Conditions for Performance in Cambodia: Interview with Svay Sareth

Mon Boulet

SVAY Sareth’s works in sculpture, installation and durational performance are made using materials and processes intentionally associated with war – metals, uniforms, camouflage and actions requiring specific forms of endurance. While his critical and cathartic practice is rooted in his autobiography as a war victim and refugee, he refuses both historical particularity and voyeurism on violence, preferring to draw on processes of survival and adventure, and ideas of power and futility. He also confronts the present as “a dangerous time”, dramatizing official narratives and appropriating public monuments. Svay Sareth was born in 1972 in Battambang. Following the era of the Khmer Rouge, he lived thirteen years in Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand. He went on to co-found Phare Ponlue Selepak, a non-governmental organization and art school in Battambang that continues to thrive today.

He holds a Diplôme National Supérieur d’Études des Arts Plastiques, Caen, France (2009). Sareth’s solo exhibitions include I, Svay Sareth, am eating rubber sandals (2015) and Traffic Circle (2012) both SA SA BASSAC, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Select group exhibitions include the 21st Sydney Biennale (forthcoming, 2018); Global Control and Censorship, ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany; After Utopia, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore; Gods, Heroes and Clowns: Performance and Narrative in South and Southeast Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia; Secret Archipelago, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France (all 2015); and the 4th Singapore Biennale (2014). Sareth was awarded the Prudential Eye Awards for the Overall Best Emerging Artist in Asia (2014). He has held residencies with Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Center for Contemporary Art Singapore, and Open Gate, Japan. His work is collected by the Singapore Art Museum and National Gallery of Victoria., Sareth lives and works in Siem Reap, Cambodia. 






Annie: You are a co-founder of Phare Selpak Ponleu as well as a multidisciplinary artist. Could you tell me how you trained as an artist? What led you first to explore performance or using movement in your body, and what was the experience like?

Sareth: I learnt art in the camp from when I was 13 years old. I think I get a lot of freedom to express something through drawing and painting, and now, I enter more deeply into thinking about the concept, and into political issues and social problems in my community. In 2008 I was studying in France, and one day I discovered that painting was not enough for me so I tried to do something that I never did in the past. I didn’t know it was called ‘performance’. I just wanted to do something I’d never done.

I felt sick at much that had happened [in Cambodia’s troubled past] and decided to rub on my body to leave markings on my body. I felt much better, and it became a working concept. I find metal and cut the metal in the shape of a shield which I attached to the back of my bicycle. And my thinking is that the land is my body, the world is my body, and I would try to use the metal to wrap the body. I travelled from Normandy to Paris on bicycle and when I arrived in Paris, I saw that what happened to the metal shield was very violent. It related to my own story when I was living in the camp, and also the story of civil war in Cambodia. Human action can be very violent on an object or on the other lives, in this dramatic history of humanity. I called this piece “Bouclier” [shield].

In Normandy, people asked me why I did it, why did I make that noise with that rubbing on the land, and some asked me to stop as it is worrying, but I just kept going. When I do something, I never ask permission. I never ever do. Even when I did it in New York, at the uncovered temple or private museum, I never asked for permission. Why ask permission? It is my way of life. It’s my thinking that I make as a proposition to see what happens. Why do they need to give me permission to do something that I must do?

Svay Sareth, Shield / Bouclier, 2008
Iron, 45 cm circular Image courtesy of the artist


Annie: What do you think performance offers that is different from other mediums?

Sareth: I think performance uses the body in real time. I use the body like a pencil to draw, but in a real landscape, real-time, and real life. I apply myself physically in the moment, and you have it all in that moment – your thinking, body, force, real life, and the real reaction of the audience. Performing is when you are in real time. What’s happening is happening.

In 2013 I had a residency on Governer’s Island in New York for two months during Seasons of Cambodia. New York seems the symbol of freedom and liberty. When you think about New York, you think of the Statue of Liberty.  I was very happy to be there. I appreciated New York City as the model of democracy in the world. But when I arrived at my studio, I discovered that in my studio, there were cameras on the roof. You follow me? Security cameras. Surveillance. And I said like, oh my god, what happened, what’s going on.

My ideas were changed by the new environment. I decided to collect all the materials I found every day along the way between Brooklyn and my studio. Two weeks later, I had enough material and I built a house under the camera. And then one day, I found this toy bull and I had an idea. I brought it to the New York Stock Exchange. You know they have a red bull sculpture in bronze? [Charging Bull, by Arturo Di Modica] I carried this toy bull and rode it around the sculpture, and just ran around. I felt like I was running from America, and the camera, in some kind of political and social response to the economy of America. If camera surveillance was installed in my studio, I will take the work outside to the public space, do it outside. [Performance of Get Out, 2013]

In New York, many people felt like I interrupted them because there were many tourists who are Chinese or Korean who go there to take photos, and also because it’s a proud symbol of the economy of America. They did not understand what I was trying to do. Maybe they thought I’m crazy. Yes, I am crazy, because we are all crazy but in different ways. I accept that sometimes I have to be crazy to fight for something.

