Sophie and I collapsed on the sofa bed, but after a strong cup of instant Vannac was already out exploring Neutral Bay, where we had landed. Actually, take a step back. After raiding our suitcases and Lucy’s closet for the warmest or at least the most clothing we could find, we bundled up in a small mountain of cotton and wool (it was 13 degrees! Vannac’s from Cambodia, but Canada and England, what’s your excuse!? But oh god, it was Cold!) and then went our respective ways—to the sofa bed and out walking. It only took about three hours to recharge enough to last the day, and around noon we boated across to the Opera house in the temperate sunlight. In Cambodia, except for those silver moments after a thunderstorm, the sun’s bleaching whiteness burns the colour off everything it touches, but in New York, Montreal or, as it turns out, Sydney, the sun falls at an angle even at midday, and paints the city with a generous palette.
We learned some things in Sydney that day. We learned that the opera house was inspired by segments of an orange. We learned that foreign exchange kiosks are just as likely to rip you of here as in Cambodia. We learned that lunch is a lot more expensive in Sydney than in Phnom Penh, and comes complete with unrelenting stomach ache for the rest of the day. We also learned that maybe we should have started training for bread a few months ago, and that cheese is to be avoided at all costs. Vannac understands very well now that cheese is not his friend. Unfortunately, he is also pretty clear that Western food in general is not his friend. There was a brief window where potatoes, bread and salad maintained a healthy question mark—he even bought a sandwich for the trip—but somewhere over the Pacific suspicions began to arise, and the glimmer of possibility was snuffed after 24 hours of rice-free living. He is still open to salad, but before accepting anything now he asks, “does it have cheese?” As soon we landed and found our way to a Woolworth’s, instant noodles and white rice have been headlining the menus.
We also learned that Western art is a little different than Cambodian art. The Sydney Biennale is on right now, so off we went to the Contemporary Art Museum. The theme of the Biennale is “Revolutions, things that move,” which made it easier to explain some of the works in terms Vannac could relate to. We looked at the works of Miroslav Tichy, a Czech photographer who made cameras out of found materials, and a video of how he put the cameras together. This man also came from a poor country after a war and he was using commonplace materials to make art in a way that a Cambodian could also do, if they were inclined. To me, seeing Tichy put together cameras from bits of garbage highlighted the question that underlies this whole experience of the West, which is why this country and these cities, Sydney and Cairns, looks like this and Phnom Penh looks like it does? It is too easy to put the two contexts in different worlds and dismiss them is incompatible realities—Vannac, who works mostly with foreigners, does this all the time, “this is how Khmer people do this,” “Khmer people cannot eat that, say this, be like that.” To see this man make something in a way that a Khmer person could do, unable to dismiss the difference as “in Cambodia, we can’t,” invites the question of what the difference is in the mindset and conceptual basis that Tichy works from versus what a Cambodian works with, so that the impulse to make a camera out of toilet rolls and plexiglass would even occur to Tichy. I don’t know what Vannac thought about when he watched the man in the video, but as we talked bout how even a Cambodian has the means to make the art that this man is making, something was clearly processing.
Vannac made his way gallantly around the soap-bubble installations, multimedia pieces, taxidermy horses suspended from the ceiling, but it was a little hard for him to read the plaques that might have offered a clue to decoding them. Beauty was certainly not their objective. But, he was never judgmental and never closed minded, just a little frustrated that he couldn’t quite understand. He glimpsed a looped video collage depicting the European upper classes of the 18th and 19th centuries living in fear, then the destruction of the revolution, then the post-apocalyptic aftermath and then the re-coronation of the aristocracy after the revolution, and then the video starting again, and we discussed what the author might be saying. We looked at the recent history of Cambodia, how the king oppressed the communists, and the Lon Nol regime oppressed the people, and then the Khmer Rouge came in as saviours, and then they too became corrupt and destructive. So the people had to be liberated again, and then Hun Sen came into power, and now he is corrupt. We saw the loops in power, corruption and violent change that are just as relevant to Cambodian recent history as they are to European history, and this video was a way of talking about that and making people think about it. He watched the video a few more times.
By the time we had discussed the suspended horse and the fake paintings in a row on the wall, we understood that this art was not meant to be something nice to look at, but rather contemporary Western art was about thinking about things. I am very good at coming up with explanations and meanings, and I’m quite sure that most of the time they have nothing to do with what the artist had intended, and certainly would differ radically from what a lot of other people say. But, as I pointed out to Vannac, the point of this art isn’t to say something in a concrete and unambiguous way, but to invoke questions and ideas in the viewer, to invite a dialogue between people, and between viewer and material. We look at these pieces of art in order to think about things we hadn’t thought of before, not just to believe what the artist is telling us. That’s what academics is for, but I didn’t say that.
One of the last pieces we got to was an installation of small spherical objects made of intertwined roots and branches, clay, pomegranates, round stones… arranged on the floor. We were able to see how all these objects were potentially in motion but not, and each had their own texture and weight; if they were to move, they would all move along different trajectories and at difference velocities, resulting in a kind of chaos. We looked at the tension caused by each sphere having its own "voice" and would wanting something different, ready to launch itself into a movement that may or may not coorespond to the other objects. To help make the point concrete, we applied it to Cambodian, looking at the tension underlying the current political regime, all these heads thinking their own thoughts with their own sets of wants, but maintaining stability. But if something were to happen to destabilize the arena, then all the heads would run off in their own interests, wanting different things. It captured the tension between unity and freedom, and the complexity of revolution in a simple visual sentence.
After about five of these installations, Vannac was full but Sophie and I were ready to move back to the West, if not actualy into a contemporary art museum. The sun was setting outside and we snapped up shots of the opera house and a few more of the orange-legged seagulls. I really don’t know what Vannac is coming away with, he probably doesn’t either, but he is certainly taking it in. I guess we’ll see how it unfolds.