Svay Sareth's 'The Breath of Change' at RKFA

The Cambodian artist's first solo exhibition in Singapore
By Ian Tee

Svay Sareth, 'Beyond Sunflower' (video still), 2018, single-channel video, duration 2min 55 seconds, edition of three. Image courtesy of the artist and Richard Koh Fine Art.

Svay Sareth, 'Beyond Sunflower' (video still), 2018, single-channel video, duration 2min 55 seconds, edition of three. Image courtesy of the artist and Richard Koh Fine Art.

Born in 1972 during a period of political turmoil and violence in Cambodia, Svay Sareth draws from personal memories of war and resistance in his practice. At once cathartic and critical, his works respond to present-day concerns in his home country while maintaining the long view of history. For his first solo exhibition in Singapore at Richard Koh Fine Art, Sareth confronts Cambodia's future through the symbolism of two flowers: the water lily and the sunflower.

Titled 'The Breath of Change', the show features 'Yell and Silent', an installation comprising approximately 180 soft-sculpture waterlilies surrounding a central andromorphic form, and a single-channel video 'Beyond Sunflower'. In her essay accompanying the exhibition, curator Andrea Fam describes the tension created by this pairing of works as a "juxtaposition in tenor" as they relate to the themes of freedom and trappings. 'Yell and Silent' recalls Sareth's childhood learning to swim in a water lily pond near the refugee camp he lived in. To the artist, swimming was a self-taught skill that presented a sense of independence and the water lily became a sign of strength and resolve.

Svay Sareth, 'Yell & Silent', 2018, cotton, silk and kapok, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Richard Koh Fine Art.

Svay Sareth, 'Yell & Silent', 2018, cotton, silk and kapok, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Richard Koh Fine Art.

In contrast, the other work on show, 'Beyond Sunflower' deals with Cambodia's entanglements with foreign interest. The performance video depicts a character in a sunflower mask playing the Tro, a traditional Khmer stringed instrument. Instead of melodic tunes, he creates forceful screeches which puncture the otherwise grand atmosphere of Angkor Wat. Notably, young sunflowers turn their blooms to face the sun and require large amounts of water or a heavy storm to thrive. "It symbolises the suffocation of Cambodia's future generation by an invisible force," Sareth remarks. "I consider this ‘storm’ as a non-conventional war, a war of attrition, and I need to draw experience from a past war to survive the current one."

The exhibition is part of a series of presentations which aims to highlight the nuances in Cambodian contemporary art through the practices of three artists: Yim Malim ('The Shadow of Change'), Svay Sareth and Than Sok. Speaking on the project's impetus, gallery founder Richard Koh says: "It is necessary and timely to remind audiences that Southeast Asia is a diverse region and that contemporary art is present in countries beyond Indonesia and the Philippines." Koh adds that the decision to mount this series in their Singapore gallery is "only natural as it is the art hub for Southeast Asian contemporary art where most of its scholarship is championed."

Svay Sareth, 'Beyond Sunflower' (video still), 2018, single-channel video, duration 2min 55 seconds, edition of three. Image courtesy of the artist and Richard Koh Fine Art.

Svay Sareth, 'Beyond Sunflower' (video still), 2018, single-channel video, duration 2min 55 seconds, edition of three. Image courtesy of the artist and Richard Koh Fine Art.

The visibility and knowledge of Cambodian artists have grown noticeably in the past decade and Fam attributes this phenomenon to three factors: the shifts and developments in artistic practices, the 'West's' revisit of (as opposed to extended-stay in) Southeast Asia, and the return of migratory natives who have been investing locally in heritage conservation and cultural development. This is reflected in their participation in significant and seminal international exhibitions, such as the Asia-Pacific Triennial 9, Singapore Biennale 2016, Documenta14, 'SUNSHOWER' and 'DIASPORA: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia'. She comments, "These presentations have helped widen the dialogue around the urgencies that motivate these artists, and opened up discussions into what 'contemporary' means in our region."


'The Breath of Change' runs from 5 to 20 July 2019 at Richard Koh Fine Art Singapore.
An artist talk with Andrea Fam (Assistant Curator, Singapore Art Museum) is scheduled for 6 July 2019, at 3 pm.