The Influence

How memory is embodied in the works of German artist Eva Hesse speaks deeply to Cambodian–Australian artist Allison Chhorn. By Neha Kale.

Allison Chhorn

A detail of Contingent by Eva Hesse (above), and Allison Chhorn (below).
A detail of Contingent by Eva Hesse (above), and Allison Chhorn (below).
Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington (above), Annie Comelli (below)

Allison Chhorn is a sharp observer of invisible inheritance. The Cambodian–Australian artist and filmmaker grew up in the suburbs of Adelaide and works across video, photography, painting and music. Her quietly lyrical films re-create the shapes and rhythms of cultural displacement, how the legacy of surviving the Khmer Rouge translates across generations. Her acclaimed 2019 work The Plastic House, which premiered at Switzerland’s Visions du Réel, sees a young woman imagine the deaths of her parents. Missing, commissioned by Prototype in 2021, features a mother and daughter who live away from each other, their emotional divide unbridgeable.

For Skin Shade Night Day – her first solo exhibition, which is showing at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental gallery – the artist, who is currently presenting her films in Phnom Penh, returned to live with her family in Adelaide. In the work, simple rituals – gardening, cooking – speak to the embodied nature of memory and the ghosts of the past in the present. These ideas are also at the heart of Contingent, a 1969 work by Eva Hesse, the German–American artist who has captured Chhorn’s imagination for the past decade.

You’ve long been influenced by Contingent. It’s one of the most significant works by Eva Hesse, who is known for extraordinary sculptures that use impermanent materials such as fibreglass, cheesecloth and latex. What spoke to you about Contingent when you first saw it?

I first discovered Eva Hesse at uni when I was studying visual arts, about 10 years ago now. I think I found her at the University of South Australia library in a book called Eva Hesse by [feminist art critic] Lucy Lippard. I was drawn to her work, especially Contingent, because it really hit me, seeing these skin-like sheets hanging. Contingent spoke to me really viscerally.

At the time of discovering Hesse, I was also interested in other artists who happened to be German, such as Gerhard Richter and W. G. Sebald. I was drawn to the sense of loss and the remnants of the past in their work.

Contingent really hits you on a physical level.

I think of all of Hesse’s works as being very closely related to the body. They resemble parts of the body. They have similar shapes and forms. Hesse started with paintings and drawings and then later moved to sculpture. Her use of everyday materials – rope, wire, string – made me realise that found objects could be transformed into something else, something more organic but arranged with some structure. Contingent showed me that suspended installations can be ghost-like and haunting, seemingly floating by themselves. It’s as if putting these tangible objects into order helps to make sense of something that was previously a mess.

Hesse’s life was traumatic. She fled the Nazi regime with her family at two, lost her mother to suicide at 10 and made the work Contingent shortly before she died of a brain tumour at 34. But to me, there’s something almost buoyant about Contingent, how these vertical stretches of latex-covered cheesecloth hover midair. What do you admire about it?

It speaks about both death and life. It’s also very textural in the way that it is installed, suspended. I have always thought about referencing that work in terms of wanting to make installation work myself. I think about how the viewer must have seen that work, the gradations of light coming through.

Hesse became ill [reportedly] from the fumes of the materials she was using, and she died just after Contingent, her last work, was exhibited. It’s as if she had sacrificed her health to make these works. It made me realise that art and life could be ingrained in each other. I was very drawn to the repetition in Hesse’s work when I first discovered her. Repetition provides a sense of rhythm for me.

Hesse is most often associated with minimalism, but her work is psychologically intense and is consumed with what the body remembers. Your new work, Skin Shade Night Day, re-creates a shade house. It is also interested in the body and its surfaces – there is a scene in which an unnamed figure is brushing another figure’s skin. How did Skin Shade Night Day come about? And how did Contingent make you rethink the body in this new work?

For about 20 years my family lived on a farm and grew produce in a greenhouse, which was made of plastic sheeting [and] that I’ve only just realised was also made of shade cloth. The greenhouse traps heat and creates a very humid atmosphere inside. Then after we sold the farm, I went to Darwin with my mother and we saw a shade house. I just had a very strong urge to make a shade house back in Adelaide.

Everything clicked when I realised I wanted to show the projections against the shade house. The shade cloth is a permeable material, it catches the projection, but it also lets it through. Initially, I was thinking about the idea of daily routines and essence. The more you live and work in a place, the more you become part of that place. And the place embodies your essence. And that also fitted very well with projecting images of that scene you are talking about – the body against this material as if body and place become one.

Working with that shade cloth, that material felt like skin. It holds so much memory, the way it creases and the way it folds. That scene shows something called coin massaging. In Cambodian culture, scraping the skin, almost revealing these bright red marks, is believed to bring about blood circulation. We use it all the time for anyone who has any kind of sickness. There is some scientific evidence of it being healing. Something about the pain of it that also relieves pain.

Your work is also hugely consumed with the relationship between memory and the body, and the way memory represents another kind of truth. How has Contingent changed the way you think about memory?

For me, I feel like memory is ingrained in the body. When I think about my grandmother, her short-term memory is failing but her long-term memory is very good, and she can still remember a lot of stories from 40, 50 years ago. It’s like long-term muscle memory. Those experiences stay with you. When you are scared of something, if you’ve had a bad experience in the past, your body reacts maybe in the same way as you originally did. I feel like body and memory are so intertwined.

Contingent, to me, is about remnants of the body. It is almost very stark in that way. I’m very interested in traces of what used to be there. In Contingent, [the pieces of fabric] – I don’t want to say they are bodies – are very much like figures hanging. That to me is very strongly connected to the history of the Khmer Rouge and these inhumane killings and the way that the body is displayed in these very inhumane ways.

What has Skin Shade Night Day sparked for you as an artist?

It’s been really good to be here in Cambodia, meeting all these artists and filmmakers. It is such an energetic and inspiring place to be. I’ve realised all the cultural aspects that make my mother who she is. I’m thinking very broadly about the diaspora and people who have migrated and the cultural traits they still retain. I was focused on film before, but now that I’ve made this multichannel installation, it’s opened up a new world to me.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Allison Chhorn".

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