Interview: Erin Gleeson

by Francesca Sonara

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      Vuth Lyno
      Courtesy of the artist

      Opened in February 2011, SA SA BASSAC is Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s first contemporary art space. For this issue of …mbg, Francesca Sonara conducted an interview with SA SA BASSAC co-founder Erin Gleeson about her history in Cambodia and the interests and challenges of sustaining a contemporary art dialogue in this region.

      Francesca Sonara [FS]: What initially brought you to Cambodia?

      Erin Gleeson [EG]: During my undergraduate work, a professor introduced me to a selection of mug shots taken of Cambodian prisoners between 1976-1979 at a Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh called S-21. The photographs had been “discovered” and subsequently cared for and archived by a duo of young American photojournalists who were adventuring through Cambodia in the mid-1990s. Surprisingly, they obtained a copyright for 100 photographs from the series. This collection was finely printed in six editions and made available for sale and for exhibition under the haunting title Facing Death: Portraits from Cambodia’s Killing Fields, which continues to travel to museums and other exhibition spaces worldwide.

      Years later for my thesis I decided to investigate the history of these photographs, as well as the existence and use of other visual records of genocide, such as Armenia, Native America, the Holocaust and Rwanda. Those imprisoned during the Holocaust were photographed similarly to the prisoners in Cambodia. However, we do not encounter this archive at, say, the MoMA-- where 22 photographs from Facing Death were shown in 1997. I began trying to demystify what had been dramatically projected onto this archive and history.

      I received a Fulbright-Humphrey fellowship that took me to Cambodia for the first time in 2002. The site of the prison was converted to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. I spent months there considering various aspects of the archive, which in its entirety includes around 6,000 negatives salvaged from the original 14,000. I was granted a rare meeting with the photographer during which I listened to his history, his love of photography, his training, what cameras he used, his fears, his intentions. At that time he was not aware that “his” photographs were traveling to museums. I gave him the Facing Death catalogue-– a beautifully printed object. I met with a few survivors (seven survived out of a low estimate of 14,000 prisoners killed) and listened to their experience of being photographed and why they would not want their image in such a public exhibition. I also observed how the museum functioned. I listened to tours and watched thousands of visitors react to the thousands of faces in the images.

      After three months, I realized that if I continued this research I would have a certain obligation to liaise with specialists in the business of genocide, which was not my interest. Nor was it my interest to join other scholars looking at the same topic where the defense of one’s original ideas becomes a repetitive requirement. I wanted to move on-– I missed being with artists or at least with more art-related content. I accepted an invitation by the Minister of Education to teach elective art history courses at the first private liberal arts-modeled university in Phnom Penh.

      FS: How did you become involved in the local arts scene outside of the classroom?

      EG: Phnom Penh was, and still is, very small. Although there are just over two million people here, and 15 million in the country, there are only about 100 who call themselves contemporary artists. I initially took students to the few exhibition spaces existing at that time and built assignments around these visits. I also scheduled artist talks and studio visits for myself. Naturally, some friendships emerged with artists. It didn’t take long to know the local scene, but to more deeply understand its history, intentions and conditions required more time. For about five years, I did projects with existing spaces or collaborated on projects. What was most valuable for me was my experiences with Reyum Institute of Art and Culture-– they elevated local knowledge, practices and language in their work. Reyum was an incredible center of living culture where research, exhibitions and publications were produced on wide-ranging themes of tradition and continuity. To support myself I began writing and building art collections. I came to independent curating slowly, not until around 2006 or 2007, when I could see artists were arriving at the point where they were inspiring themselves. At that time, I felt I understood where and with whom I wanted to work, and more importantly, how I wanted to work.

      FS: What were some initial challenges in your curatorial career?

      EG: The physical landscape was starkly different at that time; it is hard for me to even remember the days with little Internet access, no traffic lights, and no tarmac in the capital city. Consider the artistic field alongside this level of urban development and imagine that there were, and for the most part still are, very few resources for artists and curators. There are pockets of luxury and efficiency throughout the country amidst the poverty. In other words, typical urban polarization is occurring, but there remains little resemblance to any of the institutionalized infrastructure of developed countries that supports and proliferates contemporary art practices and thought. This in itself could be seen as a very long list of challenges: the national art school continues a half-century-old curriculum; there is little to no government funding; there are very few educational resources; there are no established companies or freelancers familiar with exhibition production, no local curators or writers on contemporary visual culture, no local art market and only nascent attention regionally and internationally. Although it may seem important to work on filling in these “gaps,” I have learned a great deal about the value of art and life without these things.

      FS: What, in your opinion, is unique to Cambodia’s emerging contemporary arts landscape?

