Written By Hung Duong
11th Jan 2018
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”
- Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
It was a blazing afternoon in Phnom Penh. I was en route to Sa Sa Arts Project (SSAP), an artist-run space nestled in a quiet alley, huddled close to the extended roofs of rows of houses, trying to escape the glaring heat. On the other side of the road, a soporific canal carried all the different waters of the neighborhood, and undoubtedly the rest of this city. Memories of the people poured into the canal as formless and private flows that blended into a collective stream. A needed intervention in an increasingly populated Phnom Penh became a temporary reservoir for secrets.
This metaphorical stream continued to circulate around my thoughts as I entered the front yard leading into SSAP’s exhibition space. Loosely strung and covering most of the entrance is Thai artist Piyarat Piyapongwiwat’s collaged blanket of colorful fabrics, hemmed together to resemble any curtain found in a rural house of the Mekong Delta. Walking closer to this thin veil, one could hear the faint sound of daily traffic emanating from behind, of motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Venturing to the back, one discovers two small, hidden videos of Cambodian garment workers traversing the city on their daily commute to sweat shops that cater to the consumers of the West. Adjacent to the video and curtain combo, a series of paintings by Cambodian artist Than Sok laid in sequence, though it is hard to decipher which painting is the beginning point and which one the end. An orange robe and an alms bowl—both signifiers of Buddhist monkhood in Cambodia—entangle in a silent struggle for dominance. In one outcome, the bowl swallows the robe into its pit. In the other, the robe enraptures the bowl in its orange embrace. Either way, one of the two becomes the “essence” and the “secret” of the other.
Piyarat Piyapongwiwat, "Untitled," 2015, Cloth remnants, thread, 240 x 340. Photo: ArtHop.
Than Sok, "Untitled," 2017. Watercolor on paper, Series of 8 pieces, 32 x 24 cm each. Collection of MAIIAM. Photo: ArtHop.
The stream transformed into an ever-shifting line of fabric, wrapping around the silent workers sitting on the tuk-tuk then slithering in and out of the alms bowl of an absent monk. Not only does it conceal the secret life of workers who create the backbone of consumerism but it also challenges the revered symbols of Buddhism. The works of Piyarat and Than stage a dialogue where secrets are both shrouded and hinted at, demanding to be seen and escaping inquiring gaze at the same time like pebbles under running water. While the curtain invites the audience to ponder about the hierarchy behind our now glamorised and commercialised needs for clothes, the orange robe seems confused about whether it should protect (swallow) or enhance (submerge) the alms bowl, either gaining or loosing its importance in the unending loop.
Exhibition view with Than’s "Untitled”; Piyarat’s "Untitled”; Piyarat’s"Workers Riding Rermork to Work," 2017, HD color video with sound, 11’16”; Piyarat’s "Workers Leaving the Factory in Phnom Penh," 2015, HD color video with sound, 28’04”. Photo: ArtHop.
The stream suddenly switched, uprooting me from Cambodia to Singapore, or more accurately, to artist Chu Hao Pei’s video work that depicts a floating island made from a mysteriously green aquatic plant (reminding me of the island made from man-eating vines in Life of Pi). The plant, a fresh water purifier deployed by Singapore, turned out to be invasive (hence its scientific name Hydrilla Verticillata, an ironic reference to Hydra, the many-headed sea serpent in Greek mythology whose heads grew again as soon as they were cut off). The video shows us the government’s relentless extraction and amalgamation of the plant, a process that creates the odd-looking mass captured in the two photographs accompanying the video. However, this bizarre interception birthed an unexpected ecosystem: flocks of birds gathered to feast on the fishes entangled in the excavated plants and nested on the floating island. The island itself lies as a mystery, a question mark posed by a government’s attempt to serve its civilians.
Chu Hao Pei,"Island X - Feast," 2016. HD color video with sound, 3’00” and
Chu Hao Pei, "Island IX - Kaleidoscope," 2016. A series of two photographs, Digital C-Print, 40 x 60 cm. Photo: ArtHop.
