In January 2018, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum received a new addition, the memorial sculpture To Those Who Are No Longer Here created by French-Cambodian artist Séra. This happened in spite of the latter’s opposition to the placement of his statue on the museum’s compound. When the City Council of Phnom Penh made, a couple of years ago, the suggestion that the statue be erected at an existing commemorative location such as Tuol Sleng of Choeung Ek, Séra turned down the proposal right away, arguing that the victims honored at both sites were mostly Khmer Rouge. “This fact should not be manipulated to represent the entire genocide,” he said. He expressed his anger in different outlets, including a short video and his Facebook page. Against this backdrop, the recent move of To Those Who Are No Longer Here to Tuol Sleng provides thus a good occasion to retrace the history of Séra’s memorial, as it aptly illustrates the complex relation of public space and Khmer Rouge-related memorialization in Cambodia.
The project was born in 2012, when Séra, on a grant of the CEK/INALCO, conducted a research on memorials in Cambodia. He was struck by the fact that there was no site, apart from Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, where Cambodians could gather and remember the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime (see article). To Those Who Are No Longer Here was conceived of as a response to this absence: it would offer Cambodians a different kind of commemorative space. Séra, who is well known for his graphic novels and paintings, already had some experience in creating public art memorials. In 2007, he had made the piece Aux Sans-Noms (“To those how have no name”) for the Khmer community in Bussy-Saint-Georges in the remote suburb of Paris. Séra’s initial idea for Phnom Penh was a group of sculptural monuments to be erected at a plaza (square Daunh Penh) facing the French embassy. The site had a strong symbolic meaning for him, and an intimate connection since it was the place where he had lost his father (Ing Phourin) in April 1975. The French embassy endorsed the proposal and agreed to pay for half of it. Alongside the association Anou’savry Thom created in France, the association Anvaya in Cambodia became Séra’s official partner, managing the legal and administrative aspects of the project and campaigning for having it included in the list of the ECCC’s collective reparations for Case 002/1. In January 2014, the LCL (Civil Party Lead Co-Lawyers who deal with the reparations program) agreed to include the project, and To Those Who Are No Longer Here appeared on the list released officially in April that same year. In June, Séra and his partners launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter. The project was renamed the Cambodian Tragedy Memorial for the occasion. However, the campaign failed despite a very communicative strategy, including a video presentation of the project. Financial difficulties, which plagued the project throughout the entire process, were not the only problems encountered by Séra and his team. Soon, the City Council of Phnom Penh explained that for technical reasons the plaza was a bad location for the memorial and they stalled on building authorizations.
Séra’s project changed a lot over the years, downscaling from the initial set of six pieces of bronze culture to the current single piece. This was due in part to the aesthetic concerns of the municipal authorities, arguing that the proposed memorial was too graphic. In that respect, the story of To Those Who Are No Longer Here is a good example of the “social aesthetics” of commemorative public art and the issues of public taste, accessibility, and historical referentiality that arise in such a context (James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meanings, published in 1993 by Yale University Press). The abstract anthropomorphism proposed by Séra did not only prompt a series of questions regarding the visual representation of the Khmer Rouge regime’s legacy of violence in the public space. His proposal also raised questions about the practices of memory that would be enacted there, in contrast to the religious and traditional rituals performed at stupa memorials. Moreover, the focus on 17 April 1975 and the deportation of the Phnom Penh inhabitants added to the complexity of the memorialization at play in To Those Who Are No Longer Here, since it did not reflect the experiences of the Cambodian majority population. Many people were already living under the yoke of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (then disguised as FUNK) for several years when Phnom Penh fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge forces. Last, Séra’s project referred in part to a very specific episode: what happened at the French embassy in April 1975 as Cambodian citizens were either refused entry or asked to leave the compound a few days later (this was the case of Séra’s father). This painful episode was discussed by journalist Piotr Smolar in the newspaper Le Monde in 2007 and led to a trial against the French government initiated by the widow of high-ranking Republican official Ung Bun Hor. In that sense, To Those Who Are No Longer Here was maybe more a ‘hybrid memory’ than a solely ‘Cambodian memory’. The role of public art is to create “shared spaces that would lend a common spatial frame to otherwise disparate experiences and understanding,” Young argues in “Memory and Counter-Memory: Towards a Social Aesthetics of Holocaust Memorials” (1995). If so, what kind of shared space would Séra’s project have created then? Sadly, we will never know.
The placement of the statue in Tuol Sleng marks thus the end of a long process, documented in Adrien Genoudet’s movie Quinzaine Claire (Waxing Moon), released in 2017 (see trailer). Séra’s project came to full stop in April 2015, the date when the memorial should have been erected at the plaza for the forty-year anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh. Instead, the DC-Cam, Séra’s new partner for the project, organized in its new premises at the National Institute of Education the exhibition Unfinished. It featured works by Séra and his partner Julianne Sibiski. In May 2015, the City Council finally gave a green light, but things hardly moved forward. The photos posted on the project’s Facebook page early 2016 showed the sculpture at the workshop of Kong Bolin at Tonle Bati (in charge for blending and designing the memorial’s environment) and the work with art caster Nov Chay. The statue was inaugurated on 7 December 2017 in the presence of civil parties, lawyers, and government officials (see article in The Phnom Penh Post). According to Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng, the reasons why it was removed a few weeks later is that a park will be built at the very location of the monument. A representative of the French embassy said that in Tuol Sleng To Those Who Are No Longer Here would receive better exposure and it would be easier to maintain the memorial there. In reaction, DC-Cam’s director Youk Chhang expressed his concern over such a removal or displacement of a legal judgment. A further issue is what place is left to memory when real estate speculation combines with policies to turn Phnom Penh into a competitive and attractive Southeast Asian ‘global city’. This, obviously, goes beyond the Democratic Kampuchea period and involves the colonial and post-independence periods as well. Last, the story of To Those Who Are No Longer Here raises the question of the meaning of the monumental form when it comes to remember the Khmer Rouge regime’s impact on the urban environment—emptying cities, and destroying both landmarks and the social fabric. Should one try to fill the gap or on the contrary physically maintain this disruption in today’s Phnom Penh space? Understandably, Séra must be disappointed and saddened by the fate of To Those Who Are No Longer Here. At the same time, his project, as unfinished work of memory that reminds of the fractures of Cambodia society and interferes with the montage of the city and the narrative of modernization and amnesia that goes with it, is certainly the most effective counter-monument to date.