Khvay Samnang’s ‘A Forest of Spirits’

The solo exhibition of the Cambodian artist at Nova Contemporary sheds light on environmental issues.

One can feel simultaneously welcomed and threatened entering into Khvay Samnang’s A Forest of Spirits, an exciting new exhibition at Bangkok’s Nova Contemporary. This unresolved feeling captures our intimate relationship to a creaturely and spiritual world of the forest––a space of primordial danger and desire. Once inside the gallery space, viewers are confronted with intricately woven vine sculptures in the shapes of animal heads––elephant, peacock, crocodile, etc. Combining Khmer craft with sculptural art, Samnang brings animist traditions to bear on environmental and community concerns.

A Forest of Spirits began with Samnang’s sustained engagement in the anti-dam movement in 2014, when the Cambodian government approved the Chinese company’s plan to build a number of dams across the country. One of the most affected areas according to this proposal is the Areng Valley, inhabited by the Chong ethnic communities as well as endangered Siamese crocodile and wild elephants. Grounding his artistic practice in the intersection between indigenous cosmology and activism,  Samnang directs our attention to a kind of ecological intimacy, an intimacy that unsettles a human-centric perspective on the environment.

Samnang’s video installation further animates the animistic imagination as a mode of  ecopoetics and environmental crique. The video features an exquisite performance by  Rady Nget, Samnang’s long-time collaborator who maps the topographies of the forest through his body and choreographed movement. Adorned with the animal masks that we have seen in the exhibition’s sculptural component, Nget further foregrounds an entangled relation between human and non-human animals. Nget’s movement evokes different emotional responses ranging from pain to pleasure, transforming the dense forest into a space of shared intensity in which human and other creaturely beings coexist. 

Curated by Abhijan Toto, a co-founder of the Forest Curriculum, A Forest of Spirits  offers a translocal conversation on the political, cultural, and aesthetic significance of the forest. As the latest installment of this continuing conversation, Khvay Samnang’s show demonstrates how the forest can be reanimated to create a new mode of environmental thinking.

A Forest of Spirits is on view at Nova Contemporary until 31 October 2019.

Images: Courtesy of Nova Contemporary

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