In his quintessential writing on the presentation of contemporary art, “Inside the white cube: the ideology of the gallery space,” Irish artist Brian O’Doherty says, “A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall.”
Breaking out of the “white cube” has been a driving force behind Cambodia-American artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s work since she graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010, and her exhibit “The Space Between Inside/Outside,” which is on show at Phnom Penh’s Java Gallery, is very much an extension of that thinking. The various projects within the exhibition utilize the entirety of the gallery-cum-cafe, transforming it into an installation and performance space in which Ms. Yoeu Ali is her own star and patrons become the supporting cast.
The panoramic photos stretching across the white walls feature intricate dresses, which are also installed inside the gallery; a billowing black-and-white striped gown fills an entire room and a flowing red dress wraps around much of the upstairs dining and exhibition area.
Behind the window next to Java’s entrance, tables have been transformed into digital display boards showing images taken from a participatory project “Enter the Studio, Enter the Frame,” in which members of the public were invited to create compositions using their bodies and seven red stools. Within these images are frames within the frame, created with black duct tape on two white walls, a reference to the arbitrