SA SA Art Projects & the White Building

In 2014 I worked from the White Building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was granted an artist residency through the Sa Sa Art Projects pisaot residency program. I later understood the arrangement was only allowed by the members at Sa Sa Art Projects as a favor to Erin Gleeson, the American director of SA SA BASSAC, the gallery that exhibited my work.

Erin, a Jewish American woman from Minnesota, along with the Cambodian art collective Stiev Selapak, had co-founded SA SA BASSAC, a non-profit art space that exhibited contemporary Cambodian artists and eventually, other artists with ties to Southeast Asia. And while I am ethnically mostly Khmer, I was the only artist on that roster not to be born or have grown up in Cambodia.

Brian Curtin, an art writer who lives in Bangkok and visited Phnom Penh, was able to pick up on this tension almost immediately. After only spending a few days speaking with the members of the Phnom Penh art scene, he managed to document the “local controversy over issues of representation” in the review of my exhibition at SA SA BASSAC, published in Frieze magazine. There are few resources for artists in the world, and in Cambodia, this is no less true. And when resources are scarce, it was easy to be reminded that mafias are also another type of collective.

Still, when I relocated to Phnom Penh in 2011, I considered myself to have permanently dropped out of CalArts and the USA for that matter. I returned to California only briefly in 2012 to present my thesis and graduate but didn’t stay around. After some time in Mexico City (then known as Distrito Federal) and New York, I spent a few seasons in Berlin before I returning to Asia. I survived by taking small graphic design gigs from clients in America and Europe or when in very dire need, Western Union moneygrams from frustrated family members.

I was used to moving around a lot so when I was actually in Cambodia, I did not expect to be in any one place for very long. And so, had become accustomed to the habit of taking two rooms at a hotel in Phnom Penh’s redlight district. Besides my itinerant schedule, this was also partially motivated by the complicated bureaucracy of obtaining a lease. I would sleep in one room and use the other to make work, all for about $200-300 USD a month. I was also traveling within the country often, renting motorcycles to explore places like Kep, Sihanoukville, or further north to see my grandparents in Battambang or the temples in Siem Reap. I had never been to Cambodia until I was an adult and was very eager to see as much of it as I could. A flat did not make sense. Eventually though, I decided if I was going to keep a lease on any real estate, it would be an art studio. And I wanted to involve myself with the history of the White Building.

While at the Sa Sa Art Projects residency, I worked on linen canvases I had picked up in Tokyo at a gigantic art supplies store called Sekaido. With a great amount of effort and a small fortune from sales, I had managed to bring these supplies to Phnom Penh. Most local painters simply use whatever is readily available. Denim is the most common fabric support for locals painting in Cambodia but if necessary, painters will use even stretchy synthetic poly blends, whatever fabric run-off from the garment industry is fair play. Even if the fabric is colored or patterned, painters along Rue 174 will apply a very thick gesso to size the canvas.

Sold in emptied water bottles, the local “gesso” is allegedly a mixture of ground up sheet-rock, white glue, and white housepaint. For medium, they use something the locals call klangh threy or “fish oil.” Again, heresay but the vendor who sales the stuff told me once that it was sometimes a mixture of vegetable oil, walnut oil, and some type of Chinese floor sealant. After a few years of frustration with sourcing painting supplies there, I had successfully imported rabbit skin glue and gel medium from the Japanese mark Holbein. The little pile of painting materials was my one luxury and was worth more than everything else I owned most of the time.

In 2014, while at the White Building, I made paintings that were inspired by the cartographic conventions used to demarcate borders and natural land elements such as rivers or oceans. I would mix the coastlines of California with those of Cambodia, creating graphic islands of biography, maybe creative non-fiction. After painting my way through most of my supplies and not getting anywhere, I settled on a motif I had discovered during my time at the Sa Sa Art Projects residency: I began spacing the islands of paint that alluded to blank points on a map after the impressive amount of bird shit that had amassed all along the White Building’s perimeters.

‘Birds migrate’ I thought, and I was charmed by their apparent apathy or even disdain toward built environments and other human inventions, in this case borders. I paired them with polystyrene sculptures of Angkor. I was drinking lots of homemade rum an old French expat was making at his bar and thinking about spirits, distillation, transformation, language. Also about the value of single use objects, the afterlives of national and personal identities in the wake of crumbling societies, violence, and genocide. I filtered all of these ideas through a reference to a tiny puebla magico in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí.

I used to make a point to visit there whenever I was in the Americas. The small town in the middle of the jungle overlooking a valley and river was called Xilitla, and so then was the work I was making. An English aristocrat called Edward James had built a large sculpture garden called Las Pozas which translates from Spanish to “the pools.” Eventually the Mexican government had purchased Los Pozas and hired the corporation Cemex to run its operations. But when I first visited, it was still operated by locals whose teenaged children would invite guests they deemed cool enough to do psychedelics with them in a temescal or decidedly less romantic drugs like meth amongst the gardens at night.

