Amy Weng reviews Kim Hak’s exhibition that tells the stories of Cambodian refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge through the objects they carried – a show that will please many and offend none.
Alive is an exhibition with the noblest intentions. In 29 still lives, Phnom Penh-based photographer Kim Hak brings to life the accounts of Khmer Rouge survivors now living in Aotearoa. A thumb strikes a small hand-made lighter; an empty chair keeps company with a faded portrait; two halves of an intricately carved bracelet mould splay apart like an empty shell. Each time-worn object is photographed against a black backdrop, occasionally animated by disembodied arms, as if the owner had just stepped out of the frame.
Objectspace is the third iteration of Alive, following chapters in Cambodia and Australia. The project is personal. Hak was born two years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and he grew up listening to his parents’ memories of that time. In 1975 the Communist Party of Kampuchea, led by Pol Pot, seized control of Cambodia, enacting widespread agricultural reforms. Over 2 million died through famine and persecution. Those who could fled to Thailand and Vietnam.
Refugees of the Khmer Rouge also arrived in New Zealand. Through Objectspace and the Rei Foundation, Hak has connected with 12 Cambodian families who settled in New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s. Hak presents their escape stories through their possessions – they often risked their lives for the objects on display in this exhibition, including family photographs. Yet while the stories these families tell gamble upon the highest stakes, Alive doesn’t take enough risks. It’s a show that will please many and offend none.
The gallery walls have been painted black. There’s an absence at play, a reverential distance, that held my emotions in check. At points Hak’s staged scenes veer towards the hammy: a pair of surgical scissors menaces the throat of a red rose, a recently lifted sandal reveals a carefully broken twig. These contrivances break the spell of the images. I couldn’t fully connect with the real-life staked on each object.
The strongest part of Alive is not the photographs but the objects themselves, arranged in the centre of the gallery on sleek black plinths. Each object is presented like a museum display, accompanied by a short text that explains its provenance. The surgical scissors belong to a nurse told to abandon his hospital and his patients; he hid the scissors in a bag of rice. A daughter carried the photograph of her mother for decades before it could be developed. A man carved mortar and pestles hewn from mountain stone, to sell at a Thai refugee camp. These objects can’t be touched or picked up, yet they carry the tangible weight of their histories.
Hak demonstrates the power both objects and photographs have to transfer memories and act as profound reminders of where we have come from. In particular, the jeweller’s tools and the mortar and pestle speak to the skill and ingenuity of these refugees as artisans in their own right. The objects held my attention. The photographs became secondary, compromised by the presence of their real-life counterparts. Alive is an exhibition that attempts to blur the boundary between art and museum display but doesn’t quite do justice to either.
One of the issues I’ve been struggling with is whether art needs to do good in order to be good, and vice versa. This calls into question assumptions we make about art, its role in society and its ability to bring about real change in the world. Alive commemorates the Cambodian community in Tāmaki Makaurau by bringing their stories, momentarily, to light. Billboards of the photographs have sprung up in Manukau. Objectspace has also held a series of public lectures presented by refugee experts and Cambodian migrants. But perhaps what Alive offers is not just a greater awareness of past events, but the chance to reconceptualise our understanding of humanitarian crises and the impact of displacement, not as a tidal wave, but as a slow radiating ripple, a transition that can take a lifetime to come into affect. In Alive, Hak asks us to imagine the cost of war through the possessions we have in common – possessions that can easily be taken away.
At the event I attended, on World Refugee Day, the proximity of the Khmer Rouge was still painfully palpable for the survivors after decades of silence. Alive is a quiet and respectful exhibition, which is a shame because there’s so much to shout about here.
Kim Hak: Alive runs until 21 July at Objectspace, Auckland.
For more listings of current art exhibitions across Aotearoa go to ArtNow.NZ