Phnom Penh

View of “Tith Kanitha,” 2018. Photo: Prum Ero.

View of “Tith Kanitha,” 2018. Photo: Prum Ero.

Tith Kanitha


View of “Tith Kanitha,” 2018. Photo: Prum Ero.

Tith Kanitha describes the plain, medium-gauge steel wire she used to make the sixteen sculptures in her exhibition “Instinct” as an “insignificant material whose primary function is to support others.” She speaks of how the labor-intensive processes of twisting, then weaving, then shaping the wire takes on a meditative quality, offering time for reflection on myriad personal, social, political, and historical issues. Such matters are felt especially keenly in Cambodia, where Kanitha lives and works; a “post-conflict” narrative dominates most discussions of arts and culture. But unlike most other Cambodian artists whose work circulates internationally, she does not overtly manifest such fraught legacies in her art. Her commitment to an open-ended and largely abstract playfulness is rare among artists of her generation in Southeast Asia.

Repeatedly turning to the same kind of wire she’d used in several previous exhibitions, Kanitha focused our attention on the material, while also paradoxically rendering it invisible. As a vessel for the artist’s forms—forms that hover tantalizingly between the figurative and the abstract, the identifiable and the indistinct—the wire nearly slides out of view. Yet the demanding nature of the material and process remains apparent. Some of the forms here recalled human sex organs; others evoked sea creatures; several resembled the artist’s own hair, which she wears unusually long in defiance of expectations of women in her society. The sculptures all featured loose ends: strands of unfurling wire that had been left to dangle. Other imperfections emerged and receded as our eyes roved over the sculptures’ tactile surfaces, which in their porousness teasingly frustrated scrutiny. There was something almost painterly in this gauziness—and in the months before the exhibition, the artist decorated her studio with images of Post-Impressionist still-life paintings by Cézanne and others, fascinated by their muscular sense of volume. The raw timber frames of the open-sided pedestals, exposed to view, also served to emphasize the internal structures of the sculptures they supported.

Kanitha has been making sculptures with store-bought wire for close to a decade, in between acting in and working on feature films, producing performances and videos, and creating immersive installations. It is for this last format that she has enjoyed the most acclaim: Her Hut’s Tep Soda Chan (Hut of Angel), 2011/2017, was a highlight of the recent “Sunshower: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia, 1980s to Now,” a survey of the region held last year at Tokyo’s National Art Center and Mori Art Museum. A life-size reconstruction of her home, it created a relaxing if uncanny environment in which to sit, talk, and muse upon the land-grabbing policies of the Cambodian government, which have resulted in the forcible eviction of thousands of Kanitha’s former neighbors without adequate compensation.

The effects of political catastrophes such as this one appear prominently in work by Kanitha’s peer Khvay Samnang, whose work could be seen at last year’s Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens, and often overshadow discussions of Cambodia’s best-known artist, Sopheap Pich, featured in the most recent Venice Biennale. Though their works address concerns shared across rapidly transforming Southeast Asia and resonate with international audiences, artists such as Samnang and Pich are unable (or perhaps unwilling) to escape “Cambodia” as the frame defining their work. By contrast, Kanitha’s sculptures aim to eschew references to the nation or to the artist’s nationality. The exhibition title, “Instinct,” appeared only in English, because, Kanitha has said, she found no satisfactory equivalent in the Cambodian language. As a counterpart to this carefully noted limit to translatability, the artist resists boundaries that constrain interpretation and aesthetic experience.

Roger Nelson