Salt Water Deluge (Tucoerah River), 2021, is a work that centres around healing and preservation of culture following the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. The art of silk weaving, a matrilineally handed down tradition, was one of many art forms targeted and came close to being erased by the Khmer Rouge perpetrators. This iteration of Salt Water Deluge was produced in collaboration with the artists' sister Solina Sok and uses salt, water collected from the Tucoerah River (Georges River, NSW, Australia) and silk fabrics sourced from Cambodian artisans. The water was collected with permission from Indigenous Australian Darug Elders.
Silk fabrics are submerged in a saline solution, a process similar to a method the artists’ parents use to pickle vegetables. Harnessing the preserving and curing properties found in salt and water, the work acknowledges how trauma embeds itself within objects and survivors and looks towards remedial actions and processes of healing.
How did Khmer turn on Khmer?
Where did it all fall apart?
Where do I start?
Where do I begin?
I suppose I can begin with the question of why.
Why did it happen?
So many questions run through my head. Yet when it comes to knowing where to start, I hesitate.
I first learnt about the Khmer Rouge through stories my parents would tell my sisters and me. The fragments I can recall include stories of lions that get tricked by mice, and rabbits that would outsmart farmers for a carrot to chomp on. These tales were peppered between stories that conveyed the great distances that they had to walk, through ponds filled with reeds and leeches that would cling to their skin, and the small little treasures my grandma was able to sneak away in hidden pockets in her shirt. Or at least that is how I remember the descriptions of the Khmer Rouge being revealed to 12-year-old me.
She cuts the long leafy green vegetables from just above the root, taking care not to damage the stems. She places them into a large red basket, stacking them on top of one another, preparing them for drying. They sit in the sun for days. Until she is ready for them.
Boiling the ingredients together, she adds a measured ratio of mustard greens to salt, sugar, and water into a large enamel pot. A concoction fundamental enough to preserve them for an indefinite amount of time. She pulls out a large jar, almost as big as a child’s torso and fills it with the greens, packing them in as tightly as the stiff foliage would allow. She pours in the rest of the liquid. With the chopsticks she forces the greenery that pokes up, above the solution below the water’s edge.
I catch glimpses of the practice, never in full, but learning from repetitious exposure and apply the same techniques, carefully but with resolve.
We sit on the floor of my mother’s walk-in closet to view the traditional kramas and silk scarves, my mother would pull them out, one by one and delight in the stories behind each… “this one was from a wedding I went to…”
“this one was a gift from an old friend…”
“this one we bought but we’ve never used it…”
“look at this one, it’s such a nice colour. What are you going to do with them?”
“To think that the practice was almost erased…”
Having everyone gather around the dinner table is a rare thing in a family with so many members. But when we do gather, the table is covered with a mix of Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Western cuisines, enough to feed our family of 11. Amongst all the soups, stir fries and seafood stacked at the table, about all I can eat is the chrouk spey. I grab a bowl of rice and stack a bunch of the pickled leafy greens on top and eat until I am full.
Around the afternoon is when my Grandma takes her coffee.
What was it like?
How did you escape?
“Nothing to eat. We were so hungry.”
“They sat us around in a circle, right near the river.”
“They killed them... do you know what that means? To kill someone?”
I sit at my computer writing out instructions on how to proceed:
Step 1: Collect water from Tucoerah River (Georges River). Use the blue buckets to do this. Perhaps you can wear gum boots and wade into the river. Try your best not to collect too much dirt along with the water. I’ve marked a path you can take on Google maps.
Instead of being there in person to instruct my sister, I sit in front of a screen 17,000km away, trying to picture what she would be feeling, trying to anticipate her moves and preface any difficulties she might encounter.
Step 19: If the salt has dropped to the bottom of the bucket and not attached to the fabric, then adjust the fabric so it sits on the floor of the bucket. Be careful if the water is hot, as it might burn you. Also, if you have cuts on your hand, this will sting.
Once more, I am having to imagine her struggle.
How many buckets did you collect? Did you get enough water? What did the water feel like, as you waded through it? Did anyone ask what you were up to? How did you know where to go? How did you get there? How thick was the grass that you had to walk through? What did the leeches feel like on your skin? Did you have enough to eat? What was running through your mind? Were you afraid? How many were killed? How did you survive?
Questions for my sister, my mother, my grandmother.
Through the process of collecting water for this work I can’t help the questions that present themselves in my mind. So much was lost during that period. So much left unsaid. Connections between generations ebb and wane as the closeness of the mother tongue fades and no longer passes through the lips of younger generations.
When did you begin to feel safe again?
I acknowledge the privilege of being able to face this tragedy one generation down. I turn down to view the river, tracing its form in my mind. I timidly wade my feet through the river and let its motion move over my body.
I lay the silk fabrics down into the salt water. An attempt to preserve an ancient practice. Despite its classification as one of the strongest natural fibres in existence, I cradle it like a fragile body in my arms and slowly set it down to float in the healing solution I have created. Gently, the pieces of salt drift towards the silk, each of the crystal structures encasing the cloth beneath. I hang them out to dry on the clothesline, ready to process the next batch.