The quest of uncovering secrets finally brought me to the last work in the exhibition by Taiwanese artist Hsu Chia-wei. A two-sided video projection portrays two different perspectives on the mythology of Marshal Tie Jia, a Chinese-rooted frog deity that was supposedly exiled during the Cultural Revolution, and the artist’s attempt to converse with the frog god about the whereabouts of his temple in China via a special ritual meditated by a group of men. One side of the screen captured the dialogue between the artist and the god, while the other side presents a 3D sketch of the temple and its surrounding environment based on the description of the god. Two sides of the same coin, the work offers a juxtaposition of traditional and modern, ritualistic and technological. Upon entering the space, one can only see the story of the artist conversing with the god. But if you tip toe to the back, the other side of the projection reveals itself, along with the virtual recreation of the god’s sanctuary. Like a coded secret embedded beneath the fabric of the ritual, modern technology tightens its roots, slowly complementing and restructuring the original infrastructure of the ritual, which speaks volume about the current state of Taiwan, the artist’s home. How does one configure sacredness in the digital age?
Hsu Chia-Wei, "Spirit-Writing," 2016. Two-channel video installation, color, sound, 9’45’’. Produced by Le Fresnoy. Co-produced by Liang Gallery. Photo: ArtHop.
You may realise now the direction of the stream flowing in my head, but let me bring you back to the title of the exhibition before we diverge, When the River reverses. Like hitting the nail on the head, it conjures memories of the Red River of Hanoi, where I spent my childhood discovering the secrets sleeping in its lush bank; the Saigon River, where I observe the daily reversing of its current like a ritual that creates the rhythm of its city. And finally, the Mekong rivers, a hydra (though not as invincible as the mythical beast) with its seasonal ebbs and flows that nourish both Cambodia and Southern Vietnam. All of them, like many other rivers, contain secrets. And when their course is interrupted, reversed either by natural or artificial means, those secrets come into light, revealed under the spiraling water.
Likewise, the artworks in the exhibition are layered with secrets. Piyarat concealed the life of garment workers, and the order of the world’s consumerist hierarchy, behind a veil made by the workers themselves—a retrospective inquisition of what our unconscious wills away when we wear our clothes. Than’s paintings, a looped sequence with no clear beginning or ending, proposes an ambivalent view on the sacredness of religious objects in the ways they show or conceal themselves. The secrets gain momentum in Chu’s mysterious, man-made island of hydrallia and its avian residents. Or, perhaps in the double-sided projection by Hsu where a god’s secret home is simultaneously deconstructed through technology and obscured through rituals—both equally crucial aspects that balance the scale of modern Taiwan. One can only expect to scrape the bare surface of these secrets while wandering through the exhibition, with the hope that they somehow will reveal themselves to us.
Despite its woven narrative, the visual display of the exhibition can be put to question. Hsu’s projected video could stand much stronger in a separate room, perhaps by switching its location with Chu’s video work. The audio from Hsu’s work also interferes too violently with Piyarat’s small videos, at times drowning out the recorded sound of the workers traveling in traffic. Finally, within the space for Chu’s works, more photographs of the hydrallia mount could be provided to create a stronger visual effect. However, the secrets are very much present, behind the curtain, under the monk’s robe, lurking behind the water plants, or crisscrossing between 3D sketches and religious altar. They beckon us to pay more attention to minute details of daily life around us, like when the river starts changing its course, when nature starts reversing its natural order. And we need to ask ourselves why, and what could come from such disruptions.
I left the exhibition, with my mind floating in the waters. That afternoon, I sat by the newly built walkway by the river, where the Bassac River meets the Tonle Sap River before splintering into new directions. Looming behind my back were giant structures of development, the high-rise buildings that propel to give Phnom Penh a pseudo Marina Bay Sands appearance. But I chose to watch the river instead, noticing the time at which its course starts reversing and the life that floats on its surface. Nature has its own way of communicating with us. It is up to us to open our mind to accept its offer to look inside its secrets. The rivers may flow in front of our eyes or inside our head, but they all flow. A disruption, an interception, a change can all be indicators of important things to come, powerful things that can exert great influences on us. And through art, today I re-learned that lesson.
When The River Reverses was installed from 14 September – 12 November 2017 at Sa Sa Art Projects, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Keep up with Southeast Asia's art scene, follow ArtHop's Facebook page here.