Cambodian artist addresses fragility and the resilience of humanity through artwork.
Amy Lee Sanford, a performance and installation artist living in Phnom Penh, is a prominent voice in Cambodia’s youth-driven contemporary art scene. Art Radar spoke with the artist to learn how her work takes on the sometimes turbulent shifts happening in Cambodia today.
Born in Cambodia, Amy Lee Sanford was spirited out of the country by her stepmother shortly before the downfall of the transitional Lon Nol government in 1974. Her Khmer father stayed behind to face Pol Pot’s ruthless regime, during which an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 million people perished between 1975 to 1979. Sanford remained in the United States until 2009, when she returned to Phnom Penh.
According to promotional material for the artist’s recent “1975” exhibition,”her art addresses the evolution of emotional stagnation, and the lasting psychological effects of war, including aspects of guilt, loss, alienation and displacement.” Sanford’s works encapsulate the fragility and transient nature of current Cambodian society while using common, everyday objects. Especially poignant are the letters displayed in “1975”, written by her father to her stepmother, speaking of the troubled times between 1968 to 1975 leading up to his death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Art Radar spoke to Amy Lee Sanford about her work and her recent exhibitions, including her involvement with the 2013 Season of Cambodia Festival in New York.
Season of Cambodia and Beyond
For your recent exhibition “1975” (27 April to 26 May 2013, New York) you worked together with two other artists and a curator. Is this your first collaboration?
Though most of my work has not been collaborative, “1975” is not my first collaboration. I greatly enjoyed watching the concept of this show take shape, working with two other amazing artists [Anida Yoeu Ali and LinDa Saphan] and the incredible curator, Chúóng-Ðài Võ.
Building Again, my performance piece from 2012 commissioned by Our City Festival (OCF) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, required working with OCF organisers, OCF Youth Ambassadors, masons, and the general public. Absent was the element of control, often found in my work, which created a stressful yet exciting environment. Passers-by contributed to the performance in an absolutely heartening way: after we had broken down the wall with hand tools, neighborhood children arrived and played on the “jungle gym” mound of brick rubble, and ended up being the driving force behind rebuilding the wall [the second phase of the performance]. So, the adults broke down the wall, and the children rebuilt it.
In “Unfolding” (2013) you tell the story of Cambodia’s (and your family’s) turmoil through art. Any audience reactions that you would like to share about the relevance of your exhibit in regards to contemporary society?
Yes! People recounted family letters they had, some were even sent out of occupied Germany to a relative in France during the World War II years. Another person emailed me a few days after seeing the “Unfolding” and “Fragments” series in my studio on Governor’s Island and shared how the work evoked a sort of longing because her grandmother had been adopted, and the secrets that emerged as the grandmother was dying. She told me that an unspoken connection she [the woman who visited my studio] had with her mother [who was also present at the studio] deepened as they stood silently, together, viewing the work, and she hoped that my work might become means through which she would be able to talk more to her mother, about the seeming taboo subject of her grandmother’s origins.
Situations like these are infinite: they are not only products of war and displacement; they are everyday occurrences, which many people keep tucked away only to be accessed through a trigger such as my artwork. I love hearing about what my work evokes and treasure the conversations immensely. My art, from Suspended to Full Circle  and the Single Break Pot  performances, to “Unfolding” and “Fragments” has become an offering of sorts and creates space for those often overlooked internal states of being. I sometimes refer to them as “dusty boxes”.
It is up to the individual to decide whether they will shine a light on their own boxes, tidy and blow off some dust, or perhaps even open one up. Alternately, they can choose to tie more string around the box, push it into deeper storage, attempt to minimise the size of it, or even try to fling it out of their lives… the choices and possibilities are infinite.
Logistically, how complicated was it to get your artwork from Cambodia to New York City for the Season of Cambodia festival?
Logistically, it wasn’t difficult for me at all for my work in “1975” because I store the letters in Boston, and specifically arrived early to the Season of Cambodia IN RESIDENCE programme in order to scan the letters, and make the prints and video.
Bringing the clay pots, however, for the Single Break Pot performances in New York City during the Season of Cambodia festival, on Governor’s Island (25 to 27 May 2013) and for the [upcoming] performance of Full Circle at Psi#19 at Stanford University was a different story. In order to bring 40 or more Kompong Chhnang [a province located in the centre of Cambodia] pots as excess baggage on EVA Airlines, I broke each pot equatorially, nested the two halves and stacked half after half after half into two 24” x 24” x 18” galvanized metal containers that I had made especially for this purpose. This process took two days to complete, and I am proud to report that upon arrival to [New York City’s] JFK airport, I found only one pot “accidentally broken.”
What one word would you say encapsulates your artwork? Why?
One word: Change. My work is about cycles, evolution, motion, the tension surrounding stagnation and fluidity, the tension surrounding harmony and turbulence, all of which speak about aspects of change.
Can you speak a bit about the tension between harmony and turbulence in your artwork?
One cannot appreciate harmony without having experienced turbulence, nor can one recognise turbulence without having seen harmony. These two states feed off of each other and are continuously dancing together. The tension arises when one attaches oneself too much to one state, when desire for a permanent state of harmony or turbulence develops.
Easing the burden of contemporary society through artwork
In your online biography, it states that your work “explores the evolution of emotional stagnation, and the lasting psychological effects of war, including aspects of guilt, loss, alienation, and displacement.” How do you feel that art can address these challenges in today’s increasingly globalised society?
Art can explore and express aspects of life that are extremely difficult to discuss as I wrote in my biography. If art can shine light onto such concepts and be shared with people on both the individual, and mass level, there exists the potential to lessen stagnation and psychological effects of all forms.
Please discuss your installation Building Again. What do you feel it reveals about contemporary Cambodian society?
Since my work addresses aspects of breaking and repairing, I thought it fitting to make a piece using bricks, literally the basic building blocks of a city. Building Again  was commissioned by Our City Festival, which was a festival created to invite discussion about the city we live in, namely Phnom Penh. It is important to me to use utilitarian objects in my work, that is, objects that most people can identify with. I think it is safe to say that most everyone in Cambodia has seen or used a common red brick for a myriad of purposes, and one of the strengths of this piece is the simplicity of bringing focus to something so marginal, yet so essential.
Can you please tell us more about “Cracks”.
The first of that series of broken glass sculptures is Broken, which I made in 2010. Broken is a reflection of my first year in Cambodia. I observed and felt the essence of layers upon layers of shatter within contemporary Cambodian society. I also observed and felt layers upon layers of piecing things together, finding ways to make things “work” again [whether that means the same function as before “it” was broken, or devising a new, different function], the creativeness and resourcefulness of Cambodians, and wanted to embody that.
I am also terrified of broken glass, having experienced a rather traumatic event during high school, involving bottles of home-brew suddenly falling and exploding around me (barefooted and barelegged). The thought of shattering panes of glass and then having to, not only, handle the shards but organise them in an extremely detailed manner, was intimidating for sure […] which is another reason I embarked on such a painstaking process. I would like to add that I did not cut myself once during the entire process.
What or who inspired your work around Full Circle? Are the pots made of clay from your father’s village?
The process of returning to my country of origin inspired the concept of Full Circle, though the performance itself is representative of universal cycles and change, both within and without. Although I completed breaking and repairing the forty pots, and therefore the circle, the metaphorical cycle repeats infinitely, without beginning or end.
The clay pots are from Kompong Chhnang province, where my father was from. Kompong Chhnang province is an area where many potteries and kilns are still located.
In regards to Full Circle can you speak more about “repackaging the past” and its importance to our lives now in 2013?
Regarding the physical process of putting pieces back together to form a whole, a new whole, or a different whole, I believe the metaphor of “repackaging the past” is relevant to all present times, in that I feel it is important to deal with the broken pieces of one’s past in order to live in the present. If we choose to not shift, change, evolve the broken pieces of the past, those pieces can become stuck, or glued, in place, like a barnacle on a rock, and the more time that passes without attempting to change this stasis, the more difficult it can be to live in the present time.
Are you inspired by any traditional forms of Khmer art in your work? Which ones?
I love the k’bach, the proportions, the balance, and [that] it is derived from nature.
You’ve been living in Cambodia since 2009. How has the Khmer contemporary art scene changed nationally and internationally since you arrived?
The contemporary Cambodian art scene has grown since I first arrived, in sheer numbers of artists and in our reach, both nationally and internationally. More galleries have established themselves in Battambang, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and more artists are exhibiting internationally.
- Cities of the future: What’s next for art and urbanism? Default 13 interview – May 2013 – A select group of artists from Asia and Europe gather to discuss “What is next in art, cities and regeneration?”
- Burmese artist Htein Lin breaks free of censorship and prison – interview – May 2013 – Former political prisoner Htein Lin discusses life and art before, during and after prison
- “It takes a village to raise a bug”: Cambodian performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali – Interview – March 2013 – Anida Yoeu Ali examines contemporary society with the Buddhist Bug Project
- First China solo exhibition for cut paper artist Bovey Lee – picture feast – January 2012 – Bovey Lee’s hand-cut art opens in Shanghai for first solo show in China
- Horrific events in Japan and how art helps – ART IT columnist Kyoichi Tsuzuki – June 2011 – Kyoichi Tsuzuki discusses Japanese art throughout the past century in response to disasters
Subscribe to Art Radar for more interviews from contemporary artists