Leeza Ahmady and Erin Gleeson speak to Art Radar about curating IN RESIDENCE, the contemporary visual art programme for Season of Cambodia, A Living Arts Festival in New York City, and making art history in Phnom Penh.

In April and May 2013, New York will host over 125 Cambodian artists for Season of Cambodia, a citywide celebration of the country’s arts and culture. Leeza Ahmady and Erin Gleeson have created IN RESIDENCE, a visual arts programme inviting New York audiences to engage with the work of ten Cambodian artists, one curator and numerous scholars and writers.

Svay Sareth, 'Mon Boulet', 2011, performance, documentation. Image courtesy the artist.

Svay Sareth, ‘Mon Boulet’, 2011, performance, documentation. Image courtesy the artist.

Anchored around two month residencies for the participating artists, IN RESIDENCE also includes exhibitions, installations, screenings and open studios at institutions such as MoMA, Asia Society Museum, Bose Pacia, LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island and Parsons The New School for Design. In this interview with Art Radar, Ahmady and Gleeson talk about the vision behind IN RESIDENCE and their hopes for the event’s long-term impact.

Could you talk about your backgrounds a little and explain what led you both to become involved with Season of Cambodia?

Leeza Ahmady (LA): Well my work has been mainly about Asia for the last eight to ten years, although I initially started with Central Asia. Of course, I’m the so-called expert on the region, there’s a few of us. I did a lot of research and groundwork trying to create visibility for Central Asian artists, digging up some art historical connections between what happened with Central Asia comparative with the rest of Asia. That’s been very big motive for me, looking at the relationships between the various regions of Asia as a curatorial idea, and it led to my work with Asian Contemporary Art Week. I think that somehow, through the grapevine, someone mentioned me to [Season of Cambodia CEO] Phloeun [Prim], and they connected the dots and thought I might be a good person to create a visual arts programme within the Season of Cambodia festival. It took some time for me to consider it because it’s a festival that involves film and performing arts, which are not my areas at all. But I thought that the initiative was very exciting and ambitious, and from the very beginning I’ve been really interested in connecting the many different disciplines to each other, and feeling like there are ways to interact and relate to other disciplines, so I found that an exciting possibility.

Erin Gleeson (EG): As for me, I’m on my eleventh year living and working in Cambodia. Initially, I arrived on a Fulbright grant to do research into photographic archives from the Khmer Rouge era, as well as teaching art history, and so my background for the first eight years was, and still very much is, in art education. I was working with local institutions on early art projects, implementing public programmes, and starting to build collections as well. That culminated in founding Bassac Art Projects from 2008, in which I found studio spaces, made publications, made curatorial projects, made documentary movies… all parts of what artists need beyond an exhibition. And that became SA SA BASSAC two years ago, which is co-founded with arts collective Stiev Selapak. For the last five years, I’ve given lectures and labs and workshops and residencies, and put together over forty exhibitions locally and internationally with Cambodian artists. I think my work with Season of Cambodia, and with Leeza, is an extension of all of those years because it’s required such a great deal of communication for such an extended time.

Sopheap Pich, 'Compound', 2011, installation view, at Henry Art Gallery, USA. Courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art.

Sopheap Pich, ‘Compound’, 2011, installation view, at Henry Art Gallery, USA. Courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art.

Connecting Cambodia through curation 

Can you describe your curatorial vision for IN RESIDENCE?

LA: One of the things that’s really important here is both of our love for the educational in the arts. Like Erin, I’m really interested in public programmes because I feel that, beyond an exhibition, there needs to be a way of relating an artist’s work to the public in a way that is digestible, in a way that allows people to engage with it, but also creates a feedback and reflection for the artist on their own practice. More and more, I’m not so attached to the idea of curating something just in terms of exhibitions but curating a particular practice so that both audiences and the artist are engaged with it. So, immediately, when we thought about how to communicate what’s going on in Cambodia with contemporary art, it was very overwhelming to think, ‘Okay, let’s just bring some artworks and paste them on a wall and say, here’s Cambodian art right now.’ I felt very uncomfortable doing that and wanted it to be different, not cleaning something up but complicating something. Of course, the two of us had lots of discussions, but we pretty much came immediately onto the concept of putting artistic practice at the forefront. And we thought the best way to do that would be to create a residency programme which we could spring this whole visual art programme from, to enable ten artists and an emerging curator to come to New York City and look at what their work means not just to the specificities of Cambodia but to the world at large.

