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The history of American presence in Cambodia is the subject of Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds (2009), a video and series of photographs that looks at the lasting effects of U.S. bombing operations on the nation’s landscape, its people, and their collective memory. Bomb Ponds has its origins in the production of another series of photographs by the artist, Walking Through (2009), which pictures Cambodian rubber plantations introduced during French colonization. While developing this sequence, the artist chanced upon what locals called a “bomb pond,” a body of water within a man-made crater. Curious, he searched for and photographed similarly ravaged sites, drawn to their paradoxically idyllic, overgrown settings.
The craters in Bomb Ponds are the results of 2,756,941 tons of bombs dropped by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1973, a figure that was publicly acknowledged only in 2000. It is debatable whether the military operation in Cambodia contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, its aggression fueling the resistance or, despite the loss of life and livelihood, aided the Cambodian people. Either way, the assault also points to the various interventions that Cambodians have faced throughout history, of Thai (Siam), French, Japanese, Vietnamese, and American origin. These interventions were variously administrative, ideological, and territorial, and were, as the artist emphasizes, often more complex than official histories suggest.
Vandy’s practice recalls that of Cambodian artists such as Svay Ken, whose paintings note both the ordinary and the unexpected. In a country where photography plays a critical documentary role—in images of the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 interrogation center Tuol Sleng, for example, or the memorialization of Khmer Rouge violence housed in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Bomb Ponds stands as witness to a continuing struggle against Cambodian historical revisionism. In the work’s video component, one villager relates the experience of hiding her family underground at the sound of incoming planes, while another is too aggrieved to discuss the memories that the sight of the ponds evokes. By thus underscoring the enduring damage wrought by military operations, Bomb Ponds suggests that this history deserves as much acknowledgement as the effects of the Khmer Rouge or the celebration of the Hindu-then-Buddhist temple complex of Angkor Wat. The ponds’ tragic aspect contrasts with national rebuilding projects such as the filling of Beoung Kok Lake for urban redevelopment featured in another work by the artist, an undertaking that poses a different kind of threat to the local community.