The time is 10:30 AM, and I am sitting down with the Mexico City-based artist Albert Samreth at SPRMRKT at Cluny Court, where he is currently presenting a solo exhibition of his 2017 works, titled The Archive and the Everyday. This is part of SPRMRKT’s annual regional cultural showcase, which this time around, focuses on Cambodia.
Behind us, Corinne Bailey Rae’s Put Your Records On plays softly while Samreth takes a sip of his coffee, a flat white that he stirs on occasion when he is deep in thought.
“I toyed with the idea of the exotic and the mundane for this series of works,” explains Samreth, “because I wanted to open up, or at least figure out how to allow for, complications in the Cambodian narrative and cultural memory.”
In his view, the frames and paintings are “a little provisional,” and should be viewed as “something in progress.” These are objects which are still in the process of being made, much in the same way that the Cambodian cultural memory is still being developed. Samreth identifies a kind of “fluctuation” between the images that people want to see of Cambodia and images showing what Cambodia actually is.
Born in Los Angeles in 1987 to refugee parents fleeing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, the Californian native confesses that his first visit to Cambodia was actually fairly recent: in 2011 when, as a 24-year-old California Institute of the Arts grad, he had the opportunity to travel to Asia for the first time.
“I was showing some of my clothes there,” he explains.
As it turned out, the work trip would prove to be life-changing—growing from what was supposed to be a week-long affair to a whole season, (pardon the fashion pun).
“I rented 2 hotel rooms,” Samreth continues, “one to use as an art studio, and the other to live in, and for 4 months, I was travelling and making works.”
What was the experience like, I ask him, visiting Cambodia for the first time as a third culture kid, one who could speak the Cambodian language but not share the same cultural context as its citizens?
“It was a little shocking,” he laughs, “to see people just swearing on the streets—my father is very dignified and proper, and somehow it was what I expected to see in Cambodia as well. The Khmer spoken there sounded weird to me at first.”
And this is where his tone turns serious: “I guess there is this idea of a return that is happening there with the Cambodian diaspora, but it is very young—just one generation. I was at the National Gallery Singapore the other day and I saw just how much history there is in Southeast Asia, and by comparison, just how absent it is from Cambodia because of what happened (with the Khmer Rouge).”
As Khatharya Um notes in this research project for the Asia Society, many master artists and artisans had perished under the Khmer Rouge and along with them dance and musical traditions which had been passed down through generations. She also observes that “much of Khmer traditions are based on orality, (and so) the death of one-seventh of the population essentially meant cultural rupture.”
“I think the large erasure of history and culture is still a really resonant part of being Cambodian,” Samreth continues.
In time, Samreth would grow to be a part of the now-defunct SA SA BASSAC’s roster of visual artists, where he had his first solo show, titled …Know Know, in 2013. As someone working in both Phnom Penh and in the States, where some of the most important art institutions of the world are, what has he observed about the art spaces in Cambodia?
“I think the reason for their existence can be chalked up to a need for someone to be there who can facilitate the export of contemporary Cambodian art practices overseas,” he offers.
“There aren’t really any strong cultural institutions in Cambodia, so we need these spaces to move beyond what we already have and do, to see and be seen.”
I move on to ask him about how he negotiates his Asian identity and his American identity, especially in the wake of Crazy Rich Asians’ runaway success last year, which drew worldwide attention to the Asian American experience.
“I wouldn’t really claim to be Cambodian,” he admits, “because I feel that it would be taking something away from the people who actually grew up there and it would be rather rude. I guess because I don’t really feel tied to (either) the United States or Cambodia that much, I just feel like I am without a country.”
He tilts his head and gazes at the ceiling for a good moment as he ponders his next words.
“My parents did grow up in Cambodia though, and they really ingrained a lot of Cambodian culture into me—I speak Khmer, for example. However, after Trump, there is a sense of being betrayed by America and this feeling that nearly 50% of the people there don’t like me very much because I am too different.”
Such diasporic anxieties are not new—Samreth joins a larger group of artists of Southeast Asian ethnicity who have found themselves growing up and residing elsewhere. Dinh Q. Lê, Sopheap Pich, and Rirkrit Tiravanija are some prominent names that immediately come to mind: all 3 have spent significant amounts of time outside of Asia, and yet all still maintain close ties with the region through their artistic practices. In this respect, interesting questions arise concerning the ownership and nature of their ethnic identities, and whether these are even relevant in the context of art production. Is it possible to define an “authentic” idea of what it means to be Cambodian? Can “authentic” art be made by a Cambodian who was raised outside of Cambodia?
Interestingly, Samreth’s artistic practice has multidisciplinary origins as well.
“I went to film school in the beginning, but then I realised that I didn’t want to make films,” he exclaims.
The slight tension he’s held between his shoulders dissipates.
“I had just learnt about the Erased de Kooning Drawing then and I thought that was really cool… it got me really interested in the visual arts, so I left film school and went to art school instead.”
Has his practice changed since then?
“In a way, I am very much like a professional amateur. I do a lot of things—I am also a musician and I know how to play the guitar, the drums, and the piano. …However, I have always had fun just exploring different things and how to do them. This is similar to how I approach my art-making—if a song sounds best on a cello, then I am not going to force it on something else.”
“Same thing with my works: if a project works best as a film or a photograph, I will do it myself. If it works best as something else that requires a skill that I have no hope for learning and have to hire someone to do, I will hire someone to do it. It hasn’t really changed all this while, finding inspiration and working with where I found the inspiration. This is kind of like my curse—being interested in many different kinds of media.”
If you fancy a bit of art with your coffee and brunch, Albert Samreth’s work will be on display at SPRMRKT, Cluny Court till 31 March.