It’s 40 degrees Celsius when I meet Vuth Lyno at Sa Sa Bassac. The small and discreet art gallery in downtown Phnom Penh is located above a scuba diving shop. I follow a narrow staircase up to the gallery, which is designed as a minimalistic prism with a cool marble floor and surrounding white walls.
The only familiar thing about the area from when I last visited a decade ago is the unrelenting April heat. The nearby Tonle Sap River provides little reprieve. Neighboring slums have vanished and in their place are advertisements in Chinese for luxury condos.
“It’s gentrification,” says Vuth, who co-founded the gallery in 2009 with curator Erin Gleeson and Vuth’s artist collective Stiev Selapak, or Art Rebels, which also included Taipei-based artist Vandy Rattana.
Vuth explains that in order for art to remain relevant to ordinary Cambodians, many galleries in Phnom Penh, including Sa Sa Bassac, also have public art programs that encourage community participation. In fact, I was invited to attend a noise art performance at Meta House, a German-Cambodian cultural center, the night before. It ended up being too avant-garde — if I wanted to hear tuk-tuks honking I could just stand on my hotel balcony.
An entire generation of artists was murdered during the genocide of 1975 to 1979. From the 1980s up until the early 2000s, the primary concern was rediscovering traditional art and producing artwork to remind younger generations of the genocide. It’s only recently that artists have the luxury of doing with something contemporary like noise art.
Vuth calls today’s Cambodia a “controlled democracy.” Although the art scene is small and supported by individuals and private initiatives rather than the government, in a way it also gives artists considerable freedom to do what they want.
Young artists, in particular, have become adept at using their art to subtly criticize the government and raise awareness of issues such as social inequality and environmental pollution.
“Contemporary art in Cambodia is an interesting space that allows this kind of expression to take place,” Vuth tells me.
A few days in to my trip I realize Vuth is right, that contemporary art in Cambodia does indeed have a rebellious streak. Here are five art spaces that are worth a visit — some may even make you appreciate noise art more.
SA SA BASSAC
When I visit Sa Sa Bassac, on display is 22-year-old Eng Rithchandaneth’s fractured map of Cambodia made out of unfired clay lying on the gallery floor. The fragments represent the changing Cambodian landscape due to evictions of the urban poor and how displacement affects one’s feeling of belonging. The intention is for the clay to disintegrate throughout the course of the exhibition.
Her work is featured alongside 25-year-old Kong Dara’s maps outlining gay communities in Cambodia, as well as Thailand and Vietnam where he previously completed artist residencies. The material that Kong uses — ink on tracing paper — is equally fragile. Like Eng, Kong brings to light the question of identity and the struggle for belonging.
The gallery is known for engaging in collaborative projects with curators from overseas, with the intention of facilitating dialogue with international artists and making contemporary Cambodian art more visible on the global stage.
SA SA ART PROJECTS/ THE WHITE BUILDING