Artist Statement – Tuol Sleng & Emperor’s Palace Composites

Tuol Sleng the genocide museum, also known as S-21 a Khmer Rouge torture and execution prison from 1975 – 1979 where estimates on executed prisoners range from 14,000 – 20,000. Visiting Phnom Penh Cambodia, this prison, which had previously been a public school is a site many locals urge tourists to visit. Doing so can feel unbearable, however of utmost importance and respect, to pay respect to the victims by witnessing the historical remnants. How could any people be so inhumane as to perpetrate such atrocities? On my first trip there in 2008, I read about the horrible torture techniques in a Cambodian book documenting the prison. The technique portrayed as one of the most horrific, is known to Americans as water boarding. As with other historical genocidal atrocities, the Khmer Rouge made portraits of all of their victims. These particular portraits seen here are alleged to be of people who worked at the prison and were exhibited in the museum. Visitors to the museum and responding emotionally to the persecutor’s images wrote the graffiti defacing the images.

Another valued site to share with tourists in Phnom Penh is the Emperor’s Palace. There, one can find a large courtyard lined with deteriorating weather-damaged frescoes representing the Reamker, Cambodia’s epic poem portraying issues of trust loyalty, love, and revenge. The murals, so beautifully painted captivate the imagination of people’s care to represent devotion, even while portraying a narrative, which is filled with extreme violence, also raises many questions about humanity’s ability to historically repeat behaviors so dreadful one cannot believe. These murals also meant to document or portray the narratives as a reminder, are not only deteriorating from the affects of weather but by human neglect, even workmen painting the ceiling above have permitted white paint to freely splatter all over sections of the literary story.

In compositing images from the two sites, I have permitted myself to contemplate humanities ability to repeat injustices. There is no doubt I do so with an unsettling awareness of making what are to me aesthetically pleasing images of the most frightening content.

John Willis

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