I Want to Get Married Drawings, video and performance by Srey Bandaul Curated by Dana Langlois Showing 11 May – 30 June, 2016 Java Café Independence Monument 56 Sihanouk Blvd, Phnom Penh
Srey Bandaul uses parody and appropriation as an artistic tool to confront the complications of Cambodia’s past, identity, social values and artistic practices. The title “I want to get married” is a metaphor for understanding each other and compromise. For Bandaul, it is a coming together of ideas and the acknowledgement of history that allows for criticality and eventually reinvention. This for Bandaul serves as a platform for him to dissect several issues. The most obvious is his use and reference to iconic works of European modern art in a series of seven drawings. He has recreated them as “Cambodian” versions – using Cambodian landscapes, food and recent events. It is a parody to call attention to what he identifies as “cultural colonialism” – which he distinguishes from political colonialism. He does this because he believes it is important, especially for artists, to acknowledge the influence of European culture and art. At the same time, it serves as a framework for a critical look at more current affairs. When talking about the past, he identifies three significant figures that influenced the direction of contemporary art in Cambodia today: George Groslier, Suzuki and Veronique Decrop. Each had very different, but important impacts on what today is practiced as contemporary art. George Groslier was the founder of l'École des arts Cambodgiens in 1918, later established as the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) after independence from the colonial protectorate. Groslier, who was born and died in Cambodia, applied Western academic methods to furthering the knowledge and practice of traditional Cambodian arts. He, like his colleagues, was known for his stance that Cambodian arts and crafts should remain pure and free from outside influence. In more recent times that has drawn criticism, as stated by Penny Edwards, historian, “In the colonial context, however, this was a frozen mirror, fashioned largely by Europeans, in which Khmers saw not themselves but the perfected projections of French imaginings. Looking at colonialism’s mirror, in its monumental, museological, textual, and cartographic forms, Khmers were constantly reminded of what was to become a core preoccupation of postcolonial nationalism. What they saw was their own absence, the daily reiteration of their status – the status of contemporary Cambodians – as vanished.”1 At the end of the French protectorate, and its waning influence, Suzuki, a Japanese painter and professor at the school of art, set up a studio in 1948 to create “new” and “modern” art. He asserted that art should not simply reproduce reality but be a form of self-expression. Suzuki had a great influence over several artists, like Nhek Dim and Sam Keng Chang, who would become leaders of establishing a new voice that drew on past traditions but were decidedly modern. This ideal would be the defining influence of the 50s and 60s on culture, art, literature, architecture, film and music as Cambodia emerged as an independent nation.2 Then lastly, and probably most important for Bandaul, is Veronique Decrop, who in 1986 founded a drawing school at the refugee camp Site 2 and later became co-founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak with Bandaul and eight other artists. When recalling his experiences, he talks about Decrop using art as therapy to heal the trauma of war and “imprisonment” in the refugee camps.3 In Contemporary Southeast Asian Performance: Transnational Perspectives, Decrop is said to have “encouraged drawing on location and taught the elements of perspective, but she refused the use of grids or rote copying exercises and never altered a student’s work. Her approach was immensely popular with young students, but controversial in camp administrative circle, Cambodian and foreign
Edwards, Penny. Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945. University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2007, p. 61 Wubin, Zhang. “Mekong Spring: Cambodian Photography in the Last Decade.” Perspectives, Asia Art Archive, March 2012 Vachon, Michelle. “Book and Exhibition Look at How Cambodian Culture Found a New Identity in the 1950s and ’60s." The Cambodia Daily, January 5, 2002 3 Wright, Louisa. "An Arts Dynamo Born in Site Two Refugee Camp." Phnom Penh Post, November 25, 2014 2
