A person is moving, and slightly blurred, in front of a gallery wall full of 5 similar hanging artworks.
Above: Install of to carve a constellation at Moremen Gallery, image courtesy of the artist.

to carve a constellation

Stephanie Wise

Titled to carve a constellation, Vinhay Keo’s exhibition at Moremen Gallery, orchestrates a series of designs fundamental to his personal history into a visual saga as intricately woven as the myths and legends read in the stars. Astronomers have long “created” constellations out of what is already there to recount larger-than-life stories for all to read across space and time under this shared sky. However, different stories can be told from the same stars: Roman Emperor Hadrian connected the dots in order to memorialize his lover Antinous, and the Iroquois nation tell of The Bear and The Hunters instead of The Big Dipper. In the exhibition, Keo has illustrated a tale with easily recognizable objects and nature. The audience has a shared understanding of each individual icon (whether it be the lotus flower, a KFC bucket, or donuts), but the artist brilliantly draws these common visions together to honor his own, as well as his culture’s, narrative.

Vinhay Keo is a talented multi-media artist who earned an MFA from California Institute of the Arts in 2020. Keo moved to Kentucky in the early 2000s with his family from Cambodia, a country still recuperating from the Khmer Rouge genocide that took place in the 1970s. His body of work is imbued with a strong exploration of the pluralities of his identity as a queer Cambodian American. Keo’s practice is driven by a ceaseless passion for research and creation, with cultural and personal histories informing his interdisciplinary explorations of photography, paper-cutting/fabric work/sculpting, installation and performance art.

From 1975-1979, dictator Pol Pot and the communist government, the Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia. Under this tyrannical power, about 2 million people—a quarter of the population—were murdered or starved to death. Reasons for killing included committing treason, being too educated, or practicing art. As rural Cambodia was seen by the government as the ideal, the Khmer Rouge emptied big cities and drove those populations to rural towns and work camps. This displacement of the Cambodians continued through to the mid-nineties. Refugees found physical homes in Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States. Ancient practices of Cambodian arts were mostly lost along with the artists who imparted those traditions. Despite the diaspora of Cambodians, there are artists like Keo who, while being immersed in a totally different culture, want to breathe life back into the traditions of Cambodia.

Keo’s rendered style of icons in to carve a constellation is inspired by the style of sacred art Sbek Thom. Sbek Thom is an ancient practice of performing Buddhist legends of good versus evil through shadow puppetry. The shadow theater was a ceremonial dedication to the gods and deities, only performed during significant celebrations such as the King’s birthday and the New Year. The puppets were originally made by artisans by drawing the figure on dyed leather, then cutting it out, painting it, and attaching two bamboo sticks for the dancer to control the puppet. While ancient performances were projected using a large fire and bamboo screens, Keo’s cork and sarong (as an ethical replacement of leather) pieces are illuminated from behind with a light bulb. The effect of white walls, dimmed gallery lights, and intricately cut designs plays a theater illuminating Keo’s life.

Limp (Blue) and Limp (Pink) are the first two carved shadow works I observe inside the gallery. The pink sarong work is a lotus drawn and carved from the bottom left corner with a hand emerging from the flower. The forearm diagonally grows to the upper right corner with a relaxed wrist and posed fingers, as if mid dance. The blue work is a mirror image of the pink. The lotus is the national flower of Cambodia and, across cultures, this flower is a symbol of life and enlightenment. An interpretation of the outreaching arm of Limp is two-fold. The apsara is a feminine spirit of the heavens and the waters prominently featured in Southeast Asian cultures as well as a dance of the same name performed by women. Many apsara are found carved in bas-relief throughout the ancient cities of Cambodia in Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. Every position of the hand in apsara dancing represents an action, like a flower blooming. The title “limp” is indicative of the limp wrist position stereotypically associated with gay men in Western culture for limpness is construed as an opposite of a more masculine descriptor like “hard” or “inflexible”. Keo’s Limp is an homage to the beauty in dance forms, specifically positions of the hands that have definitions behind each pose. He is spinning the “unmasculine” definition of limp on its head by pairing the beautiful, strong gesture (typically made by the female dancers) with the lotus symbol of life. His queerness is pronounced not just by the use of a stereotypical gesture, but also by using colors gendered by the West.

