What does it take to feel like you belong in a place? A home? A job? People around you who treat you like family? How easy is it to build up these elements from nothing, a clean slate of possibility in a new country or town? What about feeling accepted into a new community regardless of the one you came from? All these questions allude to the great unknown of moving away from somewhere you feel comfortable, from somewhere that your skills and knowledge of the world can be transferred. What about if what you are moving away from is like a fire; burning, smoking, and destroying everything you knew that was safe.
When I moved away from home for the first time at 18 I knew I could always go back, it wasn’t running away; rather a hurried walk. Scared that something would pop up and make me stay, rather than forcing me to go. I looked around me and saw the patterns of kids doing the same thing their parents did. School, university, marriage, kids… repeat. I felt like I walked on wet cement, every time I stood for too long in one place I felt my feet grounding. I moved back home from South Africa before I turned 19 and waited 6 months in waves of memories that wouldn’t go away before arriving in Sydney on the 6th of January 2013. I think of this date like my Australia birthday when I arrived with a clean new palette ready to use in a place that I feels always washes anew whenever I need it to. As someone from the countryside in England, stuck in the middle of the small little island, being by the ocean flooded me with possibilities. Here I could do anything, I wasn’t trapped by preconceived ideas of what my life would look like. Instead my future looked incredibility blank, stark of any kind of pattern or colour. Like the horizon on a grey day, disappearing into the vast emptiness of water meeting the atmosphere.
Linda Sok and I both shared these moments of pressure when contemplating what was the right thing to do at 18. Whether our own paths would be what was right or completely and terribly wrong. Of course, no path ends up being wrong and for Linda ending up in Canberra studying commerce and science could arguable be the source of inspiration for her artwork. After deciding to run away from Canberra, bunking with a friend in Sydney, her Cambodian father emailed her: “come back home.” These words stayed with Sok; how easy it was for her to go home. Not as a failure but as a restart and a reflection on our own emotions and thoughts becoming situated within time and place. However, as we see for the manifestation on the earlier artwork, Come Back Home II embodies a history and linear from her parents own coming of age during the Khmer Rouge dominance in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge, known also as the Pol Pot Regime saw the genocide of an estimated 1.7 million Khmers. The word estimated is key because no one knows the truth, apart from the gaps of a quarter of the population gone. Sok’s parents, of Chinese-Cambodian decent, were one of the target groups aimed at. Sok’s parents didn’t leave home to explore the world or escape routine, but death and pain. Come Back Home II is the artwork created by Sok that speaks to the trauma left when you can’t return home. Sok explores heavy concepts of Primitive Communism, like the concept of returning to ‘year zero’, where 90% of artists were murdered; Post Colonialism, where the retreat of the French left a scaring power vacuum; and Neo Colonialism, with the use of pressure to control or influence other countries. Other countries such as America which left Cambodia crippled with debt that allowed the “Red Khmers” to come to power.
Come Back Home II has been developed through her combining the elements of materiality and objectivity. Two composite components Sok hopes to bring together through her work. The objectivity of her family’s history plays into the literal materiality of her pieces. Sok tells me her father left Cambodia in December 1979 and spent four years in a Thai refugee camp before arriving in Australia in January 1983. Her mother left just after this in 1984 and stayed at the refugee until July 1987. However, unlike Sok and mine’s experiences of leaving home, going back wasn’t an option. Sok brings this to life through the medium of Come Back Home II. The words written in Khmer glow, bringing about their own symbolic presence, the words sculptural as they are meaningful to those who can read it. By using a black mirror surface as the platform for the words, the meaning is amplified as it creates a duality of signified meaning. The audience is also reflected and placed into the art work. Sok makes us contemplate our own placement in this position, our faces framed by the orange glowing text, and thus the effect our lives have within the greater world. However, by using the Cambodian language to ask the audience to Come Back Home she isolates us and instead homes in on the Cambodian audience members who have been left out the history books and culture been left to forget about.
Going back home is something Sok’s parents still yearn for. Her dad is the president of The Salvation & Cambodian Culture Association of NSW, a group that brings people together through food and pray. For them the realms of safety aren’t back home; so, by forming an association they can keep their culture alive and provide a support group together. Through this they organise a festival every year and that brings together the community from the original Cambodian suburb Canley Vale. Sok is using her art to connect back to her parents and her roots. Come Back Home II has its meaning reflected in the mirror and thus subverts the message onto itself. We are home now, this is it for us. You can’t send someone back to where they came from when that place is permanently gone. Whether that’s Sok’s parents’ home in Cambodia or mine in England. For them literally and for me metaphorically. This is my chosen home now and it’s here that I have my life. If the visa runs out it’s back to a blank slate, because for some, going back to the place you grew up isn’t an option in moving forwards with your life. Sok again reminds us of this in her art. By using the medium of the mirror and wires, as they fill with electricity that is at once a still empty object and one filled with energy, drawing you in closer to touch. The painful reality of returning home and not being able to is literal in the heat of the wires.
From 1975 till 1979 the Khmer Rouge reigned terror. Sok told me even she had to do her own investigation into her parent’s histories. She shared that it’s not something that people freely talk about, not then or now. When I did my own research into this part of history I found that the people who started the genocide were still in power until 1996, this is something that happened in my life time. So why do we get taught about genocide in Germany but not Cambodia? Cambodia was not a safe place to be for people like Sok’s parents, people who weren’t farmers; whose background was diverse; members of the middle class were targeted. Even wearing glasses made you a target. So why didn’t countries from the west intervene? Why is war so important to stop countries doing awful things, and thus result in losses of many innocent lives. However, places like Cambodia get forgotten about?
In a work that Sok has been developing: Blood Money she explores the concepts brought up in Come Back Home II. Because her parents could not go home the state of inbetween left them between cultures. For Sok and her family this meant Cambodian school till the teens years and then she was allowed to choose whether she went down the western route, Cambodian or a blend of the two. After reading about the concept for Blood Money I can understand why Khmers like her cousins wouldn’t want to conform to western standards. Sok states on her website: “US$500 million was sent to Lon Nol under the guise that it be used for agriculture and food supplies. This was accompanied by 500,000 tons of explosives being dropped on the eastern side of Cambodia (the real targets being the North Vietnamese supply lines), killing 50,000 Cambodian people. To this day, the United States are still demanding the US$500 million to be repaid, despite the fact that the money went directly in to the arms that were used against the Cambodian people. The current Prime Minister of Cambodian Hun Sen has labelled it as a “blood stained” debt.” In the artwork being developed by Sok, Blood Money, features a metaphoric blood drip that destroys the useless money left after the beginnings of the Khmer Rouge’s power. The red blood drips stand in for the aid from America, that instead of helping left them without anything.
I feel like a common concern of Australian citizens is that refugees and immigrants won’t conform to the standards they want them to. Why must everyone speak English? Why do immigrants need to leave behind their culture in order to “fit” in? In attempts to achieve constant growth do we forget about what is important; like caring for people when they need help. Not crippling them with debt. Moving to Australia freed me from my own fears and I feel so lucky that I was allowed that as a British citizen. I won’t trivialise my own experience by Sok’s parents, rather it makes me confident that I want to share these stories that artists construct. Sok’s work is so incredibly clever, in that she has created something beautiful, abstract, reflective and meaningful. Combined in both materiality and objectivity, so that her parent’s stories, stories of their country can be told and can reach people outside of a history book. Moving away from home and to the other side of the world taught me how strong people are. We can withstand loss to a degree larger than anything I could have imagined. Most importantly it made me realise how much we need each other, through cultures and communities we can make our voices heard, or even just simply amplify the ones of the people we believe in.