Conditions for Performance in Cambodia: Interview with Amy Lee Sanford

Photo Credit: Chean Long

Amy Lee Sanford is a sculptor whose work explores the relationship between trauma and healing. Born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 1972 and raised in the United States, the artist holds a degree from Brown University in the Visual Arts. Sanford has been in numerous collective exhibitions internationally. A partial list includes Cascade (solo exhibition, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, NSW, Australia, 2015-16) Interlace (inCube Arts, New York, 2016), Images Biennial: An Age of Our Own Making (Museum of Contemporary Art, Denmark, 2016), And That Which Was Always Known (Yavuz, Singapore, 2015), 1975 (Wellesley College, United States, 2015), On The Streets (apexart Franchise Program, Phnom Penh, 2014), Traversing Expanses (Sa Sa Bassac, Cambodia, 2014), Performance Studies International Conference (Stanford University, United States, 2013).

Annie: Please tell me about your background training as an artist. Do you think this helped shape your performance work? Are there other influences?

Amy: I studied engineering, science, and art at university, heavier on the engineering and science than the art. My engineering and science mind makes me a patient and methodical artist, which emerges in my work. My art studies were mainly in sculpture, ceramics, and casting, with some printmaking thrown in. Having a background in these areas has definitely influenced my performance work. The concept of being present, in the moment, and concentrating on only one task is also a strong theme in my performance work.

Annie: Why were you first interested to make a performance work? How did you come to make a performance work? Was it a commission or a platform?

Amy: Until I began performance, all of my work had been object-based work created in a studio. The physical act of creating work was a private process for me. After being in Cambodia for a while, my work shifted and I felt strongly that my work needed to be done within the public realm. I didn’t necessarily need an audience, but my process needed to be viewable and accessible to the public.

Full Circle was neither a commission nor a platform, it was a piece I conceived of and worked closely with Dana Langlois and JavaArts to produce. I began working on Full Circle by studying shards of clay pots, brick, and glass. I had recently completed a sculpture titled Broken, consisting of over 30 layers of 60cm x 60cm plate glass that had been shattered and then glued back together again, then stacked vertically, so I was interested in working more with the concept of breaking and repairing.

Full Circle and Single Break Pot performances (also known as Break Pot Sketch) consists of letting an object drop and shatter onto the floor/ground, and me gluing the object back together, to as close a resemblance of the original shape as possible. The objects I use are traditional, utilitarian Cambodian clay pots. In Full Circle, I sit in a circle of 40 clay pots and break and repair each one, successively. After I repair the pot, I wrap and tie the pot with string before returning it to the circle, and taking the next pot. In the Single Break Pot performances, the performance is complete some moments after I finish tying the string.

During the performance, I sit on the ground/floor on a circular piece of cloth, which defines the performance space. I do not interact with people or respond to questions/conversation. I sit silently, only repairing the pot.


Full Circle performance at Meta House, 2012. Photo Credit: Amy Lee Sanford
Full Circle performance at Meta House, 2012. Photo Credit: Amy Lee Sanford

Annie: How did you determine the space for the performance work? What kind of audience, if at all, were you looking for? How did the audience react to you? Is audience important to you?

For the first performance of Full Circle, there were practical aspects to consider. The performance would be durational and require several days. When I wasn’t performing, the work needed to remain untouched, and be protected and secure. I therefore needed an interior space with delineated protection from rain. MetaHouse Gallery in Phnom Penh agreed to host my performance for one week, and with management and support from Java Arts, we made the first performance a reality in March 2012.

I didn’t expect an audience, because the performance activity, other than for the breaking of the clay pot, was very slow. But people attended anyway, and at times there was a large audience. The audience was transfixed. Children of all ages and adults. People from all cross sections of society: in a gallery in Phnom Penh, on the streets of Phnom Penh, at the temples in Siem Reap, in the streets and at university in Melbourne Australia, on the streets in Amsterdam, in a museum garden in Roskilde, Denmark, in New York City, there are people who stay and watch the intricate process of my gluing a Cambodian clay pot back together again.

Note: Full Circle or Single Break Pot have been performed in: Melbourne, Australia (University of Melbourne); Roskilde, Denmark (Images Biennial 2016); Palo Alto, California, USA (Performance Studies International 19 at Stanford); New York, New York (Season of Cambodia 2013); Amsterdam, Netherlands (2016); Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia, New York, NY (Interlace, 2016), Greenwich CT (2017).

Amy Lee Sanford, Break Pot Sketch: Tree Island 2013

Annie: What are you working on now? Will you make another performance work? Do you see performance different from your other practices as an artist?  

Amy: Currently I’m working on a series of sculptures and potential installations. Yes, I expect I will continue making performance work, too!

No, [performance is] not different from my other practices, just a different vehicle in which to express my ideas. Performance is part of my vocabulary as an artist. The different vehicles I use in my work (for example performance, sculpture, video) converse with and inform each other.

Annie: What do you think of the performance art in general, in Cambodia, and what else do you think is needed to continue to develop performance art in Cambodia?

Amy: It’s very exciting to see performance art happening in Cambodia, and I support and encourage its existence. An art school/college that teaches contemporary art is needed. The current art workshops and trainings are great, but more support is needed.


This interview is part of a series that began with my curatorial research residency in Cambodia in 2016, which was kindly supported by Java Arts, the Artists International Development Fund and National Arts Council Singapore. The interviews and materials will be accessible at the Live Art Development Agency as part of the Southeast Asia Performance Collection launched by Something Human in November 2017.


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