Critics’ Picks

Khvay Samnang, Untitled, 2011, digital C-print, 31 1/2 x 43 1/3".

San Francisco

“Poetic Politic”

KADIST | San Francisco
3295 20th Street
October 17–December 12, 2012

At San Francisco’s Kadist Art Foundation, viewers are challenged to consider the critical approach of ten artists from Vietnam and Cambodia in relation to the conservative political context of the region where they face censorship or disenfranchisement. The conceit stems from Zoe Butt, a Phnom Penh–based curator and director of Ho Chi Minh City’s Sàn Art. Sàn Art is the only artist-run space in Vietnam. Essentially a nonprofit, though such status does not technically exist there, it operates a residency and exchange program, a reading room, and a regular lecture series.)

“Poetic Politic” explores images that at first appear understated and even beautiful but take on larger social concerns. Khvay Samnang’s two untitled digital photos from 2011, for instance, document his performances in lakes that have been ruined by overgrown plants or floating garbage. The photos capture Samnang dumping a bucket of sand over his head, obscuring his face, in an attempt to call attention to the growing problem of land privatization in Cambodia, which has caused these lakes to be filled with sand and covered with new industrial buildings. UuDam Tran Nguyen’s video Waltz of the Machine Equestrians––The Machine Equestrians, 2012, likewise references the decline of the region’s natural landscape, via choreographed scooters that drive down a large street in a former scenic town near the Saigon River that is now the busy district of Thu Thiem.

The show offers a historical perspective with the inclusion of photographer Vo An Khanh, who joined the revolutionary communist North Vietnamese Army in 1960. Two photos, Extra-curriculum Political Science Class 7/1972 and Mobile Military Medical Clinic 9/1970, depict haunting figures wearing white masks that cover their faces with only eyeholes cut out, tending to wounded soldiers. Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana’s popular series “Bomb Ponds,” 2009, which depicts the craters left from conflict and Vietnamese artist Phùnam’s “Patination,” 2009, which magnifies the crumbling walls of government compounds in Ho Chi Minh City, speak to the political strife that has lingered in Southeast Asia and left physical traces in its wake.