Svay Sareth, Get Out, 2013, Performance. Image courtesy of the artist
Svay Sareth, Get Out, 2013, Performance. Image courtesy of the artist


Annie: As an artist when you make work, do you want the audience to react in a specific way?

Sareth: I cannot say ‘I want.’ I can’t say that I want you to understand. I don’t want to say that I want you to give me permission to something. I just make work because it is annoying if I cannot do it. If I cannot make it happen, to raise some kind of question. Maybe the audience sees it and they have some discussion between them. Or maybe they don’t. So I don’t know, I can’t say I ‘want’ anything. I just make it happen.

I had another different experience when I did Mon Boulet in 2011, which discusses ‘departure’ and ‘destination’. The departure was from Siem Reap, near Angkor which is the old city of Cambodia which began in the 12thcentury until 13thcentury. And then I tried moving forwards towards the future – Phnom Penh, which is the capital for the economy and hope for the future. I knew that many people live along the way between the two. I chose the destination, but I did not really choose the route, and I didn’t really programme where I would sleep during the performance. That was a long performance, and very tiring. My goal was just to bring it until Phnom Penh and to see what would happen to me physically, how I would think.

Along the way, many people said, “Wow, sir, why do you do this? Why do you not put it on a taxi? It’s not expensive, it’s just thirty dollars.” Thirty dollars. I had no money because I already paid for my ball.

And some people asked, “You need me to help?” I said, “If you feel you can do it.” So some children just went with me, you know, they were just talking, “Oh, is it hard to pull?”

And some people said, “Wow, it’s so heavy.” The weight is 80 kilograms.

Some people came and asked, “Oh, what’s inside?” And I replied, “What do you feel?” And they knocked it and they said, “I feel nothing”.

And some people said, “You have drugs inside and you’re trying to bring from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.”

But many people, especially old people who experienced the Khmer Rouge, the war, they stopped and talked to me about their own experiences. Some people talked with me for one or two hours, speaking about their own concerns and personal story, and their own experience of Khmer Rouge. One example is an old man I met between Kampong and Phnom Penh. He rode a bicycle across me a few times and 30 minutes later, he came back and left again 2 or 3 times. He said nothing. Finally, he came back and said, “I cannot go to work today because you make me feel crazy. I really want to understand what’s going on.” So he asked me, “Can you stop? So I ask you some questions?” I said, yes. And he said, “When you do this, you make me think of the Khmer Rouge. I worked very hard in the countryside.” This old man shared with me his experiences, and even brought food and said, “Today I don’t want to go to work. I just want to talk to you.”

Sometimes the police stopped me and asked, “Why do you do this? You are interrupting people along the way.” But they did not understand it’s performance art. To do this is like how they say in French – témoin – to bear witness of history. But for me, I put myself in danger for the moment because I try to fight for something, for myself, inside my mind, that I hope it will be better for the new generation.

Mon Boulet
Svay Sareth, Mon Boulet, 2011 Image courtesy of the artist.

Annie: Do you think a performance like this, because of its being out in public space, is a good medium to communicate? Do you think performance has the ability to deal with political or social questions?

Sareth: In performance, the artist is free and can do anything in the world. They can do this in Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand etc. You can make it happen if the artist has enough courage to go through the wall of the people. It depends on what kind of performance you do or if you do it in a closed space, in a room, or you do it in the public, along the roads. But if you do it in Singapore, you go to jail. If you do this in America, it is a demonstration. But I think artists should learn to take risks in life.


Annie: What do you think of the performance scene in Cambodia right now? What can be done to help develop more performance?

Sareth: I think there must be more learning about art history, the concepts of art, and how to connect the idea to philosophy, the political and the social conditions. Because when you create an artwork, you create a language, and that language should express your identity that is really personal, but this personal story should also be a universal language which you can communicate with.

Phare Selpak Ponleu has a role in this development and because I have the experience, I know how to teach but there are also limitations. It’s a big problem which I discuss every day with my colleague, trying to find a way for Phare to send some of the teachers to France to study.

We don’t teach performance art at Phare, but my role is to continue to do it, and I will listen to who would like to talk to me, and I will talk with them. Artists should not keep themselves in a box because of the limited education that they got from Phare too. But I just say that we need to push the limit, we need to break it. But how to break it? We need time, money. We need support, materials, and we need volunteers and confidence. If you believe in art, if you believe that art is an important tool to change the society…To do performance art, you need a concept, and you do it somewhere in the space, using the body to do something. If the artist does not know how to fight to protect their own experience, for me it’s not enough. Because Cambodia needs it, Cambodian’s new generation needs it. Inspiration for freedom. The role of the artist should show people that they have freedom. Freedom for creativity, freedom of expression. But this should be considered for the new generation as they’re waiting for the freedom somewhere.




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. The interviews and materials will be accessible at the Live Art Development Agency as part of the Southeast Asian Performance Archive launched by Something Human in November 2017.


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