IN RECENT EXHIBITION ‘PEOPLE, MONEY, GHOSTS (MOVEMENT AS METAPHOR),’ THE THREE THINGS THAT MOVE US ARE THE THINGS WE CREATE…
Roger Nelson, the curator of People, Money, Ghosts explains the origin of the name describing that the three words imply constant mobility, which is regarded as a factor underlying countless relocations, tragedies and social changes throughout history and in many places throughout the world.
People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor) deals primarily with the changes that have happened and are about to happen following the movements of the three factors through the works of three artists Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai (Vietnam), Amy Lien and Camacho, a duo from the Philippines and Khvay Samnang, a Cambodian performance artist. Each work focuses on his/her interpretation of the issues happening in the Southeast Asian region with the common ground being the fact that the works were created during residencies held outside of their home countries (between 2014 and 2017), causing the exhibition to be, in itself, a results of said ‘movement’ (in this case, the ‘people’).
Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai discusses the migration of different groups of people in Day by Day (2014-2015), a documentary that serves as an ‘introduction’ for viewers to become informed about the origin and overall context of the area where the artist’s residency took place. The over an hour long documentary brings together interviews and captures the way of life of a group of people who have settled at the border of Vietnam and the floating village in Cambodia since the Vietnam War and the political crisis under the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The artist found that the migration, which took place during the turbulent time (and most of it was undoubtedly illegal), caused many people to become stateless citizens who have now been living in the area for decades. They live their lives in hiding, unprotected by the law and unable to return to their home countries due to the legal conditions that prevent them from leaving the area and their uncertainly as to their ability to adjust to the motherland, which has changed tremendously from the past. Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai developed such information into an installation and photographs with the keywords being ‘remnants’ or ‘undocumented identity’ giving birth to works such as Shadow (2014-2017) and group photos depicting images of the locals painted over by a black marker pen into faceless shadows. For ID Card (2014), over 200 fake identity cards were created from the fabric taken from the locals’ clothes to reflect the disenfranchised legal identity.
While Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai talks about the collective human rights issues of a community with a straightforward translation of such issues into the physicality of the work that immediately communicates the intended message without the need for further explanation, Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho’s video piece is a bit more connotative when it comes to interpretation. Essentially, their work is a short film about a male homosexual couple who fell in love in the middle of the dimmed light of a gay bar in Phnom Penn. with gay bars being one of the city’s blossoming industries, the duo’s work depicts the city’s transforming urban and economic fabric that has the massive influx of investment as its catalyst.
The video is divided into three parts: Arb/Krasue +855 I•FOLLOW-U,Arb/Krasue +866 U•NOTICE-ME and Arb/Krasue +855 WE-B-2GETHER. Found in the work are two different types of ghosts. The first is the physical version of a ghost in which their self-defined video sculpture is created by a cinematic technique where the camera continues to move in a circle while the blond-haired ceramic ‘Kra sue’ ghost sculpture is used to hang the projector with the moving images being projected on the circular screen on the floor of the exhibition room. Another type of ghost is not the kind of ‘Kra Sue’ (bodiless ghost that flies around with its head and internal organs only) we see in the movies but the more comparative metaphor of a ‘moving object.’ The artist sees the similarities between Kra sue/ Arb/ Manananggal (bodiless head/the ability to fly/consuming rotten things) as the region’s shared cultural trait. It represents a trend of development that ‘emerges’ within almost the same period in practically every big city in the region, including the progressive rise of China (which explains why footage captured in China is featured sporadically in the video). To the question as to what benefit or disadvantage the ghost will bring to the city, the work doesn’t exactly provide us with the answer.
The next work by Khvay Samnang talks about change from a different aspect with the notion of ‘ghost’ being a major part of his artistic process. From his personal experience last year when he followed a group of students to survey a local forest area (hired by the Cambodian government to prepare the area for future development), he dreamt of an old man walking out from the woods. Not long after, with a necessity to return to Rattanakeeree, he was shocked to see that the forest before his eyes looked incredibly reminiscent of the one envisioned in his dream. The question of ‘where is the forest?’ was then replaced with ‘who is the person from my dream?’ Another reality that Samnang came across was how the forest in his dream is actually a deserted rubber tree plantation.
For Rubber Man (2014), Khvay Samnang’s video art (/performance) involves the local rubber agriculturists and their struggle against being forced to leave the land. Another (more spiritual) question arises, asking where the angels who protect the forest will be when the trees and forest are destroyed. Many wonder how filming the performance with the artist standing naked in the middle of the forest, the village and rubber tree plantation before pouring the tree’s latex on his body can help him to communicate with the angels. The truth of the matter is, the artist didn’t make any contact with the spirits from another world and pouring the latex on his body doesn’t turn him into a sacred entity. The performance is merely a symbolic expression made to the viewers, while if one looks closely, they would notice that the key message of the video isn’t the artist standing at the foreground, but the continually changing setting depicting the deteriorating condition of the forest and plantations (whose severe deforestation has left almost no indication that the area was once a forest).
As to what the performance actually conveys, the artist leaves it as an open-ended question for viewers to come up with their own interpretations. Rubber Man was recently featured at documenta 14 in Athens, Greece earlier in April 2017 and we’re quite certain that its depiction of Southeast Asia would allow for the European viewers to better understand the region in terms of the big picture. There are a few works by Khvay Samnang that are not mentioned in this article such as Yantra Man (2015) that talks about the history before World War I when Cambodians and Vietnamese were drafted to fight the war in Europe, or the installation of a thatch roofed house by Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai that simulates an immigrant shelter. People, Money, Ghost (Movement as Metaphor) will be held at The Jim Thompson Art Center until 18th June 2014, which means there’s still time for everyone to stop by. The exhibition room may be a little bit dim, since too much light will kill the entire mood. And after all, isn’t it in the dark where all ghost stories should be told?
TEXT: NAPAT CHARITBUTRA