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Erin Gleeson
Cambodia and Vietnam share a long history of territorial friction. However, in recent years contemporary art has provided opportunities for collaboration between the two countries.

Vietnamese artists’ first visits to Cambodia were motivated by friendship, says Ly Daravuth, artist and director of Reyum, Phnom Penh’s leading art and cultural center. Ly met Vietnamese artist Tran Luong in the late 1990s at exhibitions and conferences in the Mekong River region. Tran’s first residency at Reyum introduced his video work to a small group of Cambodian artists. He returned in 2002 on an Asian Cultural council grant to expose regional performance art to Burmese and Thai artists.

Since then, Cambodia hosted its first contemporary art festival, the Visual Arts Open, in December 2005, while in Vietnam the Saigon Open City, a two-year cultural project consisting of exhibitions and special events, commenced in late 2006 with government approval.

In 2006, two groups from Vietnam participated in collaborations in Cambodia. In January, Phnom Penh-Tokyo-Pyongyang based independent curator Christine Cibert invited Saigon artists Rich Streitmatter-Tran, Bui Cong Khanh and Bui The Trung Nam to participate in exhibitions and events with Cambodian artists Leang Seckon and Sopheap Pich. Phnom Penh’s Java Café and Gallery and Popil Photo Gallery hosted the exhibitions, and art-making activities took place at the Building, a slum housing an artists’ community threatened with eviction. Java also hosted Streitmatter-Tran and Bui Cong’s provocative body performance and a public discussion moderated by Cibert addressing free expression in each country.

In July 2006, during Tran Luong’s third collaboration with Reyum, part of a Rockefeller Foundation project, Luong and nine other Hanoi-based artists caravanned the Cambodian countryside to Phnom Penh, working closely with Reyum Art School’s Workshop- a creative lab facilitated by Ly Daravuth and comprised of the school’s first 16 graduates.

Workshop artists were teamed up and guided by Vietnamese artists’ common working method of employing everyday materials and experiences. Since the materials used were common to both Khmer and Vietnamese cultures, Workshop artists were able to understand not only new mediums of performance and installation art, but they were liberated to use familiar materials. Little energy was spent on discussing concepts in separate languages using translation, which encouraged physically working together to create art, a lot of art.

In less than one week, an exhibition opened to the public in the Reyum Art School courtyard, including 8 installations, 4 performances, and samples of student experimentation from a lacquer workshop. Le Vu’s team covered the courtyard’s tree trunks with instant noodles. Nguyen Thuy Hang’s group adorned the student’s bicycles and the school building’s air vents with bulbous forms made from newspaper.

The following evening, the artist’s groups came together at Phnom Penh’s bustling riverside to take part in a public performance piece that Tran Luang’s described as “preparing our mouths to speak about our pasts.” Armed with toothbrushes and toothpaste, artists endured over an hour-long teeth-brushing ceremony. Toothbrushes were handed out to the passing audience, resulting in a communal ritual between artists beyond borders and Phnom Penh’s street life, including the child who sells roses, the cyclo driver, the popcorn vender, the tourist.

These visits from both northern and southern-based Vietnamese artists have provided necessary stimuli for Cambodia’s nascent contemporary art movement. The success of the northern-based/Reyum collaboration was particularly successful in its lasting effects on the diversity and quality of art production at the Workshop. Artists became more equipped to participate in regional exchanges, such as Phe Sophorn’s participation in On The Move performance art festival in Hong Kong (October 2007) and Sok’s residency at Tokyo Wonder Site (March 2007).

With artistic collaboration already in place, and economic cooperation between the two countries increasing- a recent bi-lateral trade agreement will create 20 border crossings in 2007- further artistic exchange is inevitable and anticipated.

(This article was update from its original Cross Border Collaborations Heat Up, Art Asia Pacific magazine #47 www.aapmag.com)