Leang Seckon, one of Cambodia’s foremost contemporary artists, will see his first European solo exhibition, The Heavy Skirt, opening March 31 at London’s Rossi & Rossi gallery. Unlike depictions of his homeland that you might come across in the US, Seckon’s work presents a rich and complex view of Cambodia, involving elements of performance, collage, painting and illustration. But it can be confusing, like speaking with the artist himself.
“A problem is me, not perfect English,” Seckon tells me when I turn on my tape recorder. But I disagree: The problem is how rarely we take the time to listen.
And Seckon’s work is worthy of a close listen. He calls himself a freedom artist and this is no slight pronouncement. Born during Nixon’s secret bombing of his homeland, he grew up against the background sound of civil war, spent adolescence under the Khmer Rouge and watched his country’s subsequent occupation by the Vietnamese fade into a damaging UN presence and the country’s first violent, but democratic elections. His work, whatever the medium, is autobiographical. His freedom and his country’s have been hard earned. But neither is complete and Seckon does not shy away from describing the limits to Cambodia’s freedom of expression. Yet, he clearly loves his homeland.
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“Will you leave the country if the show is successful?” I ask him. His answer is firm.
“Stay in Cambodia,” he says.
After all, he honed his skills at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), taking two Bachelor’s degrees in place of the BFA and MFA he might have pursued were the Cambodian higher education system not struggling to catch up to his artistic vision. After finishing school, he held exhibitions throughout Phnom Penh, with group and solo shows at emerging galleries in the city and exhibitions in nearby tourist centers like Phuket, Thailand and Siem Reap, Cambodia. He quickly made the leap to international cities with established art scenes like Fukuoka, Japan and Hong Kong. Back home, his work has been endorsed by two kings.
Still, his first solo exhibition in Europe is a significant milestone for the accomplished Cambodian artist. He gave me a preview in his studio on the doomed Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh.
Anne Elizabeth Moore: Where did the title of the exhibition come from?
Leang Seckon: The Heavy Skirt is the meaning from the life of my mom. When I am a child in the stomach, she wore the skirt, the skirt cover the stomach and cover me. The skirt is of course the time of war. We cannot go out, she have just only one clothes, one [heavily quilted] skirt. So her body heavy and the skirt heavy. When I am born, the time of bomb, heavy life.
I was born in the countryside, Prey Vien Province. I was a buffalo boy. I spent nearly ten years as a buffalo boy. During that time, I wanted to learn art and be an artist. But during that buffalo boy time I never … during that buffalo boy time, we were poor. We not have anything. We not have bicycle. We not have enough rice. We not have enough clothes, we not have enough anything for living. So I spent the time at the rice field with the buffalo, then when I come to learn art, it was very very very different.
AEM: When did you first come to Phnom Penh to study and leave the rice fields?
LS: I came to Phnom Penh city for the first time in 1992, to learn art at RUFA. I studied traditional painting and interior design for five years. I finished my degree in 2002. Then that year I start to find a way to make art. In 2002 I had [my first] opening at Java Cafe.
AEM: One of your paintings depicts the American bombing of Cambodia. You are a toddler, abandoned in the middle of a rice field, while the countryside burns around you.
LS: The story my mom told me was that when the bomb come from the sky and around the house, she and my brother were in the bunker. She tried to get me but cannot, so she just left me alone outside of the bunker. That is real story of my life. This is story from the mother. But, you know, the sound from the airplane, the sound from the car, the sound from the bomb or the gun, [when I hear them today] I am very shocked and scared. I think this is feeling from that time.
AEM: You also depict the Pol Pot years with collaged images from photographs of Tuol Sleng victims and bodies wrapped as if in cocoons.
LS: Because people were like mummies. I add the black and white scarf, what normally the Khmer Rouge were wearing in Pol Pot time. They wrap the body but they keep the head for getting breath. Like the body cannot move [he acts this out] maybe the face and just they eyes can move and breathe. Everything else is still. Like stuck. Not a freedom at all. Stuck everything. This is what I mean.
I was very very very young. I’m very scared and cry. And very shocked. I compare it to [spending time around] the living dead.
AEM: Several of your previous projects including The Rubbish Project [https://therubbishproject.blogspot.com/] and some works in this exhibition focus on environmental concerns, which are frequently ignored as the country develops.
LS: I spent nearly ten years as a buffalo boy and I love nature so much. I need nature, I need water, I need [he breathes deeply] fresh air for free. I heard from the TV a few days ago, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Samdech Hun Sen, he’s very upset when the people cut down the tree. He’s very supportive of finding the money and people to look after the tree. He very upset. Especially for the fish in the big lake, too.
So I am here, my studio on Boeung Kak Lake, the most important lake in Phnom Penh. But [laughs] the government destroy. Not the government, but the company buy the lake and destroy the lake. I not feel happy at all because I spent 8 years on the lake to get energy for make my art work. So I can relax to make a painting.
AEM: The arts are still re-emerging in Cambodia, but in the realm of journalism, reporters who criticize the government are regularly threatened or worse. Does this make you nervous?
LS: My art is respect. I don’t want to attack back. I want to say something gentle and not attack, but let people know that they did something wrong. But I don’t want any people – any people – hurt by me. I just try to make you understand that what you did to me is painful and you try to understand by yourself that this is what you did to me. History is treachery. It is already done, but I want to show the people what happened in past time and they can understand more deeply about the present in art.
Between good luck or bad luck is activity, what activity they are doing. I can say to you, like, I respect you, but behave toward you like I’m trying to kill you. This is the meaning, you know?
Cambodia is worried. It’s not very safe at all right now. What I want to focus on at this point is about my mom’s experience and my life’s start and how I grew up until now. Because I have never used my own experience in artwork. This is my own language and my own experience and my own life. But all of this work is of course about war, about the environment, about life and about culture.