Three years ago, Alain Arnaudet arrived in Phnom Penh to run the French cultural center, which he soon came to see as the biggest and most active cultural center in the country.
“This may give us some rights, but it especially gives us responsibilities, including not behaving self-importantly or arrogantly…towards the smaller cultural organizations in the country which are doing tremendous work every day and on a long-term basis,” he said.
Mr Arnaudet, who is to leave the center at the end of the month, made it one of his priorities to work with as many cultural organizations as possible to make the most of the limited resources available in the arts sector here.
During his term as the center’s director, he has overseen unprecedented collaboration between different arts organizations and the number and scope of cultural events at the cultural center have grown in all art forms, from shadow-puppet performances to video art installations.
In the case of Phnom Penh Photo—now an annual, citywide festival involving more than 30 photography exhibitions—it was Mr Arnaudet who in 2008 took the initiative of contacting arts groups and private exhibition locations to enroll them into the project, he said.
With other projects, like Architecture Month, held each September since 2008, it was Dana Langois of JavaArts and Java Cafe who took the initiative and Mr Arnaudet who joined in. “I’m always ready to embark on an adventure when I believe it’s a good one,” the 44-year-old director said.
This notion of collaboration has also extended to putting artists in touch with each other, as Meas Sokhorn’s current exhibition at the center demonstrates, Mr Arnaudet said.
One of the center’s priorities has been to support the development of contemporary arts, he said. So when Mr Sokhorn approached him about doing a street project on garbage in Phnom Penh, they agreed to turn this into a show, and to add video to bring the notion of street event into the exhibition hall.
Since the French cultural center was supporting a video-creation workshop at the Royal University of Fine Arts, Mr Arnaudet put the sculptor in touch with the workshop students. Mr Sokhorn explained what he needed and the students filmed it for him. The result is the exhibition “Trash-Fix,” a vast installation including empty water bottles, a bicycle cart filled with rubbish and hanging from the ceiling as well as three different video segments.
“This installation would be hard to sell. But on the other hand, it speaks of Cambodia,” Mr Arnaudet said. “It also speaks […] of a wish to say things about the world today and with today’s tools.”
Mr Arnaudet, who had previously managed a major photo festival in France, came to Cambodia from Brazil, where he ran a cultural center of the Alliance Francaise—an organization supported by the French government, unlike the French cultural center, which is directly under the authority of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh. He will return to France in September, where he is working on a few projects.
Looking back on his three years in the country, Mr Arnaudet said that nothing would have happened without the enthusiasm of the center’s French and Cambodian team and of Cambodian artists who are eager to develop contemporary forms.
“What I hope is that this move towards the contemporary in all its forms…continues to involve everyone and that no one takes the hazardous path of opposing tradition and the contemporary,” Mr Arnaudet said. “I believe that it is both tradition and contemporary works that make a country real.”