Stiev Selapak: Retelling Cambodia’s Story

by Francesca Sonara*

Today, a burgeoning community of artists, dancers and filmmakers is rapidly emerging within the country of Cambodia. At the forefront of this emerging scene is the collective Stiev Selapak (Art Rebels). Having met during a photography workshop in 2007- one of few mechanisms for accruing knowledge on contemporary art in the country- the members came together over shared frustrations for the lack of discourse on new art forms within Cambodia. What is more, having already developed an affinity for the possibilities of what a camera is capable of producing, the group shared their concern for the lack of preserved documentation on Cambodia’s past and present. Founding member and photographer Vandy Rattana states, “What details make us Cambodians? I want to reveal the internal, to archive Cambodia as much as I can. It’s not for me. We have to tell the world who we are.”

When I met Vandy in 2009, I was fascinated by the urgency with which he seemed to be operating. It was as though some invisible flame beneath his feet had been turned way up high, compelling him to move as quickly as possible. He was tireless in his ambitions to not only produce, but to communicate what he was producing at an accelerated rate. Now, while the desire to act fast is the case for most producers, cultural or otherwise, Vandy’s obligations were incited by something graver than the critical need to have one’s voice heard. He was not only striving to rise above the persistent noise of a globalizing economy, national development, or the relentless white noise of the Internet. He was endeavoring to overwhelm the silence incepted by one of the twentieth century’s most devastating eras.

In the wake of America’s incursion into Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge’s brutal and indeed quite successful attempt at setting Cambodia back to a culturally devoid “Year Zero”, the archival and documentary practices of native Cambodians are still quite nascent. While the value of understanding one’s history and one’s present is advancing in the cities of Battambang, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, there is much ground to cover as the ground literally changes beneath the nation’s feet.

Amidst the frenzy of Cambodia rapidly transforming itself into a modern South East Asian economy, there are endless scenarios, images and stories to document. The imagery can easily insert itself into any discussion on the perils and successes of globalization. When I asked Stiev Selapak member Lim Sokchanlina why he decided to start photographing his city of Phnom Penh, he responded “As I grow up in this city I see more and more foreigners coming through and documenting how the country is changing. I thought to myself, we, as Cambodians, should be doing this. Our thoughts and ideas about this place should also be part of the conversation.”[1]  One might assume that his desire is widely shared, but in fact, Lim and his peers represent a staunch minority.

While mobile phone cameras and Facebook are as common in Cambodia’s metropolises as anywhere else, the stakes are higher in regards to the documentation and dissemination they provide. As Cambodian teenagers join the rest of the world in the frenetic photo snapping of even their most banal activities, they are creating something brand new for their country, a record of their day-to-day existence. However, this mechanism for sharing images is limited in scope. While it is often captivating material for interpersonal relationships, the photo-documentation proffered by Facebook rarely intrigues members outside one’s social circle. Similarly, a photojournalistic record of Cambodia is limiting as it is submerged in a glut of worldwide reportage. It is in the realm of artistic production that the work of Stiev Selapak’s work effectively refocuses the lens pointed at their nation’s current state of flux.

Bassac River Front Apartments, circa 1963

Bassac River Front Apartments (“The Building”), 2011

As he prepares for his performance, Khvay Samnang stands in the street in front of “The Building”. Standing 300 meters long and 4 stories high, The Building is comprised of six distinct apartment blocks joined by a system of open staircases. Along the front of the structure, motos and tuk-tuks whiz by, honking for children and stray dogs to make way. In front of the last apartment block, Khvay looks down the small alley, taking note of the distance between himself and the staircase. He places a set of horns on his head and secures the strap beneath his chin. Children gather nearby, the women at the butcher and vegetable stalls stare in confusion, sometimes cracking a smile. His horn-helmet cannot help but attract attention. Comprised of hair collected from street-side barbers across Phnom Penh, this object literally represents a collective of Cambodians via hair follicles. He squats down low, allowing the participant to climb up on his back. He takes a deep breath and then heaves forward. His skinny body belies a stubborn determination and inspiring strength. As he ambles up the four flights of stairs, children squeal in delight, excited by the activity and the ridiculousness of the situation. He passes young men and women in the dark stairwell, trampling an excessive amount of garbage beneath his feet. Vandy and Lim chase after him, shooting from as many angles as possible. When he reaches the top flight, Khvay unburdens himself, and stands, exhausted. On top of the staircase, he takes a seat, looking at the scene beneath him. Cameras off and horns still in place, Samnang takes a moment to regain enough strength to do it again.