What was it like working as a curatorial team, balancing the demands of the festival organisers, the artists and exhibitors in New York?

EG: Leeza and I have been working together for sixteen months now, so this kind of intensity, being in constant dialogue about histories and contexts and particular practices and personalities, the visual art history of Cambodia, its interdisciplinary history, it’s just been so intensive. And then we’ve also been able to have a sustained dialogue, and Leeza has then extended this to all of the partners in New York.

How did you select the artists participating in IN RESIDENCE?

EG: It was a long process, done with Leeza. We were focusing on the young generation, born from 1970 onwards, this was one criterion. Another thing was practices and looking for diversity within practices – performance practice, considering the collective, new media work – and then looking for the best within those. We looked at almost everything that was happening and filtered through what we believed was communicative of contemporary movements today. We looked for internationally conversant work, very experimental work, because we knew IN RESIDENCE would be process based. We also looked for practices that are popular in Cambodia today, that are really being thought about and questioned, such as performance practices. And practices that are new. We have a really representational selection of schools of thought from Cambodia, and also those from diaspora artists.

LA: I want to add to that. Everything that Erin said, it’s right on. The generation, the school of thought, educational backgrounds, but also the standard of work, and standard of critical reflection as well. It’s one thing to be an artist and make an artwork, it’s another to make an artwork and know why you’ve made that work and how it relates to many other works that were made before you, whether here or somewhere else. To have a connection and to be able to critically reflect on that, and to be able to question things, that is something that was very important for me to see in the artists we were selecting. It’s solely based on artistic merit, local and international standards. Our curatorial process is selective, so it’s not a reflection of every single thing that’s happening locally, and that was never our intention. It was a difficult process, we had to think a lot about these things and predict and project. But we also went through a rigorous process of asking for proposals from the artists before they were selected, asking what they would work on if they were picked to do a residency in New York.

Leang Seckon, 'The Power of Men', 2012, mixed media on canvas, 150 x 130cm. Courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Leang Seckon, ‘The Power of Men’, 2012, mixed media on canvas, 150 x 130cm. Courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Artists take up residence

Can you give Art Radar an overview of what will happen in each residency?

EG: Every artist has a two month residency and they’re placed with specific partners or institutions. For those months, they will be in their studio making new work, thinking about past work and developing the bridge between those projects. So they’re all involved in a process in the studio, some of them having their own studio for the first time, which is quite interesting. In Phnom Penh, only a few people have studios, so to be able to have a space in a studio is new for many of them. The curatorial resident Vuth Lyno will be visiting the artists weekly to interview them and document their processes, and this will become a dynamic blog. So they have this interaction with a Cambodian curator, and most will have visitors throughout their residency based on their host institution. Each residency host has their own programme to engage residents. Each one of them also has a public programme, and that differs for each artist, an open studio talk, a panel to talk about their work.

LA: The public programme is the second element of our curatorial vision. Instead of having this be an exhibition, having it be a residency-based programme, so that there is practise with a process, and then that process is connected to the public somehow. And so for some of the artists it happens through an actual studio opening in their residencies: some actually have mini exhibitions, some have the amazing large scale installations. For example, Vandy Rattana‘s Bomb Ponds is right now at The Asia Society Museum, it’ll be on view all the way through to June [2013]. Sopheap Pich‘s large scale installation at Winter Garden at the World Financial Centre, an incredible space, a large building with thousands of people going through it every day, this piece is going to be right in the centre for, like, three weeks. And the artist Lim Sokchanlina, who’s making a beautiful photographic project called “Wrapped Future” that deals with how fences are put up all over Phnom Penh. Behind the fences, we don’t know exactly what’s going on, but that’s the question, the exploration of what happens behind the fence. But also it becomes a place for this artist to think about photography, and the BAM Cultural District proposed he come and work with the fences which are by the theatre. So when he comes here he will find out what he will do: it might be building it, painting it, something related to the community. We have that kind of approach with almost every artist that’s going to be here.

