Written by Kazue Suzuki
September 2020, Vandy Rattana in Hibiya, Japan.
Vandy Rattana unveiled the final production of the 'Monologue' series, which took about six years to produce at the Singapore Biennale 2019, and showed off the completion of the trilogy. This is the next step of the artist who has been driving the modern art world in Cambodia. I heard about the present and future vision of Rattana just before he completed his life in Tokyo where he lived for about four years before he planned to move to Taipei.
— How was your life in Tokyo? I think there were many moves for you because of the exhibitions you held and for photography reasons. Also, it was tough because of the COVID-19 pandemic just before moving, wasn't it?
I had a very quiet and calm time in Tokyo. I often went abroad, so I rarely went out in Tokyo, so I spent most of my time watching movies in my room. I think I've seen about 20,000 movies over the past 10 years. Even though Tokyo is a big city, there are many green areas, and I could hear the sounds of bugs, and I could also feel something like a nostalgic breeze from my hometown where I was born and raised, which I can't feel now in Phnom Penh. In the wake of the emergence of the corona virus, the world now feels that there is something similar to wartime conditions, but I think that Japanese society is responding very calmly.
— Why are you moving to Taipei?
In the past, I have been based in Taipei. Taiwan issues artist visas, so I thought it would be a good thing to work in a place where I love the culture because I already have a sense of the place, so I have decided to move my base there.
— What will happen to the gallery to which you belong?
I don't belong to any gallery now. The gallery I belonged to in Cambodia was dissolved two years ago. I manage all of my works myself, and I also interact with museum and exhibition staff. Currently, I have about three exhibits in Korea. I do not have a gallery to which I belong to in Japan. I think my work is rather metaphysical, but Japanese people say it's emotional work, haha. Japan is a culture that really cares about the technical parts, isn't it?
— Do you have a project scheduled in Taipei?
I am thinking of shooting a long film. I was impressed by Yasunari Kawabata's 'House of the Sleeping Beauties' that I read during my stay in Japan, and I would like to shoot a film there. In the past, it was made into a film in Germany and Australia, but I couldn't believe that they understood Japanese culture and its beauty, so I had a strong image of myself taking pictures like this. Until now, I have produced video works, but I have always wanted to try shooting a theatrical film. I understand that I have to approach the side of the film industry, form a production team, hire a crew, and seek for funding which are all tough tasks due to pressure, but I would like to try this in Taiwan. Shooting a film of Japanese literature in Taiwan often involves thinking about what to do with actors and languages, but I want to challenge myself because I have an image of myself being capable.
— What made you want to film Kawabata's work?
Maybe it is the psychological landscape of his work, because such depictions are so beautiful that the image of the painting springs up. For example, about a woman's body, it is written in poetic and very beautiful expressions, and I can imagine a close-up picture to being taken. I think that such a description is a question of the existence of human beings, a desire suppressed by community, and a universal one. I don't think I'm so oppressed myself, but I'm attracted to such depictions. I don't think Japanese people appreciate Kawabata as well as foreigners do. 'House of the Sleeping Beauties' reminded me of 'In Search of Lost Time' by Proust, the protagonist of the novel, 'I' talked about when 'I' was pure in the past. We can't remember when it was wonderful and pure in many cases, but it's also certain that there is a moment when we can suddenly imagine, for example, a mango tree in front of a house when we feel a certain wind. 'House of the Sleeping Beauties' is also a main character who is confronting an old self before death, looking back on the past and living deluded life, isn't it? It's a sad, but beautiful depiction.
In Confucianism, it certainly says that people despair because they live in the past, but I don't necessarily think so, however it is also true that there is such a philosophy. We can't go back in time, but because we haven't overcome the past, I think there are times when we can't move forward either. I feel that this is enough for me.
— Is it about your work so far? So far, I think that you have created works that combine the history of tragedy in the country of Cambodia and the memories of the country with the memories of families. Will such a series be a delimitation?
That's right, as the trilogy is complete, it is now totally complete. I'm thinking that I won't go back to the family story anymore because I want to move on to a slightly different stage. I have not put an end to talking about the history of Cambodia through the trilogy, but I feel that I cannot carry the past of others by myself anymore. Of course, I will continue to hold some of them, but that's also taking on responsibilities in a sense. I really want to share that responsibility with others, but I feel that is difficult in Cambodia. In Cambodia, people feel that the past is the past and this is why the country doesn't change. But if you don't recognize the past, you repeat the same mistakes. History teaches this, but people don't notice it, they don't argue, there's no dialogue.
Even in the future, I do not mean that I will not completely create works dealing with the past, but I would like to publish a photographic collection of the bomb-ponds. I don't know if I can raise funds, but I'm collecting photos because I want to make a book instead of an exhibit. I want to travel as much as possible and take pictures around the bomb pond sites. Currently I have about 300 photographs, and this year I was planning to go to the border between Vietnam and Cambodia to take photographs again, but my various plans have been disrupted due to the Corona virus pandemic. It is said that there exists about two million such bomb craters, but I would like to record history by doing something symbolic, such as taking photos covering everything, to preserve not only the history of Cambodia, but also the history of mankind. We cannot escape from and forget history. It is a tragedy caused by the 'disease' in Cambodia. Why do you think we had a civil war, even though we are still a poor country?
However, in the present age, wars with bombs may not occur very often, but wars are occurring in various parts of the world, such as economic wars, cultural wars, and water wars. Cultural imperialism will prevail, and the United States and China will continue to fight. Capitalism, authoritarianism, hegemonism, neocolonialism, and the gap between those who have and those who do not have will only grow wider. Here in Tokyo too, I have seen people who are at the mercy of the highly-capitalist economic system, and they are changing. There is something like a suffocation that makes it difficult for most of Japanese society to get out of the system once they have entered into it, isn't there? I've seen people who are caught up in it and they lose their freedom, even though becoming financially wealthy isn't directly related to happiness. Modernization has produced convenience, but it has also irradiated people's greed. I think humans are living in such an inescapable spider nest-like system.
— How can we be free from such things?
Well, I think it would be solved if everyone become philosophical. But sadly, in reality we are always going to be the slaves of such a system, the slaves of ignorance. It is all because of our ignorance. Humans, if they don't think, will live according to their instincts. And man is an instinctively greedy creature. Without education, people can't think, and people without education can't think of options. I think this is what is happening in Cambodia now. Although the situation is complicated. Of course, it is not that we do not have hope for the situation in Cambodia. Now in Cambodia, people are voicing themselves through protests and seeking freedom regarding land and property rights. This has not yet reached the stage of democracy, but I think it is important to form the protests themselves.
— In view of the desire to change such circumstances, are you engaged in activities such as writing, translating and publishing? Could you tell us a little about the Ponleu Association's activities?
Together with Cambodian scholars who are in exile in France, I have launched a project called the 'Ponleu Association', where I run a project to translate French and English philosophical books and classical literature into Khmer, and publish them at my own expense. The policy is not to take sponsors, because this would creates a kind of restrictive 'straitjacket'. There are four members, but now the most active ones are my wife and I, and we also have a graphic designer living in Cambodia who is a member.
In Cambodia, there was a period in which all books were burned by the Khmer Rouge, and also, scholars and intellectuals were killed. Therefore, the ability to gain knowledge from books is overwhelmingly lacking in Cambodian society. Within our project, when I think of translating all the books that I would like people in Cambodia to read, I need about 200 translators, and now there are not enough people at all. I think that at least 1,000 or more books need to be translated as a basis.
The translation currently in progress is primarily a simple philosophical book for children, but we feel that the books we translate are required by general people. Over the past three years, about 1,000 copies have been sold, and I think this is not a bad number.
I don't think the only way to protest against power and politics is to fight to change the top level. The same thing happens again even if you just change the top of the hierarchy. Our history of the failed revolution tells us this. I think it is important to work with people and give them power. I'm glad that books are now booming in popularity in Cambodia.
— The books which are being translated seem to be those mainly about western philosophy and western literature, but will they work well in Asian societies? How about oriental philosophy and Buddhism?
It may be close to war in the sense of a clash of civilizations. Oriental philosophy will of course be excellent and effective, but I don't feel much affinity for democracy and liberalism in these publications. Oriental philosophy and Buddhism affirm a hierarchy, and there are probably also conservative and patriarchal parts.
Whether Cambodia wants to change or can change its society depends on its citizens. I would like to have some choices first. The problem with Cambodian society is that there is no choice, and I want to open it up. Knowledge and philosophy are for everyone. Of course, choosing one is not an easy task, and you can also see the view that too many options and hesitating is not necessarily a good thing. There is also the problem that it is too tied to Asian traditions.
It is a classic theory that the power side tries to maintain people's ignorance. I just want to pursue the truth. Politics aims to divide people, and to create enemies. Because people don't want to have power placed over them. However, we humans believe that coexistence and co-prosperity are obligatory entities. I believe that if everyone turns their attention to living for each other, society will improve.
— What is the future of Cambodia?
It's hard, isn't it? Universal elections have not been held since 1993, and there are remnants of the Khmer Rouge in the current administration. We can't be very optimistic about the future.
When it comes to speaking about art, I think modern Cambodian artists have many opportunities.
But from my point of view, I think that this country is in its current state because there is no one, even an artist, who cares about the future of the country. I am also thinking of going back there someday, but my return may not be welcomed (lol). I always look at things critically and express them directly, but such criticisms are not accepted in Cambodia. In Cambodia, criticism and insult are treated equally, and no constructive comments are sought or accepted. It may be the feelings of people in countries where the culture of monarchy remains, isn't it? I feel that there are similar countries like Japan and Thailand.
— How can you keep your passion going in this situation?
I am always caught between passion and loneliness. I observe it from not too far away, but not too close. I believe that if I get too far into the spider's nest, I will lose sight of myself because I cannot move. By keeping a distance, I want to secure freedom.
— If you start shooting theatrical movies from now on, you may have to step into the movie industry, which is one of the spider's nests. Would it mean a bit of a pause for non-film productions?
I will continue to create work. I will continue doing what I want to do as I have done in the past at the same time. Now I'm also writing novels and painting. I always stick to the style of doing what I want to do.
— I wish you every success even after you have relocated your base to Taiwan. Thank you for today.
Born in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) in 1980. Based in Cambodia, France and soon to be Taiwan.
He studied photography and video on his own, and since 2014, he has produced video works that have included records of historical violence and atrocities that once occurred in Cambodia. Historical works are owned by the Guggenheim Museum, the Queensland Art Gallery, the Singapore Art Museum, and the Mori Art Museum.