Art and politics can often make for a heady mix. Make that art about a country's identity and culture post genocide made by foreign artists, and some could ask "why?"
German artists in residence Horst Hoheisal and Sebatian Brandt have successfully made a connection with enough rigor and substance for even the least art savvy being to understand and experience. Their installation is Part 2 of the Art of Survival exhibition currently showing at Metahouse Gallery in Phnom Penh.
The core of these artists work is the plight of the besieged. Key to this is the artists own experiences in post War Germany. The artists are from East and West Berlin and a generation apart, Brandt being Hoheisal's star student at the Bauhaus University in Germany.
The new work is installed in two parts. As I approached the first part of their work ducking and weaving through the often gruesome and confrontational images which are to be expected in an exhibition dedicated to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, the two artists, wearing the traditional Cambodian Krama on their heads, are putting the final touches on their somewhat shrine like, museum style installation.
The artist's goal: "to identify with the context that they've placed themselves in and to discover how Cambodians commemorate their past."
Their art is layered in more ways than one. In January the artists sent out a press release asking the people of Cambodia to pick one object of significance, that to them expresses their memories of the country's tragic past or their dreams for the future, and bring it to Metahouse Gallery to be part of the Art of Survival exhibition.
Two tables were set apart to for the installation, one, with the Cambodian peoples objects and records , and the second, items that the artists themselves had picked up with which they were attempting to educate themselves about Cambodia and about the encroachment of foreigners on the Cambodian culture.
Unlike most first time travelers to Cambodia the artists are proud to admit they hadn't done their homework on Cambodia before they arrived. "In the beginning we avoided knowing the culture first" said Hoheisal
They wanted a "foreign space", a blank canvas to discover. Brandt explains that on arrival to Cambodia, flying over the country all he could see was water and brown land.
From this he came to the idea that mud (water and brown land) symbolizes the base of all of Cambodian culture. Significant in both the Angkor Period and the Khmer Rouge period. Angkorians and the KR used the land for agriculture, this, one of the only things they shared in common. The clay, the floods, the low levels of water all leads to mud, one of the very important ingredients in their installation in the small gallery on the second floor of Metahouse titled "Underground".
The recipe as Brandt explains consists of "the Mekong, Angkor Wat, S21 Torture Museum, and the slogans of Pol Pot taken from Pol Pot's "Little Red Book". All considerable signifiers in Cambodia's history.
Brandt invites us to "Walk on the clay of history and see how it feels for yourselves"
Visitors to the installation are confronted with a floor of cracked mud, fragile and layered. As one walks on the dry mud, the fragility of the meaning of the installation strikes a chord.
Layers and layers of history, double meanings, floating on top of the other, show the diversity of the Cambodian identity.
The floor cracks underneath my feet and through the cracks I catch a glimpse of Pol Pots slogans buried beneath the mud, not understandable to the non-Khmer speaking visitor but obvious the weight of its message.
A line of photographs encircle the walls of the floor installation. The photographs show the floor of Toul Sleng (S21) genocide museum under a collage of the floor of the bricks of Angkor Wat. Plastic bags hang under the photographs where the artists have placed the name of their previously collected items on small pieces of paper. To some extent the wall installation seems to draw attention away from the heftiness of mud installation and begs too much explanation.
This is an impressive show and one that embraces the sometimes unfashionable notion that the artist's role is a political one and that art can and should constitute a vital part of public debate.
Despite the magnitude of this work, the powerful, indeed heart rending subject matter that the show transmits and the sheer potency of this body of work eliminates any sense of its potential to have been viewed as culturally inappropriate, and successfully addresses the question "Why?"
For more information on the artists go to www.horsthoheisel.net
Art of Survival Part 2
Horst Hoheisal and Sebatian Brandt