Exhibition: Allison Chhorn: Skin Shade Night Day

An immersive installation featuring the rituals of family life from an Australian-Cambodian artist.

In Allison Chhorn’s personal and poignant work, impressions of the past play out in echoes, shadows, and shifting light. Inspired by the daily rituals of her parents and grandparents (who lived in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime before migrating to Australia), Skin Shade Night Day is an immersive video and sound installation that plays with the idea of the ‘shade house’. This simple cloth structure, used by gardeners to provide shelter to their plants, becomes a repository for memories and a symbol of hard-won security and protection. 

A visit to Skin Shade Night Day is a multi-sensory experience. Chhorn’s shade house – a ghost-like configuration of draped cloth held together with rope and fishing wire – stands in the centre of a still, dark room, illuminated from within. As soon as the viewer steps cautiously inside this tent, their shadow joins the hazy spectres projected on the walls, and their steps – muffled by the loamy layer of coconut coir underfoot – reverberate alongside the rhythmic noises of domestic labour emanating from speakers around the room. 

Chhorn, whose background is in narrative and documentary film, has for this work designed 45-minutes of footage that play out on all four walls of the structure. Sometimes the images are of cultivated soil and sprouting plants, the shade house seeming to spread out beyond the walls in all directions.

Other scenes are viewed through shutters or screen doors, creating a confined, secure space from which to view the cycles of the natural world: warm days, sudden downpours, cool evening winds. Shadowy figures move through it all, never quite coming into focus as they tend to their land and home. Chhorn has said in her artist’s statement that the impressionistic nature of the film is an attempt to reflect her grandmother’s deteriorating eyesight.

The accompanying soundscape fills the space with the comforting noise of everyday tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, building, and gardening, and with sounds of nature. Hearing bird calls, or the rustling wind, emphasises the unhurried stillness of this place. There are also moments of disquiet: unidentified sounds from outside the house grow eerie, and the earthy thud of a garden hoe turns harsh and metallic. 

The immersive quality of Skin Shade Night Day lingers beyond the room itself. Leaving the exhibition, I found myself keenly aware of every passing sound and flash of light, more mindful of how sensory impressions can hold the key to our most formative memories and experiences.

Read: Book review, Raised By Wolves, Jess Ho

Allison Chhorn’s work is a beautifully crafted portrait of a particular time, place, and family – what a privilege it is for the rest of us to be given a glimpse into that world. 

Allison Chhorn: Skin Shade Night Day
ACE (Adelaide Contemporary Experimental)
Skin Shade Night Day will be on display until 13 August 2022

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.