Cambodian art has made great leaps in the nine years since US artist Erin Gleeson was introduced to it. On her first day of college in the US in 1997, Gleeson attended a class that opened with a slideshow of mugshots from Tuol Sleng—at the time included in an international traveling exhibition.
“They’re chilling,” Gleeson said. “[But] we discussed them as art…. That conversation was like a signpost in my learning and thinking.”
Since her 2002 arrival in Cambodia from the US state of Minnesota on a fellowship grant, Gleeson has been one of a growing number of artists working to establish a contemporary scene.
But for all her emphasis on community, the concept behind Gleeson’s first solo exhibition in Phnom Penh, titled “Thing(s) and Blue Thing(s),” was inspired by solitude.
“I lived in a monastery during college,” Gleeson said. “No matter what we were learning [solitude]
…was always a topic of conversation. Artists take up this question too, because a lot of what we’ve done is in solitude.”
On display at Popil Gallery near the National Museum through May 21, Gleeson’s exhibition combines a room of framed color polaroid photographs of grouped “things” with an outdoor garden installation of “blue things”—the same objects that have been photographed, removed from their groups and painted blue.
Gleeson searched the city and provinces for a central symbol of the push-and-pull influence she observed between solitude and community—an object that connects people in, and in spite of, their isolation.
“I found the blue [PVC] pipes that run around the country were really something that always kept me company as I traveled around,” Gleeson said of the plastic water pipes that lead into and out of homes countrywide. “[Sometimes they are] the only thing that connects people. I took that as a symbol and as a color.”
Gleeson named the paint color she mixed to match the pipes Cam-bodian blue, and selected objects—everyday items like rubber gloves or even a block of wood—that she found personally compelling.
Gleeson delights in the differing perceptions of those who view her work. “I long ago released the idea that everybody has to get why I made it,” she said. “The show [is] something very different [to each person].”
After she purchased objects—removing them, essentially, from their “communities”—Gleeson kept them physically separated. She united them as a group once they had all been collected and painted.
The experience of the objects—community, isolation, solitude, connection—mirrors the human experience of being an individual within a community, and the struggle to, as Gleeson says, be able to “be alone in a non-lonely way.”
In her polaroids, objects appear in groups. The framing, however, containing only that group, lends an introspective gaze. With the small size, yellowish tint and soft focus that characterize polaroid images, photographs of identical or repeated spoons, shoes, bamboo poles or clocks take on a meditative, dreamy quality.
In the garden installation, these same objects stand alone, but are united by color. Their context—amongst grass, dirt and plants—is organic, though they wear an obscuring uniform of blue paint. Gleeson noted that several visitors to her installation have taken the liberty of picking up objects and moving them. In contrast to the more rigid and self-conscious viewing that takes place in the gallery—where emphasis is on the group—visitors seem to feel a sense of comfort and playfulness in the installation area.
The tick of a blue clock high on the garden wall is still audible, but time can no longer be read on its painted face, suggesting a stillness that did not exist in the polaroid image of many clocks defined rigidly by numbers and second-hands.
It was important to Gleeson that her work cannot be duplicated. While she believes that commercialism plays an essential role in an artist’s survival, she wanted to emphasize authenticity. “[There is a] culture of copying here,” she said. Polaroid photographs, because they use no film, cannot be reprinted.
One of her polaroids shows several paintings of the Angkor temples stacked together. Two of them
—showing the entrance to Angkor Wat—are almost identical.
In the painting in the garden, the Angkorian ruins remain distinctly outlined through a thick layer of Cambodian blue paint.
In addition to making her own art and writing, Gleeson has taught art and art history to students at Pannasastra University and Northbridge International School. She curated last December’s Visual Arts Open in Phnom Penh, which she called a “turning point” for the city’s community of artists.
The art community “feels mutually appreciative” now, Gleeson said. “Openings are integrated, we’re using each other’s ideas…. I’m very inspired by the living artists here.”