"It's not a killing-field museum, but it's very powerful. You can taste it. You can smell it. I couldn't shake off the images for a long time."
That's how Portland choreographer Minh Tran describes Tuol Sleng, which began life as a small Cambodian school with a playground out front. In the late '70s, when Cambodian leader Pol Pot embarked on a violent campaign to exterminate intellectuals and other "bourgeois enemies" of the state, the school became an interrogation center where over 17,000 prisoners were tortured and executed. Tran visited nearly 30 years later as part of an artists' cultural exchange program and found it mostly untouched: There were chains and shackles in rooms that should have held desks and books, and blood still stained the walls.
As a Vietnamese refugee who came to the States in 1980 (at age 13), Tran is familiar with the ravages of war. The images that Tuol Sleng brought to mind—of Cambodia, Vietnam, even Iraq—led him to create Forgotten Memories, a contemporary piece filtering those raw experiences through film footage, a movement style blending East-West traditions, and a restless pacing. It's staged as a series of solos, unfolding in an hourlong multimedia installation that people walk through. There are balcony seats to rest on, but Tran prefers viewers stay close to the action. "It may upset people," he said, "but I want them to feel it."
Forgotten Memories is not a political work, he says, but a kind of personal witness to bloodshed and reconciliation, something viewers might find relevant in the current climate. When Tran showed it as a 2005 work in progress, the piece was just 20 minutes long and lacked a resolution: "I didn't know how to end it, because what can you say after you walk out of a room full of skulls?" He found his ending eventually, after returning to Cambodia to find out what makes people carry on despite horrific circumstances. "People know that this atrocity happened, but there is hope, and that's what the second part is about," he said. "There are trees growing at the school now—a symbol that life goes on."