Artists Explore Phnom Penh’s Urban Space

Alain Arnaudet of the French Cultural Center calls artist Georges Rousse an illusionist. And after walking through the empty rooms of a French colonial mansion for 15 minutes, in search of his installation, one tends to agree.

At first, all one can see are bits of letters in different rooms of the building now belonging to the FCC Restaurant and Bar on Sothearos Boulevard.

But if one looks down while climbing the stairs, the word “Dream” written in giant letters suddenly appears in the middle of the room below, as though solid mass suspended in mid-air.

Going a few steps up or down breaks the illusion as the letters, written on door and window frames as well as on the walls of two rooms, only become complete if viewed from a very specific angle.

Rousse’s artworks feature in museum collections throughout the world, from the Louvre Mu­seum in Paris, to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Metro­politan Museum of Photo­graphy in Japan.

Rousse, 61, along with Cambo­dian artist Leang Seckon and French artist Daniel Perrier are taking part in an exhibition opening Sat­urday at the French Cultur­al Center in Phnom Penh. Leang Seckon and Perrier’s works will also be in the center’s new exhibition hall.

Centering on the concepts of urb­an space and design, the three artists’ works could not be more different, although they all use whatever old or new materials are found at Cambodian markets.

While Rousse’s work shows the wonder that can emanate from a building in disrepair, Leang Seck­on’s showpiece plunges viewers into Phnom Penh’s daily reality of traffic and chaos.

Entitled “Reflection,” the installation consists of two parts separated by an empty, wooden frame, hanging from the ceiling. On one side, a rusty motorcycle and a bicycle lie on the gallery floor as if they had just collided. But contrary to most accidents, the motorcycle is damaged while the bicycle is intact. In collisions, Leang Seckon said, “the bicycle never wins. Here, I wanted the bicycle to win.”

On the other side of the frame stands a figure with a helmet and a hodgepodge of uniform parts, in­signias and arms of soldiers during Cambodia’s various eras in the past 50 years. He also has an artificial leg.

“This is about confusion,” Leang Seckon said. During the years of war and conflict, he said, “People lost family, they lost parts of their bodies to landmines, they lost their spirit,” he said. Confused by political upheaval of the past decades, the 34-year-old artist said, “They are not thinking about the future, they are not thinking about injuries [when they drive]; they are just thinking about today.”

The figure shows the confusion of people’s minds, which in turn is reflected in the traffic as people go in all directions on the roads, few obeying streetlights and signs, which is meant to reflect how people live, Leang Seckon said. “Peo­ple live together, but they don’t share ideas.”

His collages in the exhibition range from scenes of Phnom Penh’s buildings and vehicles to the Preah Vihear temple getting on the World Heritage list.

Perrier also referred to vehicles in his works but in a highly stylized manner: He turned motorcycle decorative stickers into an abstract wall collage.

“For me, motos are becoming a matter of competition,” the 48-year-old Parisian artist said. “If a young Cambodian does not have at the very least a moto, he won’t attract girls. There is a sort of Suzuki and Honda cult.”

Working with Cambodian craftsmen and recycled materials, he managed to produce very 21st-century objects, such as a sign made of several geometric shapes with no backing.

When culture and language barriers led to objects different from what he had expected, Perrier still used them. The baseball-hat stand he had ordered turned into shiny stool legs: He has placed them in various areas of the exhibition hall, making them rather intriguing.

His works include the words “Chan­ge as Chance” in tri-dimen­sion­al, zinc lettering. Inverting the letters “g” and “c” turns the mean­ing around, and it’s up to people to de­cide whether they’d rather see “Chance as Change,” Perrier said.

The exhibition runs until Oct 12.

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