On another huge canvas — made of rough, unfinished paper— a different artist has created a chilling and evocative scene with fine pencil lines. A pile of rubble from an Angkor-style monument tumbles down the canvas, as headless Buddhas and relics litter the scene. Above, a Turneresque clouded sky swirls violently and a shaft of light illuminates a solitary decapitated stone lion. The scene is loaded with powerful emotion— unsurprising, as it was drawn by an artist who himself was orphaned during the KR years.
While many of Phnom Penh's intellectuals, commentators, politicians, and people on the street are busying themselves with news and rumors about the impending KR trial, a small local gallery is tackling the legacy of the KR through previously unexplored channels, with a thought-provoking and unsettling exhibition, "The Legacy of Absence."
"We did not originally plan that this exhibition would be on at the same time as the trial," says show co-curator Ly Daravuth. "All the talk of trials just concentrates on the logistics of putting one on," says Ingrid Muan, the show's co-curator. "But this is a much more accessible thing, it's about emotions and feelings and personal experience."
The show will display the works of 11 artists, ten
Khmer and one from the Netherlands, and comprises part of a much larger
worldwide exhibition on the same themes. American art lover and entrepreneur
Clifford Chanin, of the Legacy Project, has put together a series
of works of art from places as wide-ranging as Germany, Israel, Japan,
China, Bosnia, the former Soviet Union and India-Pakistan. All the
exhibiting countries have one thing in common — they have suffered
a mass trauma or genocide which has left a great "absence"
among the populace. The idea of the exhibition is to try to understand
the kinds of things that are missing after a mass murder or war, and
to explore whether there is a way to fill the emptiness that the victims
leave behind, according to Chanin.
But the organizers had a shock when they approached Cambodia for entrants, for there is very little that has been explored in the art world here on the theme of the KR. Only Vann Nath, who painted the infamous scenes of the Khmer Rouge in Toul Sleng, and Svay Ken, a local artist who has painted many scenes of the recent past "so my grandchildren know what I went through," have any kind of body of work on the theme. Both are displaying work in the "Legacy" exhibition.
Certainly, the policy of the KR to systematically eliminate intellectuals, writers and artists provides one reason why there is a paucity of original art today. But Daravuth has a further, more considered reason why Cambodia has not explored the KR regime through art.
"The only art works you see on display are the mass-produced paintings of Angkor," he says. "When you talk to the men who produce them, they say they only want to produce beautiful things, that it must be beautiful above all."
Daravuth's view is that the absence of a body of work exploring the KR regime is almost as powerful a statement as if the work had been created in droves. "The people refuse to confront it so far, the artists do not want to contemplate it. Sometimes when you have a shock, you don't want to talk for a while," he said. "They just want to look back with nostalgia and create these Angkor paintings."
Muan, whose mother was living in Germany during the Second World War, says that it also took a while before any significant World War II art appeared there. "There was total amnesia there for twenty years," she said. For the curators, though, it is up to the younger generation to safeguard the legacy of the Khmer Rouge years.
"I am slightly afraid that it is becoming mythologized,
that the personal experiences are being lost to a more general idea
of what happened during those years," says Darvuth. "Just
the other day I was talking to a 20-year-old who had no idea what
the KR sandals [made from rubber tires] looked like. I found it amazing
— just twenty years on, the younger generation are already forgetting."