I first showed this body of work where I produced it, in Phnom Penh and then again in Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center. Alongside the Sa Sa Art Projects residency birdshit map paintings I made in the White Building, I also installed blue carpet to reference architectural planning. The oblique reference to blueprints served as a reminder of the distance between concept and production, thought and language.

Earlier that year, while shopping for fabric to make clothes for myself, I ran into a common Cambodian hill mynah that could talk. Since I was making work about transformation and language, I thought it was a sign from the universe that I was on the right track. The bird seemingly agreed as he enthusiastically told me in Khmer, “very cool,” and “that’s right brother!”

But I had to convince the birds owner, and so over the course of several visits that year, I persuaded him to allow me to take care of his bird and have it live at the gallery for the duration of my exhibition. I also arranged to bring in sugarcane plants with the hope that they would be distilled into rum. But the French rum distiller I had been visiting nearly every night had suddenly disappeared. And so did the film I had shot in Mexico and had recently completed editing in Phnom Penh. My laptop containing the final edit, and the hard drives with all the footage, along with a few cameras would be burgled from the SA SA BASSAC office. The French rum bartnder eventually turned up again. A family member of the Frenchman’s wife had become ill and he had gone to the provinces for confirmation before agreeing to sending them anymore money.

I later returned my attention to the White Building in 2017. I spent the year filming and photographing it incessantly as I lived only a few blocks away from the White Building, just next to the temple Svay Pope. This time Erin had rented me a Chinese shop house and I converted the living room into my studio. My friend Kavich Neang was also feverishly documenting the White Building. He had grown up there and was filming a documentary about his community’s expulsion titled Last Night I Saw You Smiling. It was the story of his family’s upheaval upon leaving that apartment complex that would later serve as raw material for his fictional feature film White Building.

When it became clear that the famed row of concrete would be demolished, I began to harvest the plants that had for decades been growing in and around the concrete of the building it self. It kind of resembled a modernist Angkor Wat the way trees had begun to sprawl allover the concrete structure. The plants I harvested from the White Building would later be exhibited in an exhibition titled New Khmer Architecture in a newly leased rooftop space atop SA SA BASSAC. I placed the plants in polystyrene planters much like the locals do, and then on a racklike sculpture I made of concrete and steel. They were made to resemble the shelving found at the National Archives built by the French in the 1910’s.

Many of the plants still survive today and are being cared for by my dear friend Daniel Mattes who actually, with Kavich, co-wrote White Building. Daniel often works as a producer-project-manager-multi-hyphenate at the French-Khmer production studio Anti-Archives. When the time comes, I hope to transfer the surviving plants to create a memorial garden in honor of the residents of the White Building.

I am interested in the capability for plants to remember and believe they perhaps, could someday be called upon to retell. It was clear there was no saving the building or its residents from the rapid development of the city but I wondered if other living things or objects in the vicinity of this building had accumulated creative energy.

Afterall, what is a body? What is a spirit? What is a ghost?

This also lead me to create portraits of other plants I found in the city. I was charmed by the linguistic etymology of the words “photograph” and “photosynthesis” not bearing much of a difference. Photo – light and graphy – to description, again photo – light and synth – put together. What else is language but putting together descriptions? I would photograph each leaf and then print it, reconstructing the plant this time as a sculpture made of photographic prints.

I was photographing other buildings too. From those photos I began drawing architectural elements from around the city. This included temple forms, modernist ornamentation, and other design motifs I came across. I also created frottage reliefs of the buildings but then began to work with a neon bender near the Olympic Stadium. The neons of temple forms and vernacular architecture never had the volume I wanted and was too heavy with tropes of contemporary art. Their materiality felt empty and misguided, so I began to work with plexiglass and LED. It felt more logical to appropriate the current medium the city was using to advertise their businesses that was also destroying its architectural heritage.

This piece, titled Vision A Reality (2017), gave a slight linguistic nod to realty and the building boom that was sweeping the city then. The grating form had actually come from the side of a modernist structure of a library at Wat Ounaloum near the riverside. The temple library held an archive of copies of the Sangkum era (1960’s) magazine Cambodge d’aujourd’hui. I had never before encountered the magazine and would often come and take pictures of its pages as they would disintegrate upon my touching them. One day the entire cabinet of magazines had disappeared. According to a monk familiar with the matter, a European university had purchased them to better preserve them. I was disappointed they had been taken away from the country but found that the scenario echoed my own biography. Sometimes leaving a place is the best way to preserve its usefulness.

The photographer Lyno Vuth, also a member of Sa Sa Art Projects was very excited about the piece and would actually go on to collect the work. Erin from SA SA BASSAC sold it to him at a great discount. Here is Lyno pictured, photographing my artwork on the night of the opening.