Born June 1985, Battambang
Graduated 2007 from Phare Ponleu Selpak
Annie: What is your background and training in art?
Kosal: I was studying in high school, but because of my poor health condition, I did not continue studying and did not pass my final exam for high school. I went instead to Phare Ponleu Selpak to study visual art, but I didn’t know where it would lead me. While at school, I started selling my paintings and drawings to tourists, so being at Phare Ponleu Selpak, it offered me knowledge but also provided me with some income.
Phare Ponleu Selpak then created the curriculum for students year 1 to 5, and I also attended this five-year programme. After I graduated in 2007, I became an independent art to start making my own work and also taught at Phare for one year.
At Phare I focused on visual arts, and studied portrait, models, drawing with pencil, – techniques and skills to do drawing and painting. But it was my personal experience with meditation, that was introduced to me by a Battambang-based artist, Loeum Lorn, that gave me an understanding of life and nature, and that experience inspired the making of my artwork. This meditation, for me, follows the main methodology founded by Buddha.
Annie: And how does the meditation practice found its way into your practice and live painting?
Kosal: The meditation helps me to discover new ideas and gives me a different perspective, so I can reflect on what is happening in society, and from there, it inspired many different ideas on what to do in my art practice. One of which is to make performance: the first one I did was in Siem Reap in 2009, at the wildlife protection centre where they invited Battambang artists to create work using shadow puppets, and where I covered himself in white baby powder. Here the artists were Loeum Lorn, Hiek Villa, Channa, Narong, and Ben Thynal. Then I made a second performance in Battambang, when Jaan Bai Restaurant invited me and some others to do a live performance. I used white paint, which was probably wall paint.
Annie: Where did the idea of live painting come from? Why did you start doing live performance?
Kosal: The idea of making live performance was born out of a 10-day study trip to Thailand, where I visited different museums, art centres and artists’ houses. I found my way to the Chiang Mai province, where I saw live performance on the street in public. People would use stillness and move in slow motion, with different costumes and headdresses, and I wanted to do something similar in Cambodia.
When I was invited to join the performance at the wildlife centre, I did not have anything prepared and everyone else had ideas. But still I thought I should try and during the course of discussions with the other artists, I decided to do a live performance using powder. I am not sure where the idea came from, or what exactly was the meaning behind the material, but then it was just a way to express purely a feeling.
At Jaan Bai restaurant’s opening in 2012 or 2013, I was invited, along with Bo Rithy and Rouen Sokhom, and we collaborated to make live painting on one canvas. It was a coincidence that Sokhom brought white wall paint and he used it to paint my face. We realised it looked beautiful on skin, and so we decided to rework what I had done using powder, but now with the wall paint on my skin. There was no developed political message behind it, and it was open to anyone’s interpretation. For me, it was the beauty in the colour, the purity of the aesthetic, and a lot of people became very interested in this performance.
Annie: Do you see any separation between ‘performance’ and ‘live painting’ as the two seem to overlapping in this project?
Kosal: The performance at Jaan Bai was live painting, but it’s also partly performance because I painted myself. Before that, also in 2013, I was with another group called Storm on the Street, with Nov Cheanick, Pen Robit, Sin Rithy, Mil Chankrim, Prak Ke, Khoun Alic…and when we performed together, we came up with different approaches and themes, and would combine them to make a live performance, or a live painting show.
When I perform, it is not necessarily ‘live painting’, but there are interconnections. At the 2013 Storm on the Street show at Choco l’Arte Café in Battambang, a cafe and art space run by Prak Ke, I invited the other artists to paint me and after they did, I would take my position as the “White Man” in the performance. After this show at Choco l’Arte, we did the performance again at Phare and also at the Our City Festival.
I was also in another performance collaboration titled Colouring during the Our City Festival in 2013, where I performed with Sin Rithy. Rithy painted my body with white paint, and then used black paint to mark on top of the white. In 2015, I was involved in another larger performance and this time we explored the theme of deforestation. By this show, I no longer asked the artists to paint me during the performance. I would enter the space already in character, and painted, as the “White Man”.
