A wide angle shot of a woodland meadow reveals scant signs of human civilization: a white tarp in the distance; a plastic bag attached to a pole, rustling slightly in the breeze. In the foreground, a long-necked bird can be seen bobbing slowly through the brush, until suddenly it emerges, revealing itself to be a wicker bird mask, perched upon a man’s head. This is just one of many scenes from the multi-channel video Preah Kunlong (The Way of the Spirit, 2017), part of a research-based project by the Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang incorporating dance, video, and sculpture. Originally shown at Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens, the work is now in its second iteration, presented at Nova Contemporary under the aegis of Bangkok-based curator Abhijan Toto.
Preah Kunlong was conceived by Khvay in response to the planned destruction of the Areng Valley in Southwestern Cambodia—a region which, in 2014, was slated to be flooded in order to create a hydroelectric dam sponsored by Chinese state company Sinohydro. Home to the Chong minority, the Areng Valley is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Southeast Asia, and fortunately, thanks to the protests of locals, NGOs, and a group of Buddhist monks from the capital, the plan to dam the valley was eventually scrapped. However, Khvay’s work is all the more poignant in light of the fact that China has since pushed through a slew of other equally destructive dam projects up and down the Mekong river as part of their international “Belt and Road” development initiative.
Khvay’s best known works confront issues of resource extraction in Cambodia, such as the video Rubber Man (2014), in which he doused his own body with fresh liquid rubber as commentary on the French colonial exploitation of Indochina and the current-day, neo-colonial continuation of similar extractive practices, or the three-channel video Where Is My Land (2014), a collaboration with the Phnom Penh-based dancer Nget Rady, touching on the issue of sand dredging, which is causing erosion along Cambodia’s waterways. Nget appears again in Preah Kunlong, donning animal masks and impersonating their spirits with his signature blend of contemporary movement and traditional Khmer dance.
The Chong people maintain that animal spirits guard over the forest, a belief that inspired Khvay to commission local artisans to weave vine masks representing the various spirits. Nget wore these masks while dancing in the forest, his lithe body gyrating to the hum of insects and the gurgling of streams. In the most iconic shot from the video, Nget strikes a war-like stance while wearing a crocodile mask at the top of a waterfall, the mist-shrouded hills unfurling behind him in the distance—an image that was printed as a lone photograph, greeting visitors at the entrance to the gallery.
Moving deeper into the venue, a plethoraof masks mounted on poles filled the main space, with a two-channel video projection playing upon the wall. In the project’s first iteration at Documenta, the video was shown as a three-channel version at Kassel, while the masks worn by Nget were presented in Athens—a missed opportunity, since the spot-lit masks at Nova gained an ominous presence in the darkened room, their totemic power amplified by the contextualizing images and sounds of the video installation.
The masks are not the actual pieces worn in the video, but new versions cast in brass. Just one of the original vine masks was shown on its own in the smaller upstairs gallery, but it felt like a lifeless specimen in an anthropological museum compared to the brass objects downstairs. Cast by a foundry in Cambodia from recycled metal objects—such as the bowls used by Buddhist monks to collect food offerings—the new versions possess an extramagical quality, embodying asynthesis of both Chong and Khmer worldviews. This host of animal spirits speaks to the interconnectedness of complex ecosystems, in which humans are but one part among many, and acts as a reminder of what stands to be lost should development continue unchecked.
Khvay Samnang’s “Forest of Spirits” is on view at Nova Contemporary, Bangkok, until October 31, 2019.