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Erin Gleeson
The development of visual arts in Cambodia this century has been defined by artists’ changing role in a newly capitalist liberalized economy. Ancient artisan practices were first manipulated during French colonization, then reinforced after the cultural devastation during the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975-1979. The impoverished nation’s rapid, anarchic growth has agitated the culturally sanctioned artisan mode of production once again.

The eldest generation of surviving artists, who were sent by the Ministry of Culture to art academies of the socialist bloc in the 1980s returned a decade later to a developing country that ignored the significance of art in its experiment with democracy. Artists were left with ‘a complex legacy in which conformism and fear mingle with cynicism, courage, anger, nostalgia, naivete and hope in an extraordinary culture of survival.’’

Without national support for their modern styles and ideas, most of these artists continued to reference traditional media, subject matter, working methods, and stereotypes of Cambodian identity derived from colonial instruction. Thus Cambodia still remained a place of the hand-made replica. Images of the iconic Angkor Wat, celestial dancers, and utopian fabrications of countryside vistas define the landscape of commercial art spaces.

In the only comprehensive contemporary text written on Cambodian art, Ingrid Muan wrote, ‘...it is as if the model and its copy - as well as the procedure taught for its multiplication – have become a form of identity, a “Cambodian” way of making art. ’

This model is beginning to change.

Contemporary Cambodian art is unfolding as an intergenerational meeting of artists. An influx of young, Cambodian diaspora- many of whom were educated at art schools in North America and Europe- are returning to practice and teach. Rather than continuing to produce ready-made and canonically beautiful images of Cambodia’s past, art is beginning to question the present. Vocabularies and materials are changing. Together, visual artists are creating an emergence of a conceptual nature. The first ever festival of contemporary art is slated for December 2006 in Cambodia’s capitol city, Phnom Penh.

This neo-traditional experiment is shifting the identity of the Khmer artist in Cambodia and throughout Asia.

As participants in the 3rd Fukuoka Art Triennale Parallel Realities: Asian Art Now, Marine Ky and Daravuth Ly are key players in this changing identity because within each of them lies a local/global parallel reality. Born in Cambodia, both Ly and Ky separately fled to France. Ky went on to Tasmania to pursue a professional art practice, while Ly, after graduating from Le Sorbonne, returned to Cambodia in 1995 to found Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, the country’s leading venue in exhibiting, publishing, and archiving research on traditional and contemporary Khmer culture.

Ly’s intimate and sterile installation The Messengers provokes difficult questions. Viewers come face to face with an archive of photographs and sounds of Khmer Rouge child messengers. Who is victim and who is perpetrator? In contrast, Ky’s installation Red Lights and Mekong/ Not Scarlet is tactile and color saturated. Materials and symbols specific to Cambodian and Buddhist culture are beautifully embellished. A fishing net hangs adorned with thousands of red ribbons. Hundreds of medallions are printed on red felt banners. Both Ly and Ky’s artworks spur dialogue that broadens definitions of what art and artist can be in Cambodia.

In recent years, Cambodian artists have risen from isolation to the surface of possibility. They are ready to participate in defining their culture. Yet they need the opening of uncensored exhibition spaces to create a culture of art advocacy, patronage and critique. As Cambodia searches to articulate itself politically, economically and culturally, it must recognize that by supporting its artists, the global participation it vies for is inherent in dialogue created by local art.

(The original version of this essay was published in the Third Fukouka Art Triennale catalogue, 2005)

Thompson, Ashley. Visions of the Future. Reyum Publishing, 2002. p 3.

Muan, Ingrid. Citing Angkor: The “Cambodian Arts” in the Age of Restoration 1918-2000. Columbia University, 2001. p.369.