Jul 5, 2012

the killing fields

I remember my first year in Korea, I went to the Gwangju biennale, 10,000 lives. Biennale is Italian for two years. It's essentially an international contemporary art festival held every two years in Gwangju, "the city of art and culture." It was amazing and I plan on going again this year, the theme being Round Table, it's happening September 7th - November 11th 2012.

I remember when I walked into the first exhibition room, there was a performance/installation for the Gwangju massacre and it set an ominous tone for the rest of the exhibition. Not everything was dark, there were some playful works, but there were some disturbing parts as well that came with warnings.

I also remember, somewhere around halfway through the exhibition, I walked into an exhibition space filled with portraits. Someone was reading the info to my right, so I decided to go left and look at the photographs before I read the info. All of the pictures were in black and white and looked like mugshots, some people looked angry, or sad and had tears in their eyes, maybe one or two out of all of them were smiling. I remember thinking it seemed like they were about to be killed or at the very least, something bad was going to happen. And once I made it all the way around the room, back to entrance and the exhibit info, I was right, they were portraits from the Killing Fields. There's a lot of debate about whether photographs like these are art (they weren't made for that purpose) and I have a lot of my own personal doubts and grievances with photography as an art form in certain circumstances because it has quite a tendency to exploit those being photographed. And I've spent a lot of time thinking about this since my first photography class back during my student days.

But moving on, while I was in Cambodia, I visited the Killing Fields, along with the genocide museum while in Phnom Penh and delved a bit more into the dark history of Cambodia underneath the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. My tuktuk driver took me out to the Killing Fields, early in the morning and I spent around an hour touring the site while listening to an audio tour. Entrance cost $5.
Some chickens wandering the site. Many people are buried here, and roofs have been set up above the main mass graves to protect them somewhat from the elements. The audio pretty quickly warned that bone fragments and fabric still resurface, especially after heavy rain, so be careful where you step and leave any remains to be tended to by the caretakers.
The only area adorned with bracelets by visitors. This is where babies and young children were taken by the legs and beat against the tree until dead and then buried in a pit a couple of feet away. The Khmer Rouge didn't have a lot of money to use to murder their victims so often resorted to sheer brutality. And they strongly believed that to completely eradicate your enemy it was necessary to eliminate them right down to their roots, sparing no one.
The monument to the victims, the first thing you see when you enter and the last stop before you go.
Inside the monument skulls and bones are stored from the victims of the massacre. Recent bone fragments that are unearthed are kept in a smaller case along the path and there's also a small storage area for fabric and clothes. Definitely a harrowing experience.

Another strange aspect to the Killing Fields is how much of a tourist attraction it has become, in fact one of the main tourist attractions of Phnom Penh. I couldn't walk anywhere without having tuktuk drivers asking me if I wanted to go on a tour to the Killing Fields. And much like viewing portraits from people murdered here, I couldn't help but feel a bit conflicted by the experience. But it was an experience I did participate in, and pay for, just like viewing the portraits at the Gwangju biennale.


  1. Just went back and looked at my old post from when I went there... My photo of the tree is completely bracelet-less. Any explaination for the bracelets hanging on the tree? They weren't there when I went there two years ago...

  2. i have no idea, people just leave them as an offering or sign of respect it seems, but only at the site for children. they were also left on the fence around the mass grave. maybe one person left one and it snowballed from there? i don't know the significance of why only bracelets though...