You have fine skills in traditional art. Were you trained as a traditional artist and developed contemporary contexts afterwards, or was it what you aimed for from the very beginning?
This is what I aimed for from the very beginning. I was trained in painting and in traditional painting, but the contemporary context and approach was what I aimed at since the beginning.
What is your favorite story or figure in Cambodian mythology, and do they have any relevance to the contemporary society?
It’s hard to name a favorite story or figure, there are so many of them that I like to refer to and adopt in my work, and I think many of the stories in traditional mythology could still find their relevance today. I use a lot of these elements in my paintings.
As someone who grew up during the American bombings of Indochina and the rise of Khmer Rouge regime, your works don’t seem to suggest any aggression or anger. Even the brutality of the imagery has a touch of religious endurance. Does that have something to do with your personal background or belief?
I don’t like to be so straightforward in expressing the turbulent and violent past, it doesn’t make me comfortable. I like to create beautiful images through which one could see clearly what happened in history and what’s going on today without having to resort to aggression. It’s more of a subtle approach instead of right in the people’s faces. In the series Heavy Skirt and Hell on Earth, the subject matter of the paintings may be heavy but it was demonstrated through beautiful imagery, and this is the method I like to use.
Your new piece God of Wi-Fi showing at Rossi & Rossi Hong Kong has made my day. That is something new comparing to your previous works that carry a distressing historical weight. Please talk a bit about it.
I like to create works about the present. The God of Wifi shows the inter-connectedness of the world of today. It still retains elements from my previous works – the deities, Jesus Christ and Buddha Shakyamuni, and the wifi signals are everywhere connecting different worlds.
When the traumas of the past fade, if they ever did, do you think the subjects and focuses of Cambodian contemporary art would shift as well? If the representation of such wounds in your works is a method of healing, do you think that you would move on to something else when the healing process is complete for you?
I think so, and I think I have already started to focus more on today’s Cambodian society. In my new series on exhibit at Rossi & Rossi, the God of Wifi, Dead and Reborn Again, and some of my new collage works such as Phnom Penh Progress all addressed the social changes, events and the new generation of Cambodians. There is history and the past in these works, as well as the picture of the present.
I’ve noticed strong symbolistic references in your works. What do you think about the usage of symbolism as a method to deliver your thoughts? It requires certain amounts of background knowledge. Is it important that the audiences are aware of that when they view your art?
There are indeed plenty of symbols in my works, but I don’t think it requires much background knowledge from the audiences because the works contain something very universal. Every one would see something different in these works. I have met visitors to the exhibition who didn’t have much relevant background knowledge but were able to understand very well.
I’m thinking about the music album Cambodian Rocks, in which an American collected a compilation of 22 uncredited, untitled Cambodian psychedelic and garage rock songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. However it was due to the influences, the musicians were identified afterwards through collaboration on the Internet. Do you think the anonymity and exoticism assigned by the Western world are reducing the artworks to something lesser than what they are, or creating another layer or opportunity to them?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s important that people get to know them instead of having this episode of history hidden somewhere, and it brings the 60s and 70s back to the attention of Cambodian younger generation, it’s a good thing.