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by Joe Fyfe
artnet, February 2007
Cambodia’s quickly repopulating capital and royal seat, Phnom Penh, is like a beach town without a beach. The very wide Tonle Sap River and adjacent lakes and rice paddies infuse the city with a peculiar haze that is almost like sea air. Guesthouses, restaurants and internet cafes line the festive riverside promenade. Souvenir vendors, fruit sellers and three-wheeled taxi drivers compete with unwashed orphans for the stroller’s attention.

Wide boulevards enable impatient SUV drivers to muscle past bicycling schoolchildren in pressed white cottons. The local streets are unpaved and kick up a dust of red sand. Palmy mansions and traditional wooden houses alternate with funky concrete apartment dwellings. At night, the thumping starts. The dark discos, full of very friendly young women, are popular with foreigners and the wealthier locals alike.

The Royal Palace, at the center of town, is next to the National Museum, with its collection devoted to carved sandstone Khmer sculpture -- some of the most beautiful figures ever produced. The museum currently houses a remarkable exhibition of Auguste Rodin’s drawings of Cambodian dancers. The sculptor made them during a visit to Marseilles for the colonial exposition of 1906. The gallery, specially renovated for the delicate drawings, has closed-circuit television cameras, barred windows and a climate control unit sequestered above the specially installed drop ceiling. One hopes for more exhibitions of this kind, but not at the expense of the museum’s soaring Khmer-style peaked ceilings.

Phnom Penh could be considered one of the more marginal outposts of the contemporary art world, but a little knocking around uncovers a good deal of energy and constructive organizing among native and returning Cambodians, expats and artist-visitors from abroad. Sopheap Pich is a Phnom Penh sculptor from Battambang province, where most of Cambodia's better-known artists came from, especially the popular Cambodian musicians and writers of the 1960s. He left with his family at age nine after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, and arrived in Amherst in Massachusetts in 1984.

Sopheap attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has exhibited internationally and has a solo show opening in Bangkok at H Gallery on May 7, 2007. His studio is on the north rim of the lily-padded Boeng Kak Lake. The lake is not long for this world -- the government plans to fill it in and a developer will build some new huge complex there. For the moment, however, he can see the sun set over the lake every day.

One of Pich’s recent sculptures, a cage-like organic form of rattan, meant to evoke the water-life of the fishing towns of his youth, was included in the opening exhibition of Meta House, an exhibition space and networking site begun by Nicolas Mesterharm, a journalist and filmmaker who is originally from Berlin and, like many of Phnom Penh’s expat residents, was originally involved in working with various NGO’s. Meta House is under the umbrella of his larger foundation, Com.Passion, which continues to provide information and special events focusing on aid to the children of Cambodia. The first exhibition, entitled "InterCity," filled the three floors of the building and included a visionary pencil-on-canvas work by native Cambodian Kong Vollak (b. 1983) entitled Imagining the City.

Java Arts project is another NGO formed to develop contemporary art in Cambodia, run by Dana Langlois. The current exhibition at the Java café and gallery (www.javaarts.org) featured "Light and Shadows: the Paintings and Poetry of Chath Piersath," who writes that he sometimes weeps when he paints, reflecting on "his people, homeless, scattering garbage." Java Arts has also spun off a second space called Sala Art that fosters dialogue between traditional, veteran and younger contemporary artists. Recent visitors included the Viennese artists Jack Bauer and Ronald Kodritsch, who challenged some of the recent graduates of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh to an evening of "picture poker." Many of the resulting drawings were displayed in Sala’s gallery.

Bauer and Kodritsch, who pass through Cambodia regularly, have a number of drawings and a wall mural at another site, the gallery space at the Scandinavian Hotel, which, under new owners, is attempting to refurbish its sinister, druggy reputation. In fact, the poster for the show, entitled "Hand Jobs," features a photograph of the artists dressed in Cambodian Police uniforms. Cambodia appears to have a bit more artistic freedom than neighboring Vietnam.

One venerable Phnom Penh exhibition space is located at the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture (www.reyum.org). Founded in 1998 by Ly Daravuth and the late Ingrid Muan, Reyum has an art school, a gallery, a publishing arm and a program that trains researchers in the Institute’s involvement in all aspects of Cambodian arts and culture. Its current gallery exhibition focuses on the multiple reuses that Cambodians put to everyday materials. Among the many objects and photographs on view are plastic bottles reused to catch shrimp, ammunition made into bells and plastic blue pipe used for everything from rolling pins to broom handles.

The Reyum Institute handout stated that the curators were aware that they were de-contextualizing the objects, that the people who use them every day may feel awkward seeing them in a museum setting, while westerners might see the items as "exotic." Reyum claims that the purpose of the show is to question why and how these practices evolve, a position that reminded me of Robert Smithson’s statement that in the future, all art would be anthropology.

Considering that most texts produced in Cambodia at this time are schoolbooks made with cheap paper, Reyum’s publications are singularly remarkable in their design, craft and subject matter. One large size paperbound work is Painted Stories: The Life of a Cambodian Family from 1941 to the Present. It reproduces a cycle of paintings with an accompanying narrative of the past 60 tumultuous years of Cambodia’s history as experienced by a typical family. The work is by Svay Ken (b. 1933), who worked at the Hotel le Royal for 34 years. At the age of 60, he began painting. In his case Naïve painter is truly an obsolescent term. There is a sureness and blunt clarity in Svay Ken’s illustrated narratives and in the descriptive paint passages within the individual works.

Svay Ken has shown regionally since 1994 and was the Cambodian entry in the first Fukuoka Triennial in Tokyo in 1999. He is usually found on the street corner just north of the Wat Phnom, a temple on the only hill in the city. I visited him with Sopheap Pich, who is an admirer. An oil-on-canvas self-portrait with the words "Oil Painting" hangs on a brick wall outside his studio. The municipal supervisors for Svay Ken’s district charge him $20 per year for this form of self- advertising. After sitting for a while and watching the traffic while sipping from a cold coconut, we went upstairs to his apartment and looked through his inventory.

Svay Ken is flinty moralist and a sensuous but no-nonsense paint handler. As I flipped through the stacked canvases of still lifes of tools and food, landscapes, holiday events and memories of earlier times, including those when he worked as a hotel handyman, I was most struck by his ethical parables, particularly a canvas that depicted a man leaving his crying family as he crossed the center of the picture with a bag of money for his mistresses on the other side.

Svay Ken also does commissions and is at present executing a series of 21 paintings for the Norwegian artist Morten Viskum, who is making work about his experiences in Cambodia. Viskum often employs surrogates to make aspects of his art. The number 21 signifies S-21, the name of the torture center under the Khmer Rouge that is now the Tuol Sleng Museum on the south end of town. Svay Ken was totally hip to the boundaries and protocols of artistic authorship. Referring to the Morten Viskum commission, through Sopheap’s translation he said, "You can’t take pictures of these paintings, as this is not my art".

Clearly, Phnom Penh’s "art scene" has its own special rewards. Those who find the art fairs a bit too convenient might well look to what is available only 24 hours by air from New York, not including the tuk-tuk ride from the airport.

JOE FYFE is a New York painter and art critic, who went to Southeast Asia on a Fullbright Fellowship.