I have always been inextricably connected to the archetypal natural environments of my various Australian homes, but it is an almost entirely antithetic source that inspires this body of work.
During a period of years living, working and travelling in South-East Asia there developed a potent relationship with the people and history of Cambodia. The inevitable process of finding voice for this story through my art practice was given impetus through a BHPBilliton commission in 2006 to produce a major work for their head office in Phnom Penh. Drawing on previous travels throughout the region, and a return to Cambodia specifically for the project, several key elements emerged.
The quintessential Bayon smiles of Angkor, in all their splendour, seemed too ubiquitous a face of Cambodia to convey a personal, human story. On being first confronted with the relatively unremarkable stone facades of Tuol Sleng, I saw a contemporary history of Cambodia that was profoundly moving, and after all, not entirely dissimilar to that of Angkor. As the magnificent aerial roots consume the temple of Ta Prohm, so the elements reclaim what another generation sought to achieve at Tuol Sleng.
The former Khmer Rouge prison stands as a memorial to the indescribably tragic events that took place on this site, and throughout Cambodia, in the late 1970’s. Visitors that walk the corridors tread lightly amidst the resounding silence. After thirty years, the walls are crumbling. Flaking layers of plaster and paint give way to encroaching damp and oppressive heat. Surfaces seep with the beauty and inexorable touch of natural elements, fading the stencilled numerals and text, healing the symbolic scars of human brutality. In the haunting black and white photographs, names are replaced with numbers. On the walls that bore witness, the numbers grow faint and the voices fall silent.
Many of the cells in the former secondary school are scarred with inscriptions left by the Khmer Rouge guards. Stencilled numerals adorn several walls, separated by roughly daubed lines. In addition to these de-humanising symbols of restraint and mass control, Khmer text is scrawled in broken words and phrases. The rules by which prisoners were forced to live their short and tortured existence within the prison were also written around the walls, the beautiful flow of the foreign script belying the terror of its meaning.
Contrasting with these numeric and written symbols left by those who passed through S-21, is the canvas on which they hang. The texture and colour of nature’s reclaiming force has turned the walls into subtly beautiful backdrops, touched with moss and the soft brush of decay. There exists a strong sense of nature prevailing as the edifice of human tragedy crumbles. The paintings of this series attempt to capture something of this contrast between the tragic events of the Khmer Rouge rule and the inevitable regeneration of nature.
There also emerged a more personal connection with this place. Amongst the photographs taken of prisoners from the time when they were processed as new arrivals, there loomed a particular image that took my attention amidst a numbing litany of haunting faces. A young boy I would only ever know as 55.
A gaze of simultaneous subjugation and defiance is caught in a fleeting moment, with another boy partially obscured beside him swathed in a blindfold. During the time I paused in this former class-room, my thoughts took me back to when I was his age. I was at high school, walking corridors past rows of rooms and looking over quadrangles that could have been the same as those where I stood. The remembered stairwells at the end of each block echoed with the voices of friends and laughter and feet in well-heeled shoes. Here they were silent. The eyes of prisoner 55 held me firm and invoked a resolve to be remembered. He could have become a husband, a father, a man my own age walking the streets of Phnom Penh that surrounded that place, but he was to remain a perpetual teenager called 55. From this victim of a systematic process that stripped away identity and dignity to replace them with numbers and humility, there remained a voice through this photograph.
The telling of any story is imbued with the nuance and interpretation of the story-teller, so it was inevitable that a response to my experiences of Tuol Sleng would be coloured with those qualities that speak most poignantly to my particular aesthetic and emotions. The starkness and symbolism of the photographs, text and numbers didn’t tell everything I felt was important to say about this phenomenon. There was also a subtlety of texture and sense of gradual healing which I only began to perceive after several visits and a closer focus on what could be seen beyond the visible. The first time was, indeed, black and white and assaulting to the senses. But there were other layers. This work is an attempt to speak of those layers in a way which is both literal in its use of graphic symbols and intangible in its representation of the metaphysical. The paintings are the outcome of seeking to distil a complex experience, not in search of any particular answer or even the posing of any particular question, but rather as an acknowledgement. An acknowledgement of all that transpired during this dark time and all those that passed through the corridors of S-21. An acknowledgement of Tuol Sleng as a place and of 55 as a person.