Stiff gender norms are not the only criticism Keo skillfully executes. Fast food, and ample amounts of it, is a staple of American culture. Blocky and colorful abstract shapes punctuate the gallery and, with the exhibition statement in mind, viewers are encouraged to envision these sarong-covered shapes as the heavenly icons pulled from Sbek Thom traditions. However, during the artist’s talk at the opening reception, Keo reveals that these works, titled Sweet Dreams (Are Stored in This), are simple, unfolded donut boxes. Their spacing is noticeable and some are exhibited higher on the walls than others. These donut deities dance among the other works as supporting stars—you can even follow them from the ground-entrance leading into Moremen Gallery. The donut boxes represent the booming business of Cambodian American donut shops that sprouted from the late 20th century Asian diaspora. America’s love of donuts and Cambodian refugees’ skill at baking Noum Kong (a rice-flour dessert shaped very similarly to donuts) was a dynamic collaboration.

Continuing the exploration of culture through cuisine is Keo’s Bucket Dream (Welcome to America). This work represents Keo’s indoctrination to America and the notion of limitlessness. Cut into the center of the sarong and cork is a globally recognized bucket emblazoned with the letters KFC. Surrounding the iconic bucket is a simple damask pattern that helps the light from behind to encircle and spotlight the American symbol. Upon landing in Kentucky, the Keo family ate KFC for the first time. The artist and his big brother were offered a bucketful of chicken but were full after just a couple bites. Keo has revisited this introduction to the American Dream of limitlessness before; in his show American Appetite (2018-2019), Keo posed the (un)balance between products and their producers. Having no limits can be a grand feeling when imagining a future of success and abundant opportunity in the land of the free, but the all-you-can-eat, free refills, never-ending breakfast pastries concept has room for critique, with Keo carving the iconic fast food container as a way to witness the time he refers to as his indoctrination to America.

There is yet another work in the show that focuses on food. Keep Warm versions Red, Black, and Gold are nestled in the center of Moremen gallery. Four walls surround the triptych of a rice cooker. The lighting is even lower here, causing the glow from behind the works to offer a true sense of warmth. Keo again takes a common object and projects a heartfelt memory. When Keo and family moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky, his mom worked multiple jobs. Though her absence in the house was difficult for Keo to understand at the time, he came to learn that she was still always thinking of and providing for her children. Every day she made certain her boys had a warm meal by preparing rice. Unlike the iconic KFC bucket and constellation of donut boxes representing his new home country, the rice cooker in Keep Warm is a symbol of his familial home.

Keo’s brilliantly cut icons of Cambodia and America illustrate not only the traditions of the individual countries, but detail the artist’s navigation through those cultures and his place within them. Keo’s icons of his homes are both critical and nostalgic. To carve a constellation emphasizes how one can find connections between people using often overlooked details.
 A rounded square piece of fabric is hanging on a wall and is illuminated from behind with a warm glowing light. It is cut in different ways to resemble a Kentucky Fried Chicken to-go container on top of a filigree background.
Vinhay Keo, Bucket Dream (Welcome to America), (2022), image courtesy of the artist.

A person is sitting on a bench in the middle of a dimly lit gallery space, looking to the left at a glowing artwork hanging from the wall. To the right is an identical seeming artwork. They both resemble a rice cooker with the words “KEEP WARM” on them.
Install of to carve a constellation at Moremen Gallery, image courtesy of the artist.

A square piece of patterned fabric is hanging on a wall. Its edges are cut with regular grooves which resemble a postage stamp. In the middle are thinner cutout lines that draw a large flower with a human arm extending out of it. From behind the textile is the glow of a warm light, revealing the image the way a Jack-o'-lantern might.
Vinhay Keo, Limp (Blue), (2022), image courtesy of the artist.


Stephanie Wise

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY