‘Our City’ Turns Focus on Phnom Penh’s Rivers

More than 30 projects, exhibitions in 15 venues and multiple events throughout the city: all over the course of 10 days. 

This is what’s in store during the fifth annual Our City festival that opened Friday in Phnom Penh with an evening of art happenings, videos and installations—including “Mekong Flux,” a 15-meter long and 10-meter high structure conceived by U.S. architect Shelby Doyle to represent the might of the region’s most powerful river.

“It symbolically and literally represents the depth of the water so that you can walk in, visualize yourself as an individual under water and imagine how much water this is…and that you can literally fit a building in there,” said Dana Langlois of Java Arts who is coordinator of the Our City 2012 festival.

Since 2008, the festival has been an invitation to reflect on the city’s present and future through art and architecture.

Organized entirely by volunteers and operating with virtually no funding, the festival has seen improvements each year. Helped along by a team of nearly 150 people, the festival this year is on the theme of “Urban Currents” referring to Phnom Penh’s location at the confluence of three rivers and the effect of such a body of water on people’s lives, Ms. Langlois said.

The riverine theme is being expressed in various ways by each of the artists involved. Srey Bandol looked at it from the broader standpoint of cycles of life and all the limitations people face. His series entitled “Injured” consists of nine human figures and nine three-dimensional wall works—as in the nine months of pregnancy—which will be on display at Java Café on Sihanouk Boulevard.

“We all suffer big or small injuries in life,” Mr. Bandol said of the theme of his exhibition.

“You are born and you will die. So between the two, what are you doing? Not just getting rich. You have to share,” Mr. Bandol said, explaining that the work is meant to encourage people to reflect on the Buddhist philosophy about the meaning of life.

Mr. Bandol, who last year spent six months in New York City on an Asian Cultural Council fellowship touring galleries and exhibitions, said he tried to come up with materials and concepts relevant to Cambodia. His human figures were created using mosquito net stretched over wire frames.

“For me, mosquito nets are part of the culture because everyone uses them in the countryside and even in the city,” he said.

His figures represent people at various stages of life: on the ground as a young child, standing up as an adult and reclining in old age. Their heads are square to signify people’s dreams and ambitions curbed by life and society’s constraints. The ultimate constraint being death, he said.

Cambodian artist Mao Soviet and U.S. photographer Tim Robertson focused on the notions of home and what losing it through flooding, evictions or city expansion means to people, a concept suggested by Mr. Soviet.

Using pieces of wood and other materials left at eviction sites such as Boeng Kak lake and Borei Keila, they turned the found objects into installations, sculptures, paintings and photos transferred onto wood. Their works will be on view at the Romeet Gallery on Street 178 under the title of “The Black Wood.”

The project took four months. One of the main difficulties was finding materials big enough to work on, Mr. Robertson said.

“We ended up getting a lot of scraps, but only a few large pieces which were obviously part of a larger structure and only a few really intact artifacts,” he said.

“I think we got less material than we were hoping for, but we got good interactions with people in the communities. We got…a sense for what it would feel like to live in a community in danger of eviction, relocated or dismantled.”

One important part of this year’s festival has been to involve Cambodian architecture students so they can develop urban planning perspectives for Phnom Penh, Ms. Langlois said.

Over the last three months, Ms. Doyle, the U.S. architect, has worked with 30 architecture students from six universities to help them come up with concepts for cities, always keeping in mind Phnom Penh’s location and the everlasting threat of flooding.

Ms. Doyle, who holds a masters degree from Harvard University and is in Cambodia to study a city along a river on a U.S. Fulbright research fellowship, said that, among other things, students were concerned with road traffic and wanted to know what a “green” city actually means.

One of the students’ suggestions was to turn today’s filled-in and barren Boeng Kak lake area into a neighborhood with museums, sports centers, galleries and cafés, along with an elevated train in the style of Bangkok’s Skytrain for transport. They also designed a central bus station with passenger benches in a public garden. Their maquettes, and Ms. Doyle’s information boards on Phnom Penh’s urban development, are exhibited at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.

Our City 2012’s program also includes “Water, Curse or Blessing!?” a German touring exhibition on architecture and urban design in Asian cities located on waterways. The exhibition displayed on the grounds of the grand French, colonial-era building at No. 55 Street 178, (the office of the CityStar investment firm).

Among the long list of exhibitions that make up the Our City festival, there is also photographer Chea Phal’s exploration of architectural spaces and buildings at The Plantation hotel; a Cambodian photographers’ series and a cityscape installation by Kong Vollak, Sar Rattana and Prom Puthisal on the top floor of the City Star office building. And a large rattan sculpture of a crocodile created by artist Sopheap Pich hung from the ceiling of the Unesco office on Sothearos Boulevard.

During the festival, people will be able to view all the exhibitions during working hours and weekends for the duration of the festival, which ends on October 7. Visitors are required to verify their identity to enter the Unesco building.

The festival will end with the Urban Forum, an open discussion on the architectural and urban evolution of Phnom Penh, at Meta House on Sothearos Boulevard.

Admission is free to all exhibitions.

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