SVA Y SARETHThe Traffic Circle, wood and PVC piping, 204 × 204 × 240 cm, installed at Sa Sa Bassac gallery, Phnom Penh, 2012.Courtesy the artist and Sa Sa Bassac, Phnom Penh.

Mon Boulet & The Traffic Circle

Svay Sareth

the Institut Français of Cambodia & Sa Sa Bassac gallery
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic
In May 2011, Svay Sareth hauled a two-meter-wide, 80-kilogram silver sphere from his Siem Reap home to Phnom Penh. Along the six-day journey, Svay ate only food offered to him by strangers and slept on a blue tarpaulin—the kind used as shelter by refugees worldwide. Svay himself was raised in refugee camps in war-ravaged Cambodia until the age of 19, and much of his performance and installation-based practice has involved simultaneously sharing his story while processing its lasting influences. He is at the forefront of an emerging tendency among Cambodian artists to address their nation’s history, through poetic and intensely personal reflections on the effect of memory on contemporary life. In June, Svay was featured in two exhibitions, “Mon Boulet” at the Institut Français of Cambodia and “The Traffic Circle” at Sa Sa Bassac gallery, which showcased works that explore the intersections of Cambodia’s painful past and its precarious present.

For Svay, the exhibition at Institut Français of Mon Boulet (2011), which showcases a video documenting his aforementioned, silver sphere performance, is secondary to the process of its creation. Although languidly shot and almost 20-minutes long, the video can hardly convey the agony of walking for six full days. The sphere looms larger than life, yet the elegance of its dimly gleaming aluminium body and roughly hewn, wooden yoke offers little hint of its immense weight. The inability to wholly communicate the trials endured in his performance mirrors the impossibility of conveying the experience of being a survivor of one of the most horrific conflicts in modern history. Svay’s performance practice hinges on a tension and silence that speaks volumes, and Mon Boulet is his most powerfully muted expression yet.

With “The Traffic Circle,” the artist shifts the attention from his own difficult past to his nation’s somewhat uncertain present. Dominating Sa Sa Bassac’s white cube space was Svay’s three-meter-high, pyramid-shaped structure adorned with a clutter of blue plastic pipes. The Traffic Circle (2012) speaks of messy collisions between past and present, power and poverty, and the real and imagined. The notion of power is carefully implied in the shape of the pyramid, which recalls diagrams often used to explain certain hierarchies of government and other organizations. In inviting visitors to circumnavigate this towering, absurd object, Svay is seemingly satirizing the veneration that coercive power can demand. The piped pyramid sits atop four rickety steps of salvaged wood, worn away by the touch of anonymous, forgotten generations. Just as Svay finds residues of his painful childhood in his current life, the artist locates many traces of Cambodia’s conflicted history beneath the country’s current cultural, political and economic dynamics.

Alongside the sculpture hangs a digital print, in which the artist superimposes an image of his pyramid sculpture over Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument. This 1958 landmark was erected in celebration of the end of the French Protectorate rule, but today is rivaled in stature by long-reigning prime minister Hun Sen’s ostentatiously oversized residence, which overlooks the monument. Designed by Vann Molyvann, the monument is a lotus-shaped stupa adorned with mythical nagas (snake-like deities of Hinduism and Buddhism), like those seen at the Angkor Wat temple. In his sculpture, Svay switches the sacred nagas—traditionally held to possess protective powers—for profane pipes that are often used to ferry sewage waste. Looking at the installation, a common local expression comes to mind. “Do you have a tube?” in the Khmer language is a phrase used to slyly seek connection to power and authority. As in many developing and post-conflict societies, establishing such ties can be all-important in navigating life in Cambodia. Within these circumstances, Svay sees an unsteady foundation set by the nation’s history, which seems to overshadow contemporary society.

Svay’s practice has shifted from performances addressing the artist’s past to installations focused emphatically on the present. Confirming Svay’s standing among the country’s artists today, his works illuminate the untidy ties between what has passed and what still remains in Cambodian society.