Lim Sokchanlina, 'Russian Confederation Boulevard, between Street 225 and Street 221', 2009, digital c-print, 70 x 110 cm. Image courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC.

Lim Sokchanlina, ‘Russian Confederation Boulevard, between Street 225 and Street 221’, 2009, digital c-print, 70 x 110 cm. Image courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC.

Intriguing art, intriguing audiences

Do you think New York audiences will be surprised by any of the contemporary Cambodian art they encounter during the festival?

LA: That’s a hard one for me to answer. I’m not sure there is an element of surprise in the art world any longer! I’m more comfortable with the word ‘intrigued’; for sure I think there will be an element of intrigue. Every time I share the programme with someone they’re so impressed with its scale. And from the very beginning I knew I wanted to do something that involved many different institutions. Because for me and Erin, this festival is really not just about a show-and-tell: it’s about how we can create a difference for the artists and create something they are able to take home for themselves and the community. This is not a humanitarian project for me, and I don’t want to talk about it in that way, but I’m interested in advancing artistic practice and artists’ ability to look at their work and question it. I’m really interested in that. I’m hoping that’s what the New York City art world will also connect to, an inquiry rather than statements.

EG: I’m so looking forward to hearing how people react, what encounters people have together. Because the public programme is designed to allow people to have those encounters, so that’s what I really want to learn as well, what are those encounters, those reactions?

Is there a part of IN RESIDENCE that you are particularly pleased with?

LA: Something that we’re both very proud of is our diligence in making sure we have some kind of academic symposium that connects to the history of art in Cambodia. Many places when there’s art emerging, there’s always this tendency for them to be categorised as if this art is coming out of nowhere, like this has just happened, and people are so shocked and surprised. But everything happens because something else happened before, and it is very important to really make sure that we had a way to wring that out. So we connected with Cornell University and they were incredibly generous in co-organising an academic symposium which brings together a number of scholars to talk about what has happened in Cambodia in the past, and connect it to what’s happening right now.

Khvay Samnang, 'Untitled', 2011, digital c-print. Image courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC.

Khvay Samnang, ‘Untitled’, 2011, digital c-print. Image courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC.

Art history in the making

What do you want the legacy of this event to be for the arts community in Cambodia?

LA: For me, I think I’m much more interested in the individual impact. If there’s an impact on the practice of one artist from this experience, if they could be impacted in some way to think about their work, to shift it and evolve it, to be happy and to move forward and to have connections in the international arena. One reason we worked so hard to be involved with so many institutions here was because we want these artists to be able to show and work and have a future in other ways with the international community and with the New York community. From my perspective, the legacy will not necessarily be only in Phnom Penh, which I think will be great and I’m hoping many of these artists will go back and be even more connected with the community, but it’s more about the circles that ripple outwards in more profound ways.

EG: We’re proud and excited to be having a symposium, Contemporary Art in Cambodia: A Historical Inquiry. And, for me, I think that will leave a very strong legacy for scholarship and art history. The papers will be published and will be the first art history resource to come back to Cambodia, papers based on them and their history. And this, for me, is very meaningful. We’re bringing in scholars from very different parts of the world, coming together, all of us, for the first time, and sharing our experiences through our knowledge and through our papers. It’s a very discursive event, significant time given to discussions, and the transcript will be included in the published reader and this will be translated into Khmer. So it will be a resource for those looking into Asian art histories and also for a local audience to have insight into their histories which are not yet written.

LA: If you think about it, the very fact that we have all these incredible partners who have come on board, it’s an indication of their interest, it’s an indication they want to know what’s out there. For us to have MoMA host a symposium is incredible, part of what’s happening there is MoMA realising that this conversation of East-West, West-East is no longer relevant. Art is a worldwide practice and it has been for decades and decades. And they must find ways of connecting with those realities and bringing those missing patches into the fore right now. Already, the fact that this is happening is an indication of a huge change within the Asian arts scene itself: the idea of a small country like Cambodia having a programme citywide in New York would have been something that might have been dismissed ten years ago. But now it’s right here.


Related topics: Cambodian artists, curatorial practice, visual art festivals, art world trends – Asia expandsinterviews with art curators

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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