Saturday, December 12, 2009

Re: Cambodia's Norman Rockwells

To: Norman Rockwell’s Ghost
From: Jason Leahey / Bed of Room 1A / Golden Land Hotel / Battambang, Cambodia

Dear Norman,

I’m sitting here in the Golden Land Hotel in Battambang, Cambodia. Battambang translates to “ Big Stick.” Once upon a time, way, way back so that people know none of the names, a man lost a stick here. There’s a big statue of the guy, a Khmer Everyman kneeling and holding the stick in both upturned palms. This must have been some sort of fantastic, boom-stick wand, the loss of which caused such a ruckus that people named a city after that ruckus.

The Golden Land is charging me ten dollars for one night, a double bed, air-con, hot water, cleanliness with decent and crisp sheets. My girlfriend turned on the TV, only to fall right off into sleep, leaving Psycho on the television. This is appropriate. I decided to write you earlier this afternoon because walking around this town got me thinking of your primo, Once-Upon-a-Time Americana, and this movie could be labeled the same. With Psycho, you have a supremely post-war, bad wallpaper, sexually dysfunctional America. It seems to me a tight rendering of a national schizophrenic psyche, the country that nuked the Japanese, encoded maneuvers in Navaho whispers, and cooked up the Marshal Plan.

And with you, Norman, well, you’re propaganda. I don’t mean this is a mean way; I’m becoming of the opinion that everything is propaganda of some sort, that it’s simply the opposing team that gets tagged with the label. But you’re at the other end of the post-war spectrum from Hitchcock. With the exception of your finest—and truly fine—works Freedom of Religion and The Problem We All Live With, most everything is lily white. You sold a charmed idea of our national self, a freckle-faced America that surely had some basis in reality, but was ultimately dream of a country both simpler than the one surviving the war and more individual. The soldier returning home gets fanfare from neighbors who all know him by name, the boy next door sliding down the drain pipe. The two youngsters flirt in formalize fashion at the soda counter, the cop on the seat to them actually a friendly face. There is not a fast food franchise nor Coke Zero can to be found. Your characters undoubtedly would speak with different accents, language yet to head toward homogenization by the great, LCD equalizer that is television.

Walking around a city like Battambang, which has few tourists and little of the gobbling foreign investment that is paving Phnom Penh, I was struck by the multitude of hand painted signs adorning the businesses. I thought of you because though your work is a representation of an American community more personalized that we have today, these paintings in Cambodia are that personalization. They’re not meant for a mass audience or to build consensus. They are the front doors to the lives and work inside, faces of Cambodia’s own post-war landscape, and they are absolutely beautiful.

Take this sign, for instance. I love this. You can get your fan fixed in Cambodia. Have you ever tried to get a fan fixed in the United States over the unity past ten years? Okay, you wouldn’t have because you’re dead, but let me tell you, it’s nearly impossible to do so. For the cost of fixing one, you could buy two new Chinese imports on the shelves at Target and dump the old one in the garbage. Planned obsolescence, Norman, it’s the zeitgeist.

And then there are the signs for laundry...



moto maintenance...

and the humble key.

They show you who in the community would be interested in these services. Cannon cameras that still use 35 millimeter are best used for you couples getting married.

Printing services are ideal for ceremonial invites.

Seeing these makes me lament the passing of a more idiosyncratic America, the kind of rosy ideals depicted in your paintings but which have basis in fact all the same, the world witnessed through the windows of my family’s dark blue Chevy station wagon, locally owned department stores, hardware shops named after the family clan, radio spots for the local bicycle shop, their song, “Feeling good, gettin’ in shape, Nowww, you’re feelin’ great. Agee’s Bicycle, we bring out the best in yooouu!” playing on the Saturday morning drive to pick up tools and honey-do list supplies.

Beehives, tasty food, the promise of quality services and products for the kind of person you want to be. That’s the basis of all advertising, and I love that here the idea of what to be is given one-of-a-kind shape by a hand and brush rather than a banner printed up by the thousands and shipped out en masse across the planet.

Look at this: this woman is connected to the Great Modern Telecommunications Network.

These two are practicing and preserving an ancient form of Khmer martial arts.

This guy is James Bond and this other fellow is a modern Khmer striver and achiever.

Someone chose to paint as cell phone wallpaper a landscape of decimated, lonesome swamp. Who in the hell came up with that? It’s fantastic. Something like this would never make it in the States unless the testing audience was some kind of Mississippi nihilists clique.

Copyright and intellectual property laws are ignored here, these dwarfs, preserved by the Grimm’s and impounded by Disney, a case in point.

And here’s a transsexual Bugs Bunny proving the competency of this business’ pumps, a Winnie the Pooh who let his honey turn to mead.

Many of the products sold in Cambodia are sold world-wide or elsewhere in the region (though I have only seen the corn-flavored pop sickles in one store near our house), but the services on hand in places like Battambang and Kampot have not turned into products yet. The people who perform the services haven’t either.
Condom campaigns in Vietnam are modern enterprises with glossy posters and billboards. In Cambodia, the painted condom tells you what’s up.

Down the road, this billboard tells you not to drop found artillery into the fire.

These are all this moment in time’s documentation of what is valued, what is needed, what is wanted. Real day-to-day needs, rather than the duplicitous psychoanalysis of market research, determines these signs. Cambodian children need to understand that you can’t play with unexploded American ordnance and their parents should know where to get a fashionable hairdo. Just as American children needed to see your painting of the little girl integrating New Orleans public schools.

And it heartens me to see the hand of man, rather than machine, in this documentation.

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