Compelled to rectify voids in Cambodian history, Vandy Rattana documents everyday life, recording events that reflect the country’s rapid transformation while revealing the ever-present realities: a haunting past and an uncertain, challenging future. He captures social contexts in their natural state, avoiding stereotypes and the perspective of foreigners, to illustrate the constructs permeating Cambodian life. In an interview with curator and scholar of contemporary Cambodian art Erin Gleeson, he expressed his motivation, conscious of the loss of history and culture that has already occurred:
Whether my photographs are conceptual or documentary projects, my goal is to show life and invite people to examine life. At this time it is important to create images because in Cambodia we lack an archive. Documentation is both a reflector and creator of history. We need documentation to help us understand the changes from generation to generation.1
As a child growing up in Phnom Penh in the period immediately following the Khmer Rouge, Vandy became aware of the rapidly changing urban environment, and found inspiration in foreign cinema. As well as working for the Phnom Penh Post as a photojournalist, he has created series that deal with both individual and community experiences. In 2008, he captured the ‘First High-Rise’ being built in Cambodia with a curiosity in the transformation it represented from the ‘horizontal world’ in which he’d grown up.2 More recently he has created a major documentary film and photography project, ‘Bomb Ponds’, for which he travelled across the country recording the craters left by the US bombing from 1965 to 1973, during the Vietnam War. The work exposes the underlying trauma that permeates the Cambodian psyche through the seemingly natural ‘ponds’ that dot the landscape.
Vandy’s 2008 series ‘Fire of the Year’ was featured in ‘The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’. It captures the calamitous destruction of a fire that tore through the district of Dteuk Tlah (‘Clear Water’) on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The area was home to 300 families living in stilted houses over a polluted and garbage-strewn lake. Most of the poorly built houses were razed in the fire, with only a few saved by those able to pay bribes to the fire brigade, known colloquially as the ‘fire police’.3
The carnage and loss is a reminder of the disasters that continually occur throughout developing nations, where their effect is heavily compounded by the socioeconomic conditions of the region. In Vandy’s images, evidence remains of cramped living conditions and poor structural materials, exposing infrastructure defenceless to a fire despite its common occurrence in the capital. Blackened housing posts and corrugated iron contrast against the cloudy haze of smoke that infuses the careful compositions, forbidding any distant view. The memory of community is everywhere, yet only a few lonely figures are present that evoke individual situations; a figure with a hose in a seemingly futile effort, surrounded by destruction; a pair of men trying to salvage iron from a still-smoking heap; and a child crouched on a charcoal post in a sea of charred wreckage, flames still burning in the background. With some objectivity, Vandy has documented this tragic incident, but in doing so conjures ideas about the wider realities of urban life in Cambodia, events that have passed and those yet to face.
Vandy Rattana was one of the six founding members of the artist collective Stiev Selapak (‘Art Rebels’) in 2009, which opened Sa Sa Gallery, the first contemporary art space run by Cambodian artists for Cambodians. Now showing around the world, he is one of the key figures in Cambodian contemporary art.
1 Vandy Rattana, interviewed by Erin Gleeson, ‘Avant-garde blaze new trails’, Phnom Penh Post, 12 August 2009.
2 Vandy Rattana, interviewed by Gridthiya Gaweewong, Connect: Phnom Penh: Rescue Archaeology: Contemporary Art and Urban Change in Cambodia [exhibition catalogue], ifa-Galerie, Berlin, 2013, p.109.
3 Mellissa Kavenagh, ‘Fire of the Year’, in The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art [exhibition catalogue], Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2009, p.139.