceptual entity can be encountered, resisted, or become enabling? Most urgently, where are we all likely to end up?

“Roundtables” proved itself as rich material to draw upon, no matter participants individual allegiance.

Brian Curtin

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Related Topics: Cambodian artists, lectures and talks, performance art, round ups, events in Cambodia

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