Using his body as a medium to perform often intentionally futile gestures, Khvay Samnang exposes lesser-known stories and unresolved social issues in Cambodia, prompted by hearsay, direct experience and the media.
Rubber Man is a performance and film work which draws upon the destruction of indigenous communities, species habitats and places of spiritual significance, due to the recent establishment of over 300,000 hectares of rubber plantations across Cambodia.
Until 1975 Cambodia was the largest producer of rubber in the world, dating back to 1884 when French Indochina privatized the land of the Cambodian Khmer monarchy and began importing rubber seeds from Brazil. In South America, these trees are referred to as ‘caucho’ or ‘crying tree’, as they release liquid rubber from incisions made in the bark, though this description is equally apt given the effect of the rubber industry on indigenous livelihoods. In the highlands of Cambodia there are over twenty native groups who subsist on a cycle of planting, transplanting, harvesting, and regeneration; forest and ancestor spirits play an omnipresent role in these communities, and these beliefs help to ensure wildlife conservation—however, agribusiness now threatens these ancient practices.
Over the course of 2014, Khvay repeatedly visited Cambodia’s highland province of Rattanakiri to survey changes in the environment due to the rubber industry, with the artist documenting strategic clearings, new forests of young saplings, mature plantations, and the villages that have—so far—survived. Moving between these man-made landscapes, Rubber Man captures the artist as he pours a bucket of fresh, white, rubber sap over his face and naked body. The artist’s features are entirely obscured by this painterly and performative action, which alludes to the suppression of indigenous populations who are rendered voiceless and invisible in the presence of industrial corporations. Appearing as a porcelain-white apparition walking amongst the trees, the artist asks, ‘Where will the spirits live?’ as behind him the forest disappears.
Khvay Samnang, born 1982 in Cambodia, lives and works in Phnom Penh.