As Singapore’s premier contemporary art exhibition, If the World Changed, opens its doors for a four-month celebration of Southeast Asian art, Joanna Wolfarth profiles three Cambodian artists who are making their mark on the international stage.

Showcasing the work of 82 artists from Southeast Asia and beyond, the Singapore Biennale gives international exposure to regional artists and allows opportunities for cultural dialogue and exchange.

With this year’s show titled If the World Changed, organisers asked participants to think about their engagement with the worlds in which they live. Each of the three artists representing Cambodia at the show responded in very different ways:

Khvay Samnang
The controversial development of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake has been a source of inspiration for 2006 Royal University of Fine Arts graduate Khvay Samnang — whose body of work includes photography, sculpture, installation and performance.

The artist began working on Untitled (2011-2013) by researching issues at the city’s former lake and interviewing local residents as it was filled in with sand as part of a major development project.

“When the sand is poured on the house, the family needs to move away, because if they don’t it is as if they will die,” says the artist, who responded to the experience by wading through lake water and pouring sand over his own head in a performance work documented in still and film photography. The five-channel video installation of this performance is being exhibited in Singapore.

“When I work, I don’t think about being famous. I’m interested in why? What is happening?” explains Khvay, who was both surprised and proud to be selected for the biennale. “And I need to answer these questions in my work. For me, everything I do is so I can share what is happening in my country around the world.”

For the artist, international exposure can bring benefits to the artistic community in Cambodia. Khvay uses connections with foreign artists to arrange residencies in Phnom Penh. “We can learn about art from different cultures, and artists can come and study Cambodian art and culture,” he says.

As well as inviting artists to the Kingdom, Khvay — a founding member of the Sa Sa Arts Project, whose artistic director Erin Gleeson is a curator of the Biennale — has undertaken two residencies in Japan and one in New York, which changed the way he thought about his own practices.

“Before I went to Japan, art for me was working in a studio, but in Tokyo I found you can work outside, research outside and share experiences,” he says.

Svay Sareth
For two weeks the sound of an electric drill pierced the normally tranquil grounds of the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap as Svay Sareth and his team assembled his monumental sculpture, Toy, ahead of the Biennale.

Amid stuffed camouflage legs and grotesquely comical heads, the artist explained that Toy is based on the Churning of the Sea of Milk bas-relief at Angkor Wat. But the epic battle for the elixir of life is relevant for our own times. “This culture has continued: people fight for power, economy and honour,” he says.

Born in 1972 to a military family in Battambang, much of Svay’s recent sculptural and performance work deals with both his own history and Cambodia’s recent past.

“What is the result of war? When you look at the bas-reliefs you see they killed the fish and the crocodiles under the water, these are the real victims. The war is a game, but still real. This is why I made a toy,” the artist says.

After studying art with Véronique Decrop at the Site 2 border camp, Svay went on to co-found Phare Ponleu Selpak, Battambang’s renowned multi-arts school, in the early 1990s.

Now based in Siem Reap, he says the town has lacked a dedicated exhibition and studio space. “Artists need a place to organise, to hold events and to express themselves. They need studio space so the artists can learn from each other.”

But Svay has temporarily moved his studio to the Center for Khmer Studies as part of its new Artists at Work programme, and is excited by the possibilities of the new initiative that allows local artists use of its conference hall as a studio and exhibition space.

“Artists can do research here and talk about culture,” he says. “They can have conversations and learn from each other.”

Albert Samreth
Born in Long Beach, California, in 1987 to Cambodian parents, Albert Samreth grew up on the Pacific coast and graduated from CalArts in 2012. Having lived in Los Angeles, Berlin and most recently Phnom Penh, Samreth says that he doesn’t “believe in countries making individuals, as much as I believe in cities making individuals.”

For his Biennale piece, Samreth asked one of the most listened-to voices in the world — Carolyn Hopkins — to narrate poems that he composed in Berlin last summer.

“Carolyn Hopkins is interesting because she is the voice of the entire New York City MTA [mass transit authority], most English-speaking airports, and a ton of other information communications systems,” he says. “She embodies the state in many ways. But she is this very sweet, nice lady who lives in bucolic Vermont.”

The resulting work, The Voice, loops the recording and plays it across five separate channels in the atrium of Singapore’s Art Museum.

When asked about contemporary art in Cambodia, Samreth says that “the cultural policies of the Khmer Rouge were quite effective. But I think there are some amazing things going on in Cambodia now.”

The artist believes change will come via the expanding middle classes, as they become interested in both buying and making contemporary art. “There needs to be a middle class of bored teenagers who have time on their hands and enough money to mess around, to make a loud noise in their garages,” he explains.

The Biennale features shows at museums throughout Singapore. For more information or to visit the show, visit: singaporebiennale.com.