alike. …Decrop conceived the work of the school [Phare Ponleu Selpak] to constitute an ongoing critique of the neo-colonial structures at work in the camp.”4 Bandaul proposes that the past, the influence of colonialism, is integral to understanding Cambodia today. He often uses the term colonialism in a generalized way to refer to foreign influence on Cambodia, saying that it shouldn’t be dismissed simply because it is uncomfortable. He challenges the idea that colonialism is all bad, contrary to nationalistic trends, and that in fact it had a lasting impact on art practices, many of them positive. He sums up this point saying, “If you are talking about art in Cambodia, you cannot separate or reject the French Colony. You have it in your body and in your spirit. So even if you want to reject it, you cannot.” But like any conversation, it is not simply black and white, good or bad. In each of the seven drawings, Bandaul explores simultaneously the influence and meaning of the artwork while interrogating the artist’s morality and recent social injustices in Cambodia. Bandaul started by choosing famous works of European modern art to startle the viewer in a way that draws their attention to the details, the differences, to infer meaning: Starry Night, a notable post-impressionist work by Vincent Van Gogh, painted from the room of a mental institute where he voluntarily admitted himself after mutilating his left ear. There are several works by Van Gogh from the perspective of his window, but this one remains unique because of Van Gogh’s addition of an idealized village that was not actually there. In this piece, Bandaul has changed the symbolic cypress tree to a large palm tree with recognizable buildings and structures of Phnom Penh in the background. Bandaul here reflects on the life of Van Gogh and his tendency towards drink, prostitutes and indulgence that poses a mirror of today’s society obsessed with self-serving economy that puts progress above social values – ironically represented here with an “idealized” Phnom Penh skyline. The Scream by Edvard Munch, an expressionist artist, painted the “scream” series between 1893 and 1910. Munch talked about creating these works when he observed a blood red sky over a fjord in his home country Norway and he “sensed a scream passing through nature.” It has been often debated what the work is about and what prompted his strong emotional response to the scene, but like his contemporaries he sought to create works that brought together the observable world and the one that is sensed and felt. Bandaul chose this work, because like the main character, that is spirit-like in appearance, he senses a silent scream moving through Cambodia. A scream of frustration from social injustice, represented by the three figures in the drawing, themselves victims of impunity.
Prenowitz, Eric and Thompson, Ashley. "Cambodia's Trials: Theatre, Justice and History Unfinished." Contemporary Southeast Asian Performance: Transnational Perspectives. Ed. Cohen, Matthew Isaac and Noszlopy, Laura. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. p. 94, 95
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, was a significant work that challenged the institutionalization of art, and the gate-keepers that decided what was art and what wasn’t. Duchamp originally signed the work as “R. Mutt” and submitted it to Society of Independent Artists, which he helped establish. Despite the Society’s founding principle to accept all works submitted by members, the Fountain was rejected and censured. In a similar act of provocation Bandaul has repeated the image of the Fountain over an empty field, the recently filled in Boeung Kak Lake. A symbol of challenging current economic and political practices in the same way that Duchamp confronted art institutions. Bandaul also refers to the Fountain in his installation, signing an ammunitions box with a pseudonym. (Left: Marcel Duchamp (Toilet in the Middle of the Field), Srey Bandaul, pencil on paper, 2016)
Persistence of Memory is a surrealist work by Salvador Dali, painted in 1931. Central to Dali’s work is the exploration of the “softness” and “hardness” of time, here represented by melting clocks. For this particular work, Dali was asked if he was influenced by Einstein’s theory of relativity and its mathematical explanation of the space-time fabric, he replied no, it was a “surrealist perception of camembert melting in the sun.” In this drawing, Bandaul has the ants on a pocket watch, Dali’s symbol of decay, with a beetle, typically found in Cambodia, that eats wood. The landscape is replaced by the contested site of Prey Long where much of the forest has been destroyed. Here, the symbol of time for Bandaul is the urgency of environmental issues in Cambodia and how illegal logging and the loss of ancient rainforests are having a devastating impact on the environment. (Right: Salvador Dali (Prey Lang Jungle), Srey Bandaul, pencil on paper, 2016)
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon) is an iconic painting by Pablo Picasso, painted in 1907. The painting portrays five women from a brothel, not traditionally flattering or alluring but angular and flattened to 2 dimensional plane, an influence from African and tribal art. This was a radical shift from traditional European painting and would later become the foundation for the cubist movement. In selecting this piece, Bandaul makes a moral commentary on the proliferation of prostitution. The faces of the female figures are modified to look “Cambodian” and the food on the table have been changed to local fruits and “num ansom,” a traditional phallus symbol made of steamed rice and banana wrapped in banana leaf. (Left: Pablo Picasso (Mademoiselle Battambang), Srey Bandaul, pencil on paper, 2016)
Impression, Sunrise, is a painting by Claude Monet in 1872 that depicts his hometown of Le Havre. It was exhibited in a group show called “Exhibition of Impressionists” and is credited for firmly establishing the impressionist movement. It was criticized in its time for appearing unfinished and carelessly painted. Bandaul recreates the scene to show Vietnamese fisherman on the Tonle Sap. Contested land rights and a difficult history between Cambodia and Vietnam have been a source of tension and political debate fueled on by nationalism. Bandaul brings attention to the issue and the impact on the lives of immigrants who have suffered as a result. In Paul Gaugin’s When will you marry? is an interesting example of colonial attitudes of the exotic. In it are two young Tahitian women, one in traditional clothes and the other in typical high-necked western style dress. Painted in 1892, Gaugin misrepresented the Tahitian culture as idealized tribal culture that sought only to “sing and make love.” Although not immediately successful, the works remained as an influence on the collective perception of the exotic other. Bandaul again modified the main figures to look “Cambodian” – specifically two karaoke singers that survived violent attacks but never found justice. During the exhibition opening, Bandaul performed Evening Snacks Near the Statue of King Father by inviting other artists to join him for a live performance to discuss the topic of “cultural colonialism.” Un-rehearsed and staged as a social event of friends gathering over beer and peanuts, the performance brought this every day scenario into the gallery space and re-framed it as an artistic act. The line between art and life was drawn sharply as Bandaul slowly wrapped himself in a rope of sarongs tied together. A symbol of tradition, the sarongs were taken from a previous performance Site 2, where Bandaul traces the land of the former site of the refugee camp where he lived for 14 years. The performance is part of a video produced in collaboration between the artist and filmmakers, What Remains (Khmer Passages). Both Site 2 and the video documentation of Evening Snacks Near the Statue of King Father are placed in the exhibition alongside the drawings and installation.
Bandaul goes on to explain that in this new work the same sarong from the Site 2 video/performance is placed in a military ammunitions box, a comment on today’s militaristic environment and that violence still continues today despite apparent “peace.” He refers also to Duchamp’s Fountain by signing the ammunitions box with his own name. He talks about the process of developing this work, saying “I remember my mother saying in a year you will return to the country, and good life – food and peace. I think this was our dream – we wanted to return to that period. In my video performance I use the sarong in Site 2 – it represents the culture. When I put it back in the box, it was finished. But now I take it out again, because the story is not finished.” --Dana Langlois, 2016 ______________ Srey Bandaul (b. 1973, Battambang, Cambodia) studied with the French artist Veronique Decrop from 1987 until 1991 in an art school she founded at Site 2 Camp on the Thai border. This school moved to Battamabang in 1994 and was established as Phare Ponleu Selpak with Decrop and nine Cambodian artists, including Bandaul. He has taught drawing and painting at Phare since 1995 and is currently Professor and the Director of the Visual Arts School. Bandaul first exhibited his works in 1998 at Reyum Gallery, Phnom Penh Cambodia. Since then he has published two books, Looking At Angkor and The Land of the Elephants and has exhibited in Norway, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Singapore, New York, London, Istanbul and Myanmar. He is an Asian Cultural Council Fellow.