From eating black rubber sandals to dragging an 80kg metal ball halfway across Cambodia, Svay Sareth’s art is heavy with the trauma of a childhood spent in refugee camps
Words by Paul Millar Photography by Thomas Cristofoletti
The video begins. Against a sloping backdrop of shanties in a dry dirt field, a grim-faced man in a crisp, white shirt raises a rubber sandal to his mouth and bites down hard. By his elbow, a single pot of pale gold tea stands ready to wash the black taste from his mouth. He twists his neck, sets his jaw, and begins to chew.
Born in what was once Cambodia’s thriving cultural hub of Battambang in 1972, three years before the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and drove thousands into the countryside for nearly four years of famine and purges, Svay Sareth’s childhood was spent moving between refugee camps on the Thai border as the nation tore itself apart through decades of civil war.
“When I was in the camp I was very young – I was maybe six years old [when the Khmer Rouge were driven out] in 1979,” he told Discover in Phnom Penh’s Sa Sa Bassac art gallery. “I just followed where my family went. And then I was running under the bombs. I saw people dead along the way, I saw people exploded by mines, I heard the tanks. I understood about war instruments. But this experience I cannot share with the new generation of Cambodia. What I can share is that I can tell them that war is not good. War cannot bring peace.”
Detained in the camps until the age of 19, Sareth described his childhood there as a time of constant fear and grinding monotony as more than 300,000 people became bargaining chips in drawn-out negotiations between the country’s competing factions.
“For me, to become a refugee, it meant that people had lost many opportunities to build their own future, to build their own vision, to build their own dream, to build their own goal in life – and when you have no goal, when you have no dream, you cannot share anything with society,” he said.
It was in the camp known as Site 2 that Sareth first began expressing himself through his artwork – though he had no idea at the time that it would be this passion for creation that would come to define his life.
“The way to share my experience with people is by telling stories through art,” he said. “But when I was young, I didn’t know much about the rules of art for society – the function of art. I just loved drawing.”
It was not until last year that Sareth, now 45 years old, finally returned to Site 2 – only to find the tarps, tin and chain-link fence lost beneath years of advancing jungle. The image of man-made suffering snuffed out by the inexorable advance of time and nature was one that would stay with Sareth long after he returned to his home in Siem Reap.
“When I saw that place, I just thought: ‘Oh my God, this place doesn’t belong to me anymore,’” he said. “The image in the past doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the history of Cambodia, it belongs to art history of Cambodia, it belongs to the discussion of the United Nations… The image from my memory from the camp belongs to you now.”
It is an image that he would translate effortlessly across mediums throughout his career. Educated in fine arts at France’s École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux- Arts, Sareth has drawn upon an eclectic mix of photography, sculpture, video and performance art to express the trauma of those lost years. In his video installation aptly entitled “I, Svay Sareth, am eating rubber sandals”, the artist grimly gnaws at a pile of rough rubber sandals reminiscent of those worn during the Khmer Rouge era. In what is perhaps his most famous work, “Mon Boulet”, Sareth hauled a two-metre-wide silver ball behind him all the way from his home in Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in a Sisyphean expression of survival amid the lingering ravages of war.
The sight of a man dragging a massive silver ball halfway across the country was a baffling one for many of the people along his path, though Sareth said that his journey forged moments of intense connection with older Cambodians who still carried their own mental burdens from years of violence, dispossession and forced labour.
“I was walking 45 to 50km a day with a weight of ‘Mon Boulet’ like 80kg – you can imagine that,” he said. “Some people felt concerned and came to me, shared their own life experience. These were older people who came and sat down and said: ‘Oh, my God, you make me think about the Khmer Rouge doing this to me – it’s very hard to see. They were using my shoulders to replace the cow to work the rice fields.’”
It was this legacy of war, and the devastation it had wrought upon the nation’s culture that inspired Sareth to co-found the NGO and arts school Phare Ponleu Selpak – ‘the brightness of the arts’ in English – on the outskirts of his hometown of Battambang, a school that he believed could help share his own gifts with Cambodia’s future generations. Although today’s Phare Ponleu Selpak boasts a thriving campus with state-of-the-art facilities, Sareth described the school’s early years as a tireless struggle, though it was one that brought him more fulfilment than an entire childhood trapped behind a chain-link fence.
“We had no salary, but we were really happy to do it – making roofs for the children, sleeping under the rain, eating the insects around the school – we were just happy to share something,” he said. “We had been living so long away from our country, it was like a prison for our hearts.”
Although Sareth’s dream of a generation of Cambodians able to resurrect the Kingdom’s once-flourishing arts community draws closer to the waking world every passing year, the artist maintained that the nation’s ability to understand and appreciate the sheer variety of artistic expression still lagged behind the Western world.
“The hardest part of being an artist or a curator in Cambodia is to create an audience. You can create art, you can create an art space, but you need to create the audience too – that is the most difficult work,” he said. “Because you cannot present your work to the people if they will never understand your message.”
For a man who lost 13 years of his life to the avarice and ambition of powerful men, though, it is a cause for which Sareth is ready to sacrifice everything he has built.
“It’s my responsibility in terms of humanity,” he said. “And it’s hard, because you need to fight for everything, for your philosophy, to make people understand your voice. You have to spend a lot of time and energy, and you’ve already lost a lot of time. So it’s hard. But that’s the responsibility.”