The Bassac Riverfront, circa 1968

In 2010, Stiev Selapak opened Sa Sa Art Projects inside The Bassac Riverfront Municipal Apartments or “The Building” as it is now commonly called.  Historically, “The Building” signified hope for the rising urban population of Phnom Penh in the 1960s.  In a conversation between former King Norodom Sihanouk and Phnom Penh Governor Tep Phan, Sihanouk stated, “Finally, our capital must deal with the problem of the urban population. I do not think it necessary to remind you of the social and hygiene problems, the fire risk and the infrastructure and the transport problems associated with unplanned development on the periphery of the town. We must begin the construction of low cost apartment buildings that can be rented or sold to average and small-income families.”[2]

Designed and executed under the helm of Van Molyvann (Cambodia’s most renowned post-independence architect) and Lu Ban Hap, The Bassac Riverfront development aimed to develop approximately 60 acres of riverfront property into a site of modern, urban community. Designed with the Cambodian lifestyle in mind, two apartment blocks were constructed to accommodate low-income families living in the city. Beyond the apartment blocks, a National Theater, Water Sports Complex, and Exhibition hall were also constructed. Today, all is but lost.

Refabricated, unmaintained, or demolished, the new city promised by this urban development in the 1960s is a far-gone memory for some, an unknown entity for most.

And it goes beyond just the Bassac Riverfront. Vann Molyvann, who designed many of the buildings in the Bassac Riverfront (excepting the Municipal Apartments), continues to bear witness to the destruction of most of his work. The period between 1953 and 1970 was an era of renaissance for Cambodian arts and architecture. Vann Molyvann, a student of Le Corbusier at the École des Beaux-arts, helped usher in what came to be known as The New Khmer Architecture. His buildings in particular, exemplified progressive thinking towards architecture and urban development, and successfully “adapted a modern vocabulary to Cambodia’s culture, climate, geography and its vernacular and ancient architectural traditions.”[3]

Re-populated in the 1980s as people returned to the city after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, The Building once again symbolized a renewed hope for Cambodia’s city-dwellers. Families reinstated themselves in modest apartments down dark concrete halls and now, some 30 years later, many of those remain. Inside Sa Sa Art Projects, weekly art classes are conducted by members of the collective, providing young Cambodians with artistic skills as well as a sense of community amongst their classmates. Exhibitions of Stiev Selapak’s work and their visiting collaborators bring an unexpected mix of people together as an audience. All such efforts endeavor to maintain the legacy of The Building as a shelter for urban dwellers, artists, performers, and musicians who have taken refuge in this cast-concrete, dilapidated structure.  Placing artists in the midst of urban communal activity, this project space belies a relational aspect, reconnecting people to a site of historical significance while creating a new community within it.

Khvay Samnang, “Samnang Cow Taxi” at The Building, 2011

If one notices some similarities between the work of Stiev Selapak today and that of contemporary Chinese art from the ‘90s, they would not be mistaken. China’s urban development not only foretold the growth of peripheral Asian cities, the artists directly influenced by China’s development anticipated the inevitable need for an artist’s voice inside an atmosphere obsessed by the “new and improved.” As with the growing metropolises in China in the ’90s, Phnom Penh’s plethora of “urban voids” has created ample opportunity for this group of ambitious and fearless artists to create and experiment with the raw material of their nation’s rapid development. Curator Hou Hanru describes the phenomenon of urban voids as “the handiest, relevant and efficient conditions for art experiments because they are temporarily “out of control.”[4] These are spaces which exist immediately between being used or inhabited, and razed or eliminated. Encouraged by the artistic interventions of Chinese artists with their cities’ hasty topographical transformations, members of Stiev Selapak decided to “look to forgotten corners to manifest their imagination.”[5]

Vandy Rattana, from the series “Looking In” 2005

In Cambodia however, it is not so much about forgotten corners, as it is about undiscovered ones. The members of Stiev Selapak are not working from their memories but rather from what they see right in front of them. Their memories of their country are shallow in depth, denied by the erasure of their national history and then hindered by domineering urbanization. It is with a need to create memory that Vandy shoots portraits of people living inside The Building, documenting even their most mundane activities. Looking In (2005-ongoing) offers viewers images of a man cooking dinner, or a family watching television from the tiled floor. These sights are perhaps not significant on their own, but in the context of the apartments they are taken in, the story changes. There is a sense of finality to this work, a feeling that this may be the first and last time such photographs were taken.

