Faces of Cambodia

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ploenpote Atthakor
Bangkok Post

Dutch artist Peter Klashorst is preparing for a painting exhibition to be held in Cambodia's notorious Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum next month. The opening of the exhibition will coincide with the museum's reopening after renovations, with support from Unesco. He talks with 'Outlook' about his work and hope of pursuing his latest art scheme.

How and why did you get involved in this project?

I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and took pictures with my mobile phone. The whole atmosphere moved me. That same day I flew back to Bangkok with those faces still in my memory. That evening I painted their portraits. I was intrigued by this time in history and wanted to do an exhibition regarding this topic, so eventually I got in contact with Unesco, which is renovating part of the museum. They were very interested in the idea of art being part of the project. Joining Unesco to our team also makes it easier for us to look for external funding for the project.

Will you paint more in Phnom Penh?

Yes, I am now in Phnom Penh. At the moment, I am experimenting with different methods of painting, different canvases. ... I have visited the killing fields a few times and the museum to take further pictures and sketches.

Will all the paintings be portraits of female victims?

No, portraits are only a small part of the work. I don't know how many paintings I will make. I always work a lot, and the whole situation is very inspiring and gives me a lot of energy. It will be like an avalanche of paintings. It's true that most of my subjects are female. When you make a portrait of someone, the person is still alive, so somehow you become like that person. When you paint a person with a nervous twitch, you almost catch the same twitch from them. You become one with the person and the poser becomes the painter in a way. You make the portrait together. So every portrait you paint is also a self-portrait and a portrait of the whole world. These were painted from photographs taken on my mobile phone, but they put shivers down my spine. It was as if these people were helping me make the paintings the same way as if they were alive and with me in my atelier. Thai people believe in reincarnation and ghosts, so my Thai friends who visited my studio said they would never want to sleep in the same room as the paintings. The strange thing is that I have a daughter who is 5 years old, and one of the children I painted looks exactly like her. It could have been my own child, so maybe reincarnation is true.

Have you changed your normal working process for this project?

The work process is different for this project because of the its complex historical and political context. I'm trying to gather as much information as possible about Southeast Asia, and, of course, the Khmer Rouge period in particular. I will let it all soak into my system and spit it out on canvas, and let my instincts do the rest. I'm not a politician, but an artist. I live through my emotions.

Are there other activities in the project apart from the exhibition?

There will be a documentary film and a workshop for art students. All are non-profit. I am paying for the whole project out of my own pocket and we are waiting for different parties (apart from Unesco) to contribute financially. The paintings that are shown here were sold to an English collector for 300,000 baht, which went back into the project.

Is 'Faces Cambodia - Never Again' the exhibition's title?

There is no title yet. I will have to discuss that with Unesco and the potential funders, depending on their role.

In your proposal, it says this is not a political project. How can you avoid that since it is apparent that the Hun Sen government makes use of Tuol Sleng and the killing fields for political gains over its enemies?

I never said that art is non-political. I think art without political or social context only serves as mere decoration and, although I cannot judge my own work, I hope it will stir people's thoughts; otherwise it has failed. However, I'm not part of any political movement, only my own paint and brush movement. Of course I realise that a museum like this always has a political background and politicians will always try to exploit it for their own means, but I have no part in that and believe that such a macabre place will always stir up controversy. Concerning the remains of the victims, although we cannot ask them, I think they would have agreed to have themselves shown in this way. Although it may may seem cheap and disrespectful, it attracts people to their story, and those people's thoughts will be with them. In a way, the same goes for the photographs. These people were never asked to be photographed and never gave their permission to be displayed. When people look at a photograph or a skull, it helps them identify with the victims and I hope my paintings can help people reflect on what happened here. Art will be here forever and governments will come and go. Vita Brevis Ars Longa (Life is short; art is forever).


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