Ruptured reciprocity: Stories of haunting, spirits, and medical belief from Cambodians and Cambodian Americans

Plan Author

  • Emily Tatro, 2016

Fields of Concentration

  • Asian Studies
  • Visual Arts

Sample Courses

Project Description

An exhibition of visual art exploring immediacy, embodiment, the process of memory, and the authority of gesture.

Faculty Sponsors

  • Cathy Osman
  • Seth Harter
  • Tim Segar

Outside Evaluator

  • Holly Hughes, Rhode Island School of Design


This Plan is an exploration of embodiment and the process of memory through an exhibition of visual art utilizing gesture and immediacy and an ethnography on stories of spirits, haunting, and medicine from Cambodians and Cambodian American immigrants. The ethnography was based on interviews during a five-week visit to Cambodia and during visits to a Cambodian community in Western Massachusetts. The art exhibition, called As Being Thoughts, included sculptures, paintings, prints, and drawings.


Not only was Davi disoriented and displaced in the English speaking world around her, but she still feels herself to be unable to communicate and fluently navigate her place of resettlement because of her embodied suffering. Embodiment is understood as the “existential condition in which culture and self are grounded,” and because “trauma violates bodily knowledge…it renders the world unknowable.” Her suffering creates barriers first through the inexpressibility of the experiences and secondly by prohibiting mastery of language. Her traumatic experiences impact her mental capacity, manifesting as a somatization of trauma that is distinct from and not accurately articulated by Western medicine.

Weaving throughout the stories of emigrants I spoke with are the invisible, but reified presence of spirits. The spirits that appear in these stories are “lost spirits of loved ones, the dangerous spirits of those who died by violence, the angry spirits of ancestors, and the adjudicating spirits of the land.” All of these spirits have a deeply material engagement with the physical world, and with human lives and bodies. Spirits and humans have reciprocal and constantly changing relationships, dictated largely by offerings and communication. During the Khmer Rouge regime interactions with spirits were radically altered, both because of the prohibition of religion and because of the incredible prevalence of the dead. Traditionally in Cambodia, people materially prepared bodies of the deceased for cremation, “washing them, wrapping or dressing them, arranging their limbs, supplying them with money and household goods, carrying them, burying or burning them, sometimes raking through their ashes, sometimes disinterring and cleaning bones.” Many people “place a coin in the mouth of the deceased, to show that no one can take material things with them into the afterlife (a reason in line with Buddhist doctrine) or to assure that the deceased has money to bribe the guards of the other world.” For Davi material care contributed critically to the wellbeing of her grandmother’s spirit as she passes from the world of the living to the world of the deceased. This visceral, sensory, and tactile engagement with settling the dead also might contribute to the concretization of a continued relationship between living and dead.


I remember being exhausted and excited, caring deeply, and feeling like Plan was the most significant relationship in my life. I was inspired by my interest in how bodies are conceptually understood in relation to their environment and surroundings, and how that changes embodied experience. It became increasingly about medicine, and then all about the intrusion and presence of spirits. The art came about through a process that had little to do with inspiration, and a lot to do with different kinds of thinking.

The most interesting part of my Plan was the stories people told to me, and how those stories worked their way into all other aspects of my process, art-making, and conceptualizing of the whole Plan. The stories are interesting on their own, and I think the whole art show is a kind of telling of my own story, an articulation of my own understanding, so its been really interesting to see how the two parts related.