Representing Southeast Asia

July 17, 2020

There’s a game I like to play in class called “Look At.” We practice our close reading skills by gazing at a picture for 3 minutes and then writing down everything we see (or don’t see) about that image by starting each sentence with: “Look at…” When I first looked at Vietnamese American artist Dinh Q. Lê’s woven photo-collage, “Untitled #9 from Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness,” at the Ackland Art Museum (UNC Chapel Hill), I was struck first by my not knowing: what it was, how it was made, what it represented. On-screen, the image resembles 80’s over-pixelated computer graphics, but in person, it’s a traditional prayer mat woven from strips of two separate photographic images. Look at how colonized cultures are represented. These two images, official photographic records of the Khmer Rouge’s S21 prisoners, who are about to be executed, and a bas-relief of a Vishnu incarnation from the ancient Khmer temple of Angkor Wat, offer polarizing visions of how Cambodia is represented in an American imaginary: the Killing Fields or one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The two images echo questions that we’ve discussed in our National Humanities Center seminar: how are nations memorialized? What are the human geographies represented and reproduced? How are these competing representations contested? Look at Vishnu’s vanished face. When I visited Angkor Wat, I was overwhelmed by the spiritual power standing alongside me, at this nexus of religious histories, the fall of an empire, the way this temple’s physical weight changed the geographical landscape. Look at these missing eyes. The artist has razored out eyes from the S21 prisoners’ faces. They look like my parents’ old document pictures that I once found buried in a dresser drawer. When I visited the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, I literally felt physical distress, panic, anxiety. How can the earth retain emotion and memory? Can trauma leave a residue in the earth itself? Look at the dark spaces woven together. Human meets divine. Official record meets folk tradition. Black and white meets color. Modern technology meets ancient carvings. Vishnu’s arms are outstretched: in pain? In embrace? I leave the NEH Summer Institute on Contested Territory with many more questions than answers, but such compelling questions. What does territory in Southeast Asia mean and who controls its expression? How do humans affect geography? How can we read this image through a diverse set of disciplinary expectations? How do we survive a war? And why is this important? This is why the humanities matter.