Khvay Samnang, from “Untitled” 2010-ongoing

It is this commitment to the here and now that sends Khvay out into Phnom Penh’s remaining lakes to bury himself under sand. Whether the lakes are filled with the vivid greens of hyacinths or the fetid decay of garbage, Khvay enters the waters, compelled by a need to represent the burial of thousands of Cambodian’s homes and livelihoods across the country. His ongoing series of performances and photographs ultimately produce a testament to the existence of so many communities, dismantled without a trace.

This may also be the fate of The Building. There are no illusions as to what would become of the structure or its inhabitants once the developers take hold. As Cambodia reinvents itself into a modern city, filled with skyscrapers and luxury condominiums, the glaring issue for the group is to discover what exactly is being bulldozed beyond blighted buildings. As new office buildings and entire new areas such as Camko city[6], promote and promise a “new Cambodian lifestyle” the collective can’t help but wonder, for whom? When the majority of the population still lives like the inhabitants of The Building, who is going to fill these new sites of urban luxury? And worse, who is going to remember what was demolished to make way for it all?

As architect William Lim states,  “A clean and rational city no longer seems to be the most desirable city after all. Urban life is actually based on the perpetual struggle between rigid routinized order and pleasurable anarchy. History, memories, and local identity are a more accurate measure of how much an urban environment is enjoyed by the people.”[7] At the very least, Stiev Selapak and the increasing number of concerned and inspired young artists engaging in contemporary practices are creating a record of the community threatened by the New Phnom Penh. Even if this city, like so many others, has lost itself, their art has inherited it and will bear the burden of sharing this story with the world and the increasingly sterile future.

As he sits on the Building’s roof, Lim Sokchanlina looks out across the panorama. Cranes to one side, half-finished skyscrapers to the other, an empty field where Dey Krahom once stood before its brutal eviction in 2009[8], and further, the hole where The National Theater once stood. “I think my city is growing up faster than my people.” Lim says. Standing precariously atop a wide, open chimney pipe, he looks ahead. His bared body is bound by rope. Resembling St. Sebastian, a look of stoic resignation passes across his face. He struggles futilely to uphold a pile of concrete above his head. Surrounded by characters acting as wealthy investors and foreign land speculators, Lim is outnumbered. Trembling and quivering, he slowly then irrevocably fast, loses stamina. Unable to endure, he collapses down into the pipe, without a trace. Now out of sight, it is as though he was never there at all.

Lim Sokchanlina, Performance on the roof of “The Building” 2011

[1] SokchanLina Lim, interview by author, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February
[2] Darryl Leon Collins and Helen Grant Ross, Building Cambodia: ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953-1970 (Bangkok: The Key Publisher Ltd., 2006)
[3] Bill Greaves, “Van Molyvann and the New Khmer Architecture.” The Vann Molyvann Project.
[4] Hou Hanru, “Filling the Urban Void: Urban Explosion and Art
Intervention in Chinese Cities,” in On The Mid-Ground (Hong Kong: Timezone 8
Ltd, 2002), 183.
[5] Ibid.
[6] A 2 billion dollar development across approximately 295 acres, CamKo City is a Korean backed project being constructed 2 miles outside Phnom Penh’s center. The master plan ultimately includes a trade center, convention center, financing center, office towers, shopping centers, hotels, government offices, general hospital, public and international schools, a technical college, villas, townhouses and both mid and high rise condominiums. The developers of CamKo city state “We believe that it will improve the quality of life and change the Cambodian life style.”
[7] Hou Hanru, “Transparency, Complexity, Void and Action” in On The Mid-Ground (Hong Kong: Timezone 8 Ltd, 2002), 196.
[8] SokchanLina Lim, interview by author, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February

*Francesca Sonara is a graduate of The Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.