In the white-walled exhibition room of Sa Sa Bassac gallery lives, for the time being, a collection of amorphous wire sculptures, hanging from the walls and ceiling, or draped over pedestals, as part of a solo show by Tith Kanitha, which opens tonight.
Though it is called Instinct, the show is untitled in Khmer, Kanitha’s native language. The reason for that, the 30-year-old says, is because there simply isn’t a proper translation in the Cambodian language.
“When I open the old Chuon Nath dictionary I find the word ‘saphea veak’, which means ‘the original form of nature’,” she says, referring to a widely used Khmer dictionary. For Kanitha, that translation is not satisfactory, and the search for understanding of the concept is at the heart of her show.
“What is instinct?” she asks. “Is it the instinct to survive?”
Kanitha, who, in addition to her sculpture, has been involved in several performances and film projects over the past few years, says she first learned the word in English back in 2013 at a residency in New York City for Cambodian artists at which she was told: “follow your instincts”. Since then she has toyed with the concept.
“It keeps changing . . . It can be a concept without form,” she says. Shaping that form is what she has attempted with her sculptures.
“In front of you it’s just wire. How is it instinct?”
The answer may be in Kanitha’s process, which involved hundreds of hours of winding nearly 60 spools of steel wire around a copper rod into tight spring-like filaments.
“It’s like a meditation . . . I stay in one place while my brain is working,” she says, adding that in those hours her mind would ponder moral and social questions.
“Why are we [Cambodians] living like this? Everyone is corrupt, [so] why have we adapted to this attitude of everyone just hurting everyone?” she says she asked herself.
As she let herself think, she would assemble the wire tendrils into shapes, made without a plan – only instinct. It’s up to the audience, she says, to question what the sculptures mean.
“I’m challenging the audience that if you don’t question your instinct, maybe you forgot [what it is].”