From “The Star”, KL/Malaysia – Sunday, October 8th, 2006
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A new art and communication centre to foster dialogue among South-East Asian artists? JAMIE KHOO speaks to a German filmmaker about this artistic vision. NICO MESTERHARM comes from the German city of Berlin, where certain districts boast more artists than businesses. But he has looked away from home and set his eyes and heart on this region, as the starting point for a new art-house project. 

“The possibilities for dialogue are getting lost in the huge throng of artistic communities in Europe,” says Mesterharm, a documentary filmmaker and journalist.  “The good thing with Asia is that in every country here, the scene is still developing and there is the possibility for broader dialogue.” Besides, adds this man whose work takes him to far-flung parts of the world, Asian artists are more able, and willing, to work together. 

Mesterharm’s art and communications centre is set to open in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, next January, in co-operation with the Free University of Berlin. Meta House, named after the Khmer word for compassion (meta), will house art projects, forums and workshops, and serve as a meeting point for artists around the region. The “compassion” aspect of the art house works on two levels: it will help Cambodian artists establish a higher profile, and encourage community-based projects that aid the underprivileged. 

Meta House will work under the umbrella of COM.PASSION, which has produced documentaries that outline pressing social issues in the region. It will reach out to communities that would not, otherwise, have the resources or energy to even think about art.  Its main project, scheduled to be launched in 2007, is Intercity, a three-year plan that aims to foster local Cambodian art and artists, and to encourage dialogue and exchange with their counterparts in South-East Asia.

The focus of this project will be the city, its people and how artists view the city in relation to the country it is in, its neighbours and the region. “There is a lot of economic development in the region. Flights are getting cheaper, borders are opening and there are more tourists. You have an Asean community in politics and economy, but on the level of culture and the mind, there is a lot in the making,” Mesterharm says.

“I hope this project can be a catalyst to help people understand more about other countries – the similarities, differences, visions, needs, and hopes within each city.” Eventually, he hopes to take the project to Europe, specifically, Germany, where he anticipates possible exchange and discussion between a “New Asia” and an “Old Berlin”.  As Mesterharm points out, “Within the issues of ‘intercity’ globalisation lies the question of how modern worlds shape different cultures. Everybody has something to say about that.” 

Intercity will encourage work in all forms and mediums, from paintings to sculptures, photography, poetry and music. It will also welcome contributions from urban planners, architects, politicians, scientists and journalists. 

The debate over whether modern art will wipe out the traditional crafts in the region will also be explored.

“I respect that traditional art still has its position in modern art and the minds of artists here. In South-East Asian cities, there are skyscrapers, but also the old Chinese shophouse; high-end fusion food and traditional food. Both have the right to exist in the city, and the question is which to preserve. This is the same in art. With modern media techniques, traditional techniques may be edged out. That is something for the artists to discuss: will they be happy if their (modern) city starts looking like every other one? What do they want to preserve within their cities?” 

Mesterharm will be documenting the development of Meta House and Intercity throughout the next three years.

Meta House is scheduled to open next Jan 5 with an exhibition entitled "Intercity: Urban Arts for South East Asia." For more information on Intercity, e-mail mesterharm@gmx.net, or visit www.meta-house.com.For details about previous COM.PASSION projects, visit www.com-passion.tv.