Arts & Culture

Albert Samreth: Cambodia and the Number Zero

Cambodian history on a human scale

Words by
b-side staff

SPRMRKT at Cluny Court offers a glimpse of Cambodia through the works of Los Angeles-based Cambodian artist Albert Samreth until 31 March.

The Archive and The Everyday is based on the narrative surrounding the life of Amir Aczel, an Israeli-born American lecturer in mathematics and the history of mathematics and science. Delving into the concept of nothingness, these works are an exploration on how the number zero is the centre as well as the edge of modernism in many ways. Taking images from 1950s and 1960s Cambodian films made before before the Khmer Rouge, Albert hopes to recreate a fictional history that is optimistic and beautiful — a stark contrast to what most people may associate with Cambodian history.

Born in Long Beach, California, to Cambodian parents who fled the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, Albert’s artworks span many mediums but they are always associated to individuals’ relationships to history, ecological systems and the life of images. The Archive and The Everyday is no exception, and it seems to draw from his art background. He dropped out of film school to pursue fine arts at the California Institute of Arts.

Having been painting quietly for years and not exhibiting his work, Albert shares his opinion on the purpose of history and some of the ideas he has been meditating on in recent years.

Why Amir Aczel?

I was interested in Aczel’s relationship with chance and history. He was the son of a ship captain on the Mediterranean, which led him to Monte Carlo — casinos, numbers, statistics, and so, mathematical history, the origin of numbers, and so, Cambodia. Cambodia has a very complicated history with the number zero.

Pol Pot re-dated his rule in 1975 to begin from Year Zero and then, there is the possible invention of written zero.

And yes, the ideas of nothingness that come from Buddhism.

In a lot of Asian culture, we are intrigued by the concept of nothingness and liminal space. Why do you think this is the case?

The simple response is Buddhism. Something I am thinking about a lot now is the jungle and biodiversity. Equatorial places have a different relationship to nature. It’s harder to keep away.

Share with us the concept of The Archive and The Everyday.

I was interested in looking at Cambodian history on a human scale. We have a similar problem that you may find in present-day Egypt or Mexico, where I actually live today.

There is this epochal past that we are confronted with… rather than these personal narratives.

And because of the American war, we didn’t get to expand that in cinema or fiction so much. My work is an attempt to find balance, to find zero… to give a human scale to these stories about Cambodia.

In your opinion, what do you think is the purpose of history?

I am really not sure. But I am interested in exhaustion and collapse and rebirth and that balance. That version of zero.

An important moment that defined my personality comes from this day at the cinema… Well, I grew up in the hood in Long Beach, South LA, in the ’90s. That means gangs and drugs. And then there’s my family, who were not affiliated with anything besides each other, the temple and school.

Anyway, there was this moment when I was six, walking out of the cinema with my father. It was the first movie I had ever seen at a cinema and he took me to Schindler’s List. Hahaha. Like… We’ll skip over the part where that is a lot to put and make plain before a six-year-old. But it was like this message, “Oh, this is normal. People, life, it comes out of collapse. It comes out of insane situations and we find normalcy. Like the movie. Like us.”

The next time I went to the cinema was to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas. The purpose of history, I suppose, could be to offer context or scale.

But morality becomes rather impossible when you confront history. I’m inclined to cringe when people say we study history in order not to repeat our mistakes. It seems like we study history to prepare ourselves for what is inevitable and out of our control.

How does your own background inform your relationship and curiosity with Cambodia, considering that you are born Asian-American?

I came to Cambodia without a plan. I’ve spent a lot of my life this way — improvising. I love Asia, though. I’ve lived in Korea and Japan, and I have spent a considerable amount of time in Singapore and Thailand. Parts of Asia remind me of Latin America and I find some comfort in the familiarity.

What is one important thing everyone should know about Cambodia?

The flavours are strong and complex. Very fragrant. Cambodians eat flowers and there is bitterness and spice in everything.

And that there exists in the country, a great absence. So what you do there takes on a greater significance than in other parts of the world.

It can be one thing or the other, and it depends on us I suppose… and the other.

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