Every so often, I find myself feeling guilty for seeing something as art. It’s not so much that I think there are events that art can’t be derived from: while there may be an overabundance of movies and novels about the Holocaust, that tragedy is certainly evidence that astonishing horror can be mined for astonishing art.
But there’s something very different about producing redeeming art from the ruins of tragedy, and from seeing something lovely in the actual instruments of such tragedy. So it was that I found myself feeling guilty during a vist to Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s interrogation facility in Phnom Penh. The museum on the site of the prison captures the site’s intense contradictions: it’s a lovely, whitewashed site with sunny courtyards, a plausible former schoolyard, which it is. And yet, when invading Vietnamese troops seized the prison in 1979, they found rooms where corpses were chained to the beds where they’d been executed, flesh literally stuck to the metal. The Khmer Rouge took people–often their former comrades–and turned them into meat:
But in the tiled rooms where the Vietnamese found the remains of those people destroyed by a regime eating itself alive, the thing I found myself noticing first, and most, were the delicate and distinctive designs in the head and footboards of the beds. They’re lovely:
I don’t know if it’s inappropriate that the designs struck me so strongly. But the only people who survived Tuol Sleng were the ones who used art to keep themselves alive. They took the photographs of their fellow prisoners, or they painted at the requests of the people running the prison–one of whom, Duch, is on trial in Phnom Penh right now, an event that only fleetingly makes the news here, the story made a relic by time and by geographical distance. If art can be a tool of survival, perhaps it’s also a useful tool of remembrance.