Built in the style of "traditional" Khmer architecture, the national museum opened in 1919 as Musée du Cambodge. After Cambodia secured its independence, it was renamed Musée national de Phnom-Penh (National Museum of Phnom Penh). Although the museum closed its doors during the Khmer Rouge rule in 1975-1979, it re-opened in 1979 and remains open to this day. Exhibits at the museum are displayed in an open-air setting without walls, focusing primarily on Hindu art and Buddhist sculptures of the Khmer Empire (802-1431). Lotus roots and votive offerings of money are placed in front of the several statues of Buddha, and there are also mats in place for prayer. Although it is common for objects used in prayer or communication with the gods to be studied and admired as works of art in modern-day museums, we found it deeply fascinating that such objects retained both characteristics in this museum. The museum also sells flowers for offerings and a fortuneteller is present to read palms.
Pol Pot was one of the most brutal dictators in human history. Traces of his regime, the Khmer Rouge, are preserved at the S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Originally a senior high school, during the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) this building became a concentration camp for intellectuals and government officials who were detained, tortured, and finally executed here. The rooms used for solitary confinement, portrait photographs of the prisoners and victims, and also piles of skeletons are all left vividly within the Museum walls.
Built in 1964, the White Building was prepared as a low-rent residential complex that contains 468 apartments that stretches for 300 meters on 24 hectares of land. Immediately after its construction, the White Building was inhabited by government employees, teachers, staff members of the nearby national theater, and many artists. Consisting of six blocks connected by outdoor stairways, the building used to be completely white, and a few photographs that remain of the time make viewers recall the Unité d'habitation housings built by Le Corbusier in Marseille and other areas. After the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, residents were forced to evict and the White Building became an empty husk. In the present, with the return of people to the city, the White Building has become homes for low-income residents, and small shops and stalls have become to surround the area. The White Building: Art Archive and Library is a project that seeks to archive the history of the White Building from an architectural and community-based perspective. Underway since 2014, this is one of the Sa Sa Art Projects, which have the most international character of contemporary art projects in Phnom Penh. Their office is located in one of the White Building’s rooms, and in addition to the archive, they also host artists-in-residence programs. Our guide during our visit was artist Lyno Vuth, who works to archive changes in the city and the lost and forgotten memories of its residents through a variety of methods, including collecting photographs, conducting interviews with people born and raised in low-income communities, and creating documentary films. In the photographs and videos that are viewable online, one can gain a glimpse into the everyday lives of the individuals who live in this historical apartment complex.
The Bophana Audio Visual Resource Centre was co-established in 2006 by prominent Cambodian film director Rithy Panh and the Cambodian government with a grant from the French government. The Resource Centre’s goal is to collect and digitize films, television programs, photographs, audio recordings, and other audio-visual materials pertaining to Cambodia, and to provide these materials free of charge to the public. Although Cambodia enjoyed a golden age of box office films in 1960s and ’70s, this was almost completely destroyed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), and this history of lost audio-visual materials forms part of the backdrop of the Centre’s founding. In addition to film screenings, photograph and video installation exhibits, and the digital publication of the Centre’s collection, it also works to train young filmmakers through the hosting of workshops and lectures. The Resource Centre also enjoys a relationship with Japan, having Japanese staff on board and Japanese researchers participating in research in the past.
Sa Sa Bassac is an organization that works on exhibiting, selling, archiving, and providing material on contemporary art and culture in Cambodia. It is one of gatekeepers that for contemporary Cambodian artists to be recognized abroad. Sa Sa Bassac has formed a variety of partnerships with international institutions, residencies, museums, and galleries, and has greatly expanded its network. The Sa Sa Art Project was founded in the same year as an artist-led NPO operated by the artist collective Stiev Selapak, which was formed in 2007 (current members of Stiev Selapak are Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina, Lyna Kourn and Lyno Vuth）, and four years later, in 2011, Stiev Selapak established Sa Sa Bassac in collaboration with curator Erin Gleeson. Sa Sa Bassac deals with many of Cambodia’s political and historical problems, including the refugee crisis and resettlement and also the Cambodia-United States relations. For example, many Cambodians who fled to the United States as refugees did not possess valid identifications, which made it difficult for them to seek help from the police when in need. Sa Sa Bassac invites artists who pursue such stories in the United States, as well as American-Cambodian and Cambodian-American artists to Cambodia.
Lim Sokchanlina is a photographer and videos and installation artist creating works pertaining to themes of social, political, and economic change in his home country of Cambodia. Lim Sokchanlina is a member of the artist collective Stiev Selapak and also works in the commercial photography industry. His photograph series, National Road Number 5 (2015), exhibited in the Southeast Asian Forum section of this year’s Art Stage Singapore, records the severed residential buildings along the 400-kilometer national highway no. 5 running northeast from Phnom Penh to the Thai border. This national highway is being improved and repaired through development aid from Japan and other countries, but according to the artists, the owners of houses along the highway have sometimes been demanded to cut their houses in half due to the road expansion, yet they continue to live in those houses regardless.
Khvay Samnang produces work containing messages about society, utilizing a range of artistic methods including photography, videos, installation art, three-dimensional works, and performance. He also enjoys a deep relationship with Japan, having lived and worked in Tokyo in 2010-2011 for Tokyo Wonder Site’s creator-in-residence program. His work, Enjoy My Sand: Samnang Cow Taxi in Singapore (2013-2015), is a record, in both photograph and video, of a performance in which Samnang wore cow horns made of human hair and transported strangers on his back like a taxi service along the Singapore beach. This serves to humorously question the fact that sand exported from Cambodia is being used as landfill in Singapore.
Sopheap Pich is a Phnom Penh-based artist. He is one of the most internationally active artists in Cambodia, having participated in many international exhibitions including the 4th Asian Art Show (2009), the 6th Asia Pacific Triennale of Contemporary Art (2009-2010), Singapore Biennale 2011, and documenta XIII (2012). Born in Cambodia, Sopheap Pich fled with his family to the United States to escape the Khmer Rouge at the age of 13, and he acquired his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999. He returned to Cambodia in 2002, attracted by the urban development of Phnom Penh and the resulting revitalization of people’s lives. He stopped painting in 2005 and began to produce sculptural pieces works, making skillful use of traditional weaving techniques and local Cambodian materials such as bamboo and rattan. These biomorphic structures made of bamboo and rattan have become his most prominent series of works. He explains that his artistic process does not involve any draft drawing; instead, he works in tandem with the organic form of the material and slowly transforms their shape with his hands and fingers.
Amy Lee Sanford is a Phnom Penh-based artist active in a wide range of genres, including drawing, sculpture, installation art, and performance. Born in Phnom Penh, Sanford moved to the United States in 1974 with her American mother to escape the Khmer Rouge, leaving her Cambodian father behind. She majored in the visual arts in university, minoring in biology and engineering, and returned to Cambodia in 2009 to continue to work as an artist. In her six-day performance, Full Circle (2012) at the Meta House, the artist sat on the floor surrounded by a ring of forty vases. During the six days, she repeated the process of dropping the vases then repairing them every half-day. The artist said that this action represented concepts including war, trauma, loss, migration, and crime. These are concepts important to her work, as can be seen again in her 2015 work Cascade where she tears into pieces the hundreds of letters her father in Cambodia had sent to her mother in America over the years, and reassembles them into a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Approaching Cambodia felt different because I am half Khmer. It is always a burden when you feel a sense of responsibility to represent a place, and a difficulty more pronounced because I don’t speak Khmer and represent one of the many thousands of diaspora due to forced migration under the Khmer Rouge Regime (1975 – 1979). Many Cambodian refugees, along with neighboring Vietnamese (due to conflict induced by the American War in Vietnam) were dispersed around the world, so our experiences vastly differ from those who remained and endured. These junctures of knowledge are only heightened by the limited education of these various histories reproduced in Cambodia itself, something we were given insight into through the many artists we met. This also exposed itself through the impressive range of self-generating, non-custodian based knowledge transference we experienced through many independent initiatives.
Many of the more established artists within the art scene were playing active roles as mentors, running workshops and seminars. During Our visit to the White Building Collective and Archive, we overheard a screening led by artist Khvay Samnang with students from the White Building which housed artists, writers, and dancers alongside public servants in the heart of central Phnom Penh. Another artist Lyno Vuth, also Director of Sa Sa Art Projects, actively runs workshops and seminars, including those on art history (in lieu of more formalized courses) taking extra care to provide all content in Khmer. Given the scarcity of artistic resources that are translated, this is an overwhelmingly progressive gesture.
Of course this legacy of knowledge transference has a precedence through initiatives such as the Reyum Institute where we encountered many in-depth, researched resources on various Khmer arts and learned that some of the initial instances of fostering contemporary art exhibitions were through this institute. The way the Institute seem to drive critical inquiry of the local context was certainly seen through the conceptual practices and material investigations of artists such as Than Sok and Lyno Vuth. The Bophana Audiovisual Archive was also incredibly impressive in its active nurturing of young talent and the strength of lens-based media as seen through artists Sok Chanrado, Lim Sokchanlina dialogue within this. Rithy Pahn, founder of the Audiovisual Archive, and his gesture in building up the next generation is in line with the Archive’s mandate of preserving cultural memory. Our Japanese colleagues were also delighted to find an early prewar footage of the Japanese presence in Cambodia with archival footage of Japanese soldiers on bikes riding past Angkor Wat.
The growing momentum of activity in an already-active scene was further evidenced by the professionalism and polish of the artists at Sa Sa Bassac who devote their program to solo commissions and discursive platforms as well as interesting and rigorous group exhibitions. We were also privy to hearing about the Boat Project from Java Arts Director Dana Langlois who has also been active in showing new work from Khmer, in particular by women and “repats” (repatriates), a term I had occasionally heard about.
Our final day ended in an inspiring architectural tour by Pen Sreypagna, an architect who crosses over into the art scene quite seamlessly and who is dedicated to the preservation, study, and empowerment of Phnom Penh’s incredible architectural heritage. Sa Sa Bassac also hosted the Vann Molyvann Summer School which saw Pagna leading students towards making scale models of modernist architect Vann Molyvann.
Despite the more conventional and popular image of Cambodia being laden with Khmer Rouge references, our research trip was exposed to the Golden Era before this period――a time of visionary optimism and a dedication toward the arts in an opulent sense. Beautiful, grand modernist buildings, the glamour of films and the romanticism of boulevards for walking down, an energized city with inhabitants who were passionate and vital. This was Phnom Penh.
Amy Lee Sanford
- The Philippines
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- (2015.10.24 - 10.29)
- (2015.11.13 - 11.23)
- (2015.12.13 - 12.20)
- (2016.01.24 - 01.26)
- (2016.01.27 - 01.28)
- (2016.05.06 - 05.13)