Annie: It’s interesting you have all come from a background in painterly training, and then developed an extension of that into performance. When you worked with Sin Rithy, did you discuss beforehand what would happen? What did you want the audience to understand from the performance?
Kosal: We discussed what would take place, because it’s like choreography, we needed to understand what the sequence would be. During the performance, I would paint half my face already in white, and I would cover myself with the blanket. When I walked out into the street, Rithy took my fabric blanket off me, and he started to paint the rest of me white. We then paused for twenty minutes while other performances were taking place, and after that, applied the black paint. With the audience, I just wanted people to debate amongst themselves – why am I first painted white, and then black? I wanted to give them a moment of reflection to question themselves, and whatever understanding they get from it, it’s their choice, and I think some people would understand that.
At Choco l’Arte, some senior people came by and I explained later it was about deforestation and I was performing as the spirit of the forest. I think it was a good thing that these senior people, who had never previously been exposed to art, understood what I was trying to present.
So for me, live painting or performance with painting on my body, is not that different, they correspond – just different canvases, and I use my body as a canvas. Also what is more important is how we collaborate in the group, and we understand each other. We invite each other in, and are open if somebody has something to show, and we discuss how to deliver the performance so that the audience would understand.
Painting or performance seems to me like very similar tools or mediums, both work together to send a message, and have the same function. But for me, performance has more bodily expression and feeling, so it is easier to send the message. In public, it can reach a larger audience whereas the gallery is a smaller space and only a few people come to it. Bringing a performance to the public space, like the market, allows more Cambodians, the Khmer audience, to see what the message I want to send, even if it is not necessary that they understand.
At the market performance of Psar Nat, some of the artists from Storm on the Street were there, but also with other people so we changed the name to Kandia, which is a kind of termite. Those in Kandia were Khoun Alic, Fleur, Roeun Sokhom, Bo Rithy, Sin Rithy, Nov Cheanick, Prak Ke, Pen Robit, and myself from Storm, and also, Ouk Layheak and two musicians, Van Than and Teng Rith. We called it Kandia because we came together united to make an earth nest, but the termite also destroys, and we were responding to the injustice and social issues in Cambodia.
Annie: Is there documentation of these performances? Where are they?
Kosal: Yes, there are. They are in Prak Ke’s hard drive, and on my Facebook. You can download these photos from my Facebook, but for higher quality ones, ask Prak Ke.
Annie: Do you intend to make another performance?
Kosal: Yes, I will do another performance, also with paint but also using a fishing line, as that is about using bait, providing food, in order to lure the fish that you then catch. I am exploring something about merit, revolution and relation.
Annie: When you paint yourself white, and carry a prop like that, the white paint sort of transforms you into a monument or a statue…
Kosal: Yeah, I agree it is something like that, it could be also seen as a kind of sculpture. I am also interested in getting people to think about how deep down in every individual, there is always this natural element that is honest. And the white signifies peace and honesty. And sometimes when you see the black marked across the white, it means that this peace and this honesty have been violated. But yes, in the performance the body becomes sculptural, it is no longer me.
Annie: What do you think of performance in Battambang, and in Cambodia? What can help it develop?
Kosal: It depends on how united the artists are – everyone should come together to try and make it happen. The artists are not rich, and we need money, so we need to start somewhere. That’s the reason why we were performing at the restaurant, or at different occasions that can give us a little income, and use the income to produce a performance in the public. It has to start somewhere.
But It’s important to show them what is art, and to show them that this art exists in Battambang, not in only Phnom Penh, because they never come to see the galleries here. So it’s good that the art can go outside in the public for them to see. I want to use art to attract tourists to Battambang too, and then the local businesses would benefit.
But it is also to give critical thinking or ideas to society. We need more communication. It is one thing to go around and perform, but communication is important so we can share that information and approach others to raise awareness.
With thanks to Reaksmey Yean. 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.
With thanks to Prak Ke, Choco l’Arte Cafe, Sokhom Rouen and Long Kosal for contributing images and documentation, which along with the interviews will be accessible at the Live Art Development Agency as part of the Southeast Asia Performance Collection launched by Something Human in November 2017.