Artist Reflects on Cambodia’s Modern History in Mixed-Media Works

If one were to capture, in a collection of images, what Cambodia has gone through over the past 50 years, it would look something like Leang Seckon’s latest series, which opens on Monday night at Java Cafe in Phnom Penh.

As complex as the history and culture it reflects, each work is a portrayal of the figures, places and events that have made Cambodia what it is today: from the singers of the 1960s, whose popularity has never waned; Russia’s Vladimir Lenin, among the inspirations of Khmer Rouge leaders; to scaffolding seen around Phnom Penh’s many construction sites today.

'Independence Monument and S-21 Prisoners' by Leang Seckon (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
‘Independence Monument and S-21 Prisoners’ by Leang Seckon (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The concept for the series, “In­fluence: The New Ages,” started simply, Mr. Seckon said on Thursday. “I talked of influence but influence in general in life: how we are born, how we connect with the en­vironment, society…of life changing through its many steps.” The concept grew to en­com­pass the country’s history, the people who have come to symbolize various eras.

One mixed-media work depicts the Independence Monument with small, floating portraits of people killed at Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge extermination camp known as S-21. Set against a burnt-gold fab­ric, the monument is made of chiseled leather. The small images of flowers in the work represent offerings made to help those killed into their next lives, Mr. Sec­kon said.

The exhibition is Mr. Seckon’s first show in Cambodia in nearly six years, hosted at the same cafe and gallery of his first show, in 2002, when he was still a student at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Since 2010, the 46-year-old has ex­­hibited in London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and New York. His work has reflected his journey, that of a Cambodian whose earliest memories are filled with the roar of U.S. bombs during Cam­bodia’s civil war in the early 1970s, a childhood spent under the Khmer Rouge re­gime and then as a “buffalo boy” in the 1980s, minding his family’s three animals in Prey Veng province.

The exhibition, which includes 11 works, is dominated by a large multimedia piece, “Anti-Rust Paint and Suffering,” featuring an emaciated representation of the Buddha. Khmer Rouge soldiers in the back­ground have pineapple-shaped heads made of rows of eyes—the eye of the regime was ev­erywhere, Mr. Seckon said. They stand among scaffolding and construction de­tritus. In an image, it shows a haunted and modernizing country, “changing through its many steps.”

The exhibition opens at 6:30 p.m. and runs through November 19.

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