      EG: The conditions I mentioned in the last answer, along with Cambodia’s complex history and strategy of development (there is the highest concentration of NGOs in Phnom Penh than anywhere else in the world) has indeed resulted in a unique landscape. Maybe it feels unique because there are few places left in the world where we see a transitional phase like this. Most capital cities are globalized; educational systems and approaches are streamlined; artists have increasingly similar approaches to creating and communicating. I often feel a close affinity to artists, artworks, texts and curatorial work that came from places who share somewhat similar histories-- countries or regions that were mostly isolated from the industrialization of the 20th century, places that have faced recent collective trauma or countries with relatively strict limits on freedom of expression. We also garner very little attention from the market. However difficult this makes things for us in certain ways, we are aware of the benefits– art is being made out of necessity as a reflection of life. There is an emphasis on relationships and a lot of support for each other, especially amongst the artists I work with. They are focused on creating meaningful work and building community.

      FS: Are their particular themes or movements you see emerging in the country?

      EG: The most common practice I see is artistic production as a form of storytelling and a questioning of living cultural practices. Few artists are working with time-based technologies. However, time is an important factor in another sense-— through meticulous and sometimes exhaustive hand-made techniques. Some fine examples are Sopheap Pich’s bamboo and rattan sculptures, Tith Kanitha’s metal wire installations, Chan Dany’s pencil shaving reliefs, Than Sok’s incense sticks shrines or Leang Seckon’s sewn paintings.

      Photography is a medium that has been particularly nurtured over the last decade through visiting artists, and more recently, the annual PhotoPhnomPenh festival. It seems an obvious medium for artists who were born with no visual history, as most of it was destroyed. Recently, urban and rural conditions have become even more polarized, due in part to the transitional nature of the economy. Many of those born in Phnom Penh are focused on documenting and reflecting the city’s changes. Regional performance art exchanges have increased in the past years, and artists have begun to use their bodies in physically challenging ways, while working together to document these events.

      FS: You recently opened SA SA BASSAC-- the first space of its kind in Phnom Penh. Can you discuss the history behind the space?

      EG: SA SA BASSAC opened in February of this year. It is the merging of two initiatives that have similar ideas and ideals. My collaborators are Stiev Selapak, which is a group of six artists between 26 and 31 years old who came together in 2007. Half had graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts and half are self-taught. They were very frustrated with existing art spaces here and the protocol to enter those spaces, so they decided to form a group and call themselves “Art Rebels.”

      FS: Why do they call themselves “rebels”?

      EG: It’s funny because journalists would interview them, and afterwards they would follow up with me and say, “You know they aren’t very rebellious.” There is a subtlety with this group. It is not clear to people who are just passing through that for a young group of artists to come together with no resources and to say they don’t need existing spaces is quite radical.

      FS: So how did the decision to open a space together come about?

      EG: In 2009 art collective Stiev Selapak members Heng Ravuth, Khvay Samnang, Kong Vollak, Lim Sokchanlina, Vandy Rattana and Vuth Lyno opened Sa Sa Art gallery. They really encouraged Cambodians to come, and sometimes 200 to 300 Cambodians would attend their events and exhibitions. These were numbers we hadn’t seen since Reyum was operational. But their second year was strained because they were doing everything. They were making their work as well as curating, installing and managing the gallery. The tiny space was wonderful but limited. Even in two years, their work had changed; now they are taking bigger risks, and it needs more room to be seen. We decided we could accomplish more by working together.

      FS: Did you already have your own space?

      EG: For the past three years, I was working on independent curatorial projects without a formal space under the name Bassac Art Projects. The Bassac River is a distributary of the Mekong. I feel the artists I’ve chosen to work with all these years are rooted here, in their country. Not in a nationalistic way, but in that their lives are from here and their stories are from their lives. That for me parallels the relationship that the Bassac has to the mother Mekong River — it is flowing away from but absolutely fed by the Mekong, just as the artists are fed from their lives.

      FS: What do you view as the mission or goal of SA SA BASSAC?

      EG: We all support one other. There are a few major ideals we keep in mind as we plan and realize things. Firstly, in all we do, we are mindful of the context in which we are based. Secondly, we aim to provide “museum-quality” exhibition and educational materials for the artists and audiences. We will focus on local Cambodian artists, at least in the first few years, in order to have their voices heard and their work seen, as a way of building an art history that has not yet been recorded. I am focused on curating meaningful and foundational solo shows for as many local Cambodian artists as I can in our first year. Maybe the only compromise with this is that fantastic shows are only running between four to five weeks, but our public programming will help to reach audiences in that short time.

      We are also working on an art dictionary. We need to translate the artists’ ideas and use specific words to be able to communicate with visitors. We need to be able to respectfully communicate the artists’ knowledge. This is definitely a goal of Sa Sa Bassac: to elevate what the artists do know. I have to do so much research to understand why they do something or where their ideas are coming from. And it’s difficult because so little is written. I learn, and then I need to communicate what I have learned. It’s an endless education.

      EG: What do you think the Cambodian contemporary arts scene contributes to the international platform?

      The artists are working in a space between what was and what is yet to be. I think that unless you have lived within such a transitional realm for a significant period of time, with so few resources, you may not be able to understand the source of their work. It is rooted in the traditions and changes in their lives. But it will make you want to understand. It will bring you closer to that experience.

      Francesca Sonara is currently working on an independent documentary on Cambodia’s emerging art scene. She lives and works in New York.


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