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By Samuel Bartholin
The “Meta House,” which opened its doors Friday, is meant to be a multimedia cultural centre fostering debate on the arts, communications and society, according to the vision of its founder and German freelance journalist, Nico Mesterharm. In a vast gallery, the different exhibits - paintings, photographs and newspaper clippings – all belie the ambition of the project, between aesthetic advancement and public education. For it’s grand opening, the Meta House (‘meta’ is the Khmer word for ‘loving kindness’) introduces an exhibition on life in the urban environment entitled, “Intercity : Urban Arts for Asia.” In the exhibit, Asian and European artists alike have put forth their vision of the urban environment at the dawn of the 21st century through paintings and videos. Next year, Nico Mesterharm envisions an expansion of the theme through the invitation of Bangkok and Saigon-based artists to contribute their particular perspectives. Finally Mesterharm, certainly not short of ideas, hopes to bring it all together into a film to air in Berlin, Germany by 2009.

“It would be interesting to compare the various points of view that exist about the city,” explains Mesterharm, “all the voluntary opinions on the subject that is close to so many hearts. The investors want to develop, the poor just want to make a life in the city... These are the challenges that we find everywhere in globalization. We need to get people thinking about it and encourage discussion.” On top of that, in South East Asia, these types of confrontations bring citizens together and create linkages between those who may not understand each other well. “There are still many prejudices between one another. Many people know little about their neighbors, they don’t have the means to travel... Today we encourage economic connections, based on the fifty year-old European model, but we still have to win the hearts and souls.” He hopes to better spread the word about the Phnom Penh that he sees as “a superb city,” at a time when it’s beginning to open up to the world.

However, Mesterharm’s projects don’t end with artwork and debates over various urban environments. He displays the art of orphaned children from Tuol Kok, graffiti work from a Saigon-based hip hop group and hopes to entice musical acts and rent his gallery to NGOs… The list doesn’t even end there. “In reality, I have no fixed agenda. I want people to come and propose new ideas,” he explains. He wants to make the Meta House a local cultural hub, dedicated first and foremost to Cambodian artists. “As a visitor to the country, I have no right to impose my views and opinions. I am here to discover.” When we [Cambodge Soir] suggested that such an undertaking must require some considerable financial support he responded that, for the time being, the costs all come from his earnings at his own documentary film production house. He hopes that in the future he will be able to attract outside associations and partners to help support the venture. “I can’t sponsor artists myself, but I can help them in their search for them,” he adds. To do so, Mesterharm plans to help artists tap into his artistic network, a well-rounded one judging by the eclectic contributions to the gallery: Chris Zippel, the Pet Shop Boys producer, provided the sound system and Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has sent a letter of encouragement to Mesterharm and the Meta House.

Nico Mesterharm grew up in the western part of the German capital city, now reunified. His parents, both journalists, were heavily immersed in the growing literary and artistic renaissance of his native city. He, however, first turned toward the burgeoning music scene. “I never fully knew the cultural and political changes that my parents experienced. I was 22 at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dawn of a new cultural movement that was marked most notably by electronic music. It wasn’t political, but we inherited punk culture’s view that you had to throw yourself in and that you could start a rock group without even knowing how to play the guitar. We did the same thing with electronic audio equipment,” explains Mesterharm. From there he started his own techno label and recruited artists primarily for live shows. “I quit around 1996, because it started to become boring. The DJs got fat, tired and were taking too many drugs. They were also starting to mix their music in with pop so that it would gain more commercial appeal.” He decided to drop music in favor of documentary journalism.

Cambodia first drew him in while he filmed a documentary on AIDS in South East Asia in 2000 – it would be a place he would return to many times in the next years. In 2004, he organized a cultural festival in Bangkok during the 15th World AIDS Conference entitled Com.Passion. “The name evokes compassion which is common to both Christianity and Buddhism but it also brings in communications and the internet.” Amid all the formal proceedings at the conference, he was creating a privileged space for the informal exchange of ideas which addressed the disease and its misconceptions through theatre and music. “I realized that cultural activities were a good avenue for addressing social issues." The concept behind Meta House flowed directly from his experience in Bangkok. “The festival was a huge success and there was enormous energy. At the start, we wanted to keep up the momentum through the creation of an online network. Email may be excellent, but it is no substitute for the face to face.” It was with this goal in mind that Mesterharm sought to buy a house in the centre of Phnom Penh to serve as the home for his hybrid cultural space. One year later, with the project finally complete, the Meta House opened its doors and allowed that ‘face to face’ to finally begin.