Still Waters

By Sam Campbell , Economics Today still-water-1

Water, that most fundamental of elements, is getting a second look at the Bophana Center, with 18 local artists exploring the concept ‘still water.’

Avoiding the obvious platitudes, Chum Noy, the cultural events man-ager, said that the exhibition is a step forward for the contemporary art scene in Phnom Penh.

An exhibit featuring live morning glory, a popular aqautic crop in Cambodia

An exhibit featuring live morning glory, a popular aqautic crop in Cambodia

Water has been central to the Khmer psyche for millennia, said Tith Veasna, the exhibition’s curators, pointing to the extensive hydrological infrastructure of the ancient Angkor empire and the pervasive wetlands that cover much of the country in wet season as examples of why.

The artists were asked, “How does water affect human life?” Tith Veasna added, resulting in sometimes complex considerations of the consequences of development, such as pollution and flooding. “To destroy the environment is not only to destroy ourselves, but also destroy the future,” she said.

Heim Ankanitha, 25, examines the disparity between traditional folk Cambodian traditions surrounding water and the actions of modern Cambodians. “People say water is life but they never think about water,” she said. Weddings were once held by the waters of Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh, Heim Kannitha added, until steady encroachment and a growing population sent pollution levels soaring.

Her work, an intriguing trio of collages, questions the wisdom ignoring traditional attitudes, with a teeming wetland showing what’s at stake, and a giant question mark to underline the quandary.

The fast disappearing Boeung Kak Lake, rapidly being filled with sand to be developed into real estate, is also the subject of several other works.

Flower-have, Have-flower (left) and Flower-less, Less-flower (right) by Ouk Chim Vichet

Flower-have, Have-flower (left) and Flower-less, Less-flower (right) by Ouk Chim Vichet

Leang Seckon, perhaps best known for his collaboration on last year’s Rubbish Project in Siem Reap, said his 17 year relationship with the lake is an echo of his rural childhood. “I was a buffalo boy!” he laughed.

Nature is “very important to me,” he told Economics Today. “The lake gave me a lot of inspiration to create my art…Where will I go next?”

The first of Leang Seckon’s three canvas series features the distinctive patchwork of long, thin floating fields of morning glory until recently cultivated by lake dwellers. Narrow strips of green against a silvery background, the almost geometric arrangements are seen from far above, a birds’ eye view probably familiar to anyone who has traveled to or from Phnom Penh’s airport.

Leang Sokon’s three canvas series

Leang Sokon’s three canvas series

Comparison between the lake a decade ago and the current catastrophe is the purpose of Tong Soprach’s photographs. In the 1990’s “the site included s big space for concerts to the north, a few big parks for relaxing, places for children to play, and roped bamboo bridges,” he said. A maze of tumbledown shanties and a ramshackle mosque have now replaced these once-beloved attractions, he lamented.

The 28-year-old Ouk Chim Vi¬chet, a lecturer at the Royal University of Fine Arts who is noted for his use of decommissioned weapons in art,

Heim Ankanitha explores the concept of pollution with painted collages

Heim Ankanitha explores the concept of pollution with painted collages

chose to approach the concept with sculpture. The lotus (chhouk) flower, a common theme in Cambodian art, is used to highlight the hardships stemming from the growing gap between rich and poor, the artist said. The plant in Flower-less Less-flower leans crazily, in stark contrast to the straight-backed, vertical specimen in Flower-have Have-flower. The sculptures also have a more mundane meaning, Ouk Chim Vichet added, as the lotus flowers, once endemic in Cambodia’s crystal lakes, are now rare in what are little more than muddy pools choked with weeds.


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