There’s a Duty Free shop. There’s cafes and stalls selling Angkorian-themed souvenirs. There’s gleaming floors and florescent lights and flat screen TVs flashing departure times.
And, there’s art.
Contemporary: Traditional: New: Modern, an exhibition showcasing contemporary Cambodian artists from the Phare Ponleu Selpak Visual Arts school in Battambang, was on display at the Phnom Penh International Airport this past month. Composed of seven paintings and one sculpture, the exhibition was the first of its kind at the airport, signalling a new level of recognition of the country’s burgeoning contemporary art scene.
Travel plans allowed me the opportunity to view the exhibition, on display inside the international terminal. Seven canvases were displayed against a bold red wall. The sampling of names would be familiar to those following the Cambodian arts scene: pieces included Loeum Lorn’s photographic prints of painted ice blocks; Pen Robit’s abstracted portraiture; Nov Cheanik’s cross-cultural political sculpture and paintings; and Tor Votha’s coffee- and history-soaked canvases.
All of five artists included in the exhibition are young—in their 20s and 30s, part of the so-called “new generation.” For those born post-Khmer-Rouge, contemporary Cambodian identity has to do with the past, yes, but not only the past. Struggles over issues of freedom of speech, poverty and modernization in the face of tradition are all present in the works displayed, and serve to offer a much more complex and nuanced glimpse into Cambodia’s present.
The exhibition was small but strategically located at the top of the escalators—which is to say, all travelers had to pass by it. After surveying the works—many of which I’d seen displayed before—I took a step back and watched travelers’ reception of the exhibition. Most just grazed by with a passing glance; a few stopped to linger; even fewer actually examined the pieces. But the exhibition was there, present, even if only on the periphery. And I suppose that was the point.
For travelers, airports are the first glimpse into a country, the literal gateway into a culture. As tourism expands in Cambodia, as business opportunities grow, as ASEAN officials and foreign dignitaries arrive, everyone must first come through that international terminal. It’s Cambodia’s first and last impression on travelers.
Most travelers are only aware of Cambodia’s past, and indeed two periods of its past—Angkorian and Khmer Rouge. These elements are evidenced by the Angkor Wat t-shirts and Pol Pot biographies for sale in the terminal. What most travelers aren’t aware of is Cambodia’s contemporary cultural landscape—and this is where Contemporary: Traditional: New: Modern came in.
One of the stated goals of the exhibition was to “introduce new audiences coming through the Phnom Penh International Airport to [the] richness and critical agency of contemporary Cambodian art.” And as I watched the travelers pass by—European tourists, expats leaving on holiday, business men, maids returning from Malaysia—I couldn’t help but wonder how the exhibition was settling into the consciousness of these people. Was it expanding their understanding of contemporary Cambodia? Was it logging the cultural and artistic renaissance currently underway? Was it broadening their view of the country, past its glorious and troubling history—reminding them that there’s a “now” here?
Were these seven paintings, clustered against a red wall and wedged between the Duty Free shops, achieving their goal?
I watched two men approach. They were wearing neon reflective vests that brandished the Thai Airways logo.
They were chatting. As they passed, one gestured at Pen Robit’s portrait and said, “I like this picture.”
The other man nodded. Then he swept his arm across the small display. “Art,” he said. “It all about art.”
The other man nodded back. They kept walking.
Even if most travelers experienced the exhibition only as tangentially as these men, it was still registering, still broadening the vision of what Cambodia is and where it’s going.
I decided the exhibition had achieved its goal.
Originally Posted by Lauren Q.
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