I worked for four weeks in Cambodia on an exhibition in memory of the Khmer Rouge rule. My colleague was Sebastian Brandt, a young German artist from Erfurt, who was one of my students during my guest professorship at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. The project was supported by the Goethe Institute and took place parallel to the international tribunal against five leaders of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh.
The participating Cambodian artists contributed very realistic paintings in oil, showing torture scenes, blood and piles of skulls.
In contrast, we worked with mud from the Mekong River. Sebastian got the idea, when looking out of the plane at the brown fields of rice below during the dry season, traversed by the brown water of the rivers that mould all the country.
And so we went to the Mekong River. The river has been since the times of Angkor the lifeline of Cambodia and the base for rice cultivation, fishing and transport. The Mekong River carries each year a new layer of fertile mud and is also a reliable witness of the past.
We filled sacks with the dry mud from the Mekong River banks and transported them to our exhibition room in the Meta House in Phnom Penh. Softening the dry soil once again with water of the Mekong and thus filling the whole floor of the room with the mud. After a week of natural drying at the Cambodian temperature of 35 degrees Centigrade the mud became chapped. Fragments of slogans from the red book of Pol Pot in Khmer letters appeared through the cracks. We had covered the whole floor with his quotations prior to filling the room with mud. Visitors walked, as is the Cambodian custom, barefooted on this ground and recognised fragments of the past, which is still covered by a taboo in Cambodian society.
Only a few Cambodians spoke to us about the Khmer Rouge past (but all the foreigners we met did speak about it). The majority remained silent and just smiled. A group of Buddhist monks from the same monastery, where Pol Pot when young used to be a monk before becoming a political leader, very openly discussed with us this dark period of genocide: a quarter of the Cambodian population was killed by the Khmer Rouge.
We put a fries on the walls of our exhibition room, where we combined two very different buildings. We confronted the antique sandstones floors of the national Cambodian symbol, the Angkor Temples, with the tiled floor of Tuol Sleng torture prison of the Khmer Rouge time. We cut the sandstone floor fugues of Angkor out of the photographs and through the blank spaces the visitors could see fragments of the floor of the prison that only six prisoners survived. Today it is a museum.
In the fries the safe ground of Angkor seems to move and the heavy sandstones seem to float like ice floes on the tiles of Tuol Sleng.
We attached the cut-outs of the in between spaces to plastic bags and placed them under the photo montages of the two different floors and put labels with the names of memory objects that Sebastian and I had previously collected during our stay in Cambodia into the bags. The real objects were shown in the next gallery room along with the paintings of the Cambodian artists. It was an attempt to demonstrate how we as foreigners from a completely different cultural and historic background tried to approach the subject of Cambodia and its Khmer Rouge past.
Apart from our collection of objects there was a second table with several objects that Cambodian people had brought us as their own memory objects of the Khmer Rouge time.
The big difference between the two collections of memory objects and between our installation with Mekong mud and the paintings of the Cambodian artists showed very clearly the void between our western approach and the experience of the Cambodian people. We were not able to understand in this short period of time this poor country with its chequered history that appeared dominated by foreigners, Non Government Organisations (NGOs ) and US-Dollars with very hard cuts between the rich and the poor.
We, as artists from Europe, invited by a German institution to work on the memory of the Khmer Rouge were part of this system: development aid that reminded us sometimes of colonial times.
During our stay in Cambodia Sebastian and I gained sensitiveness for our own limits in understanding another culture which was very alien to us. So Cambodia was in a way, a form of developing aid for us too.
The official title of our exhibition was: underGROUND.