SOVAN PHILONG / HOW DO I LOOK?
An exhibition proposed by Christian Caujolle
From August 3rd to October 19th, 2019
For its third exhibition, Batia Sarem Gallery is pleased to present the works of photographer Sovan Philong, who has become known worldwide for his series In the City by Night. The series has been shown in many countries (notably in Landskrona in Sweden in 2017 and then in Paris in 2018 at the Galerie Lee) and has also been acquired for in museum collections. These nocturnal urban scenes, taken in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, are characterised by the significance given to light. In effect, the only lighting used is from the headlights of Philong’s motorbike. The exhibition we are organising in 2019, in Siem Reap, brings together several more rarely shown works. The Computer Light Portraits are at the heart of this small retrospective. The exhibition includes 15 portraits of women, children or men, artificially lit by a computer, the only light projected onto these individuals set against a plain background.
Philong revisits the traditional portrait format. The white light, so characteristic of our contemporary societies, modifies our perception of faces and bodies. The strange shift brought about by using the light from the computer confounds the expectations of the subject being looked at but also of the person looking. Which is why we have called this exhibition HOW DO I LOOK ? A question that translates (roughly) into French as «Comment tu me trouves?» or «A quoi je ressemble?». A question that has to be asked, because each of Philong’s photos is itself a question, a mystery…
«How do I look?» has a double meaning. Philong uses the portrait as a means of revealing a person’s innermost being. The photographer’s intervention delves into, goes beyond or even transcends the appearance of the individual. The question everyone seems to ask when looking at Philong’s lens is «Who am I really, beyond what my face and body say?» At the same time as questioning his subjects, Philong is also asking himself about the photographic medium. «How do I look» can mean «How am I going to look?» How can photography change our view of what is in front of us? Light is thus the photographer’s essential device.
Artificial light makes it possible to distance oneself from naturalism and photojournalism (which Philong has practiced) and to reveal interiority and even spirituality. Here, the harsh white light transforms the subjects into enigmatic characters. The light thus reveals a less carnal self than the self of appearances but one that is more durable, that survives beyond the body. Quasi-religious, Philong’s photography is primarily concerned with the soul. The group scenes in In the City by Night with the soft lights and complex compositions allude to the «Adorations of the Magi» of the Italian Renaissance.
They are bathed in an atmosphere of spirituality that is radically different from street photography, from the seized moment. Philong‘s topic is duration. The Computer Light Portraits can be compared with representations of the saints or martyrs of classical painting.
In addition, there is something that softens the overly formal character that could make the work appear «thought out in advance»: the gaze. Empty or defiant glances in the Computer Light Portraits. Sad or joyous looks in another work we are showing at Batia Sarem: three masterful pieces, presented in back-lit boxes and composed of numerous passport photos of the same individual. The proliferated gaze of a child offers us the whole spectrum of his emotions. In this work, as in all of Philong’s photography, the look or gaze is key. It not only brings to each photo an intense emotion and therefore allows each of us to identify with the subject, but the gaze is also part of the same quest that guides the photographer. To grasp the truth of a being, the work becomes an exhaustive catalogue of all his personalities, all his affects, all the variations of his moods and this «totality» can be apprehended only in the eyes.
Philong meticulously conceives the formal approach for each of his series with exemplary determination. Each of his portraits, although intensely «individualised», takes us back to ourselves. This exhibition that we are showing at Batia Sarem is a panorama of the quest of a deeply human artist, highly sensitive but also methodical, who constantly questions this particular art of photography and its complex relationship to the truth.
Yves Zlotowski, Lyvann Loeuk and Martin Phéline.
Born 1986 in Prek Dach (Kandal Province in Cambodia), Philong graduated in Information technologies at the National University of Management of Phnom Penh in 2005. He discovered photography while working for a Catholic association as a manager of the video department and met the photographer Mak Remissa who helped him understanding photography. He began, in 2009, as a press photographer for The Phnom Penh Post then with the Xinhua News Agency in 2011-2012. Besides covering the news, Philong developed several personal projects, especially those with «Studio Images» of the French Cultural Center that were exhibited during the festival Photo Phnom Penh. After participating as an intern in two workshops proposed by the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap in 2008, he studied one year in France with the support of a grant of French government in 2012 at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Louis Lumière.
His works have been published in GLOBE magazine (Cambodia), Le Monde Magazine (France), Internazionale (Italy), Missions Étrangères (Canada), Report Without Border (France), De L’air (France), L’Express Styles (France), L’Oeil (France), Revue Noire (France), IMAGES Magazine (France), PUNCTUM (India), AZART (France). Sovan Philong has been a member of Asia Motion since 2011 and he is an active stakeholder of the Photo Phnom Penh Festival.
His work has been exhibited in Cambodia (Phnom Penh Photo festival in 2009, 2010 and 2013), in France (Biennale Photoquai of Musée du quai Branly in 2011, Friche la Belle de Mai in Marseille, 2019), United Kingdom, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. He is working with Galerie Lee in Paris, where he had a solo exhibition in 2018. In 2019, he was awarded the Grand Prize of Wonder Foto Day, a photography fair taking place once a year in Taipei. Sovan Philong is currently working and living in Phnom Penh.
PREAH KUNLONG / WHERE IS MY LAND
For its second exhibition opening on April 20th, 2019 Batia Sarem Gallery has chosen to present two installations of Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang.
The first installation, Preah Kunlong consists of a video, photos and masks of animals. It is dedicated to the Areng Valley located in the southwest of Cambodia, one of the wildest areas of the country, inhabited by an animist community, the Chong. The choreographer and dancer Rady Nget is photographed and filmed wearing masks, performing a dance in the middle of immaculate landscapes. The second piece is entitled Where is my land?, An installation of photos and a video featuring Rady Nget improvising a dance around the Mekong River, where murderous landslides have occurred, consequences of the intensive exports of the sands of the river.
Both installations are representative of Samnang’s work. The artist conducts a careful and quasi-anthropological field investigation, whether environmental degradation that impacts the Mekong River or threats of deforestation related to the construction of a dam with multiple consequences on local communities. He then digests this raw material by introducing poetry and humor and using any medium he deems relevant, such as video, photography or sculpture. To a speech too readable, Samnang prefers the use of human body The artist constantly celebrates the fusion of the human being with what surrounds him. The dancer’s trance in Preah Kunlong becomes the vehicle of unity found with the spirit of the animals of the forest. In Where is my land? the improvised dance and poses underline in an overwhelming way the pain inflicted to the river and its residents. The experience of Samnang’s works is subtle and sensual. It is the incarnation and the permanence of the souls, against the external aggressions, that Samnang captures by images with elaborate compositions, rough and playful masks and captivating videos.
Khvay Samnang is today one of the most recognized Cambodian artists on the international art scene. Therefore Batia Sarem Gallery is proud to present these two striking installations. Independent curator and art critic Caroline Ha Thuc’s text, first published on the website www.cobosocial.com, seems to us a very enlightening complement to the experience of Preah Kunlong’s vision.
HOME, LOST AND FOUND
For its very first exhibition, Batia Sarem Gallery is pleased to introduce Home, lost and found., featuring works by Yim Maline and Svay Sareth. These two major Cambodian artists live and work in Siem Reap. Svay Sareth works across different medias, using video, installation, sculpture and performance, sometimes all together. In the most recent times, Yim Maline has mostly been drawing.
Nevertheless, with different means, both focus on the same subject. That of Home, threatened or even destroyed, but preserved against all odds. Few are the Cambodian artists who do not delve into the question of disappearance. Their works often seem to be a way of preserving that which is at risk of perishing. There are few other art scenes where one feels such urgency to « re-create ».
In this new series of drawings by Yim Maline entitled Colorful Decompositions, fragility inhabits a nature under tension. All the drawings displayed are remarkable for the large size of the formats and the use of very bright colors. But the brilliance of the colors is often nuanced by a part, as small as it is, of bands of gray forms, which evoke calcination or emptiness. In Colorful Decomposition 10, in which several circles intertwine, wreaths of flowers are ordered in the manner of a Frenchgarden (or a coronation). Green and pink circles form an organic geometry. But she added ablack crown that disrupts the luxuriance of the whole. Mushrooms ? A circle of ashes ? In this newseries, Maline pushed further the tensions that characterizes her work, between the possibilities of decomposition and the ability of nature to regain its rights. Maline’s Home is a garden dreamed and sublimated. However, she does not forget that beside nature re-enchanted by the imaginary,there is always the possibility of loss, even in her most joyful and brilliant drawings. Nature coexistswith the eventuality of its own destruction.
For Sareth, nature is present by the frequent use that the artist makes of camouflage fabric, which is nothing more than a crude imitation of a natural environment. But camouflage embodies for Sareth the attempts of survival of men and women struggling for themselves. Because at home, it is thehuman being who is threatened with extinction andwho must constantly confront such an eventuality. The large seated woman, entirely covered withthe camouflage pattern, is one of the highlights of this exhibition that embodies the theme of Home.Impressive in size and technique, she represents the artist’s mother, who survived in refugee camps, the birth of many children, surrounded by the military.
To cover one’s mother with camouflage is, first of all, to act as a memory in honor of a woman whocan adapt in adversity. It is a recurring theme for Sareth to demonstrate the ability of an individual to prevail despite the circumstances.
The art of Sareth can be described as redirecting his creative energy, a process that enables him to create powerful works, such as this installation made of sandals used by the Chines and Vietnams Communists, as well as by the Khmers Rouges. To see them today sold as usual consumer goodshas exasperated Sareth and from this exasperation came the crazy idea to make a performative useof it. In the video I, Say Sareth, eat rubber sandals, the artist stages himself front of the camera andchews, mute and inexpressive. Sareth consciously uses the absurd as a means of communicatingserious thoughts. Art here is born of a revolt, a pain, a wound that needs to be healed.
Sareth’s Warning Houses, are also part of this path that starts with revolt, articulated into art. These in situ installations are ephemeral, made of waste found in the surroundings of the place wherethey are exhibited. They represent a challenge to all those who make it feel to the foreigner thathe is not at home. Warning Houses are as the precarious shelter of refugees in a camp, it is the temporary hideouts that anyone establishes in any place, from scratch.
The two artists have in common to put at the center of their work the subtle tension between precariousness and resistance. Maline and Sareth were both made aware of the ephemeral nature of what is given to us. The possibility of loss is always present in their work. But both have in common the faculty of believing in a home, whether it is in each of us, within our memories or imagination, or incarnated by a work of art.
B A T I A S A R E M G A L L E R Y | Bamboo Street, Wat Damnak, Sala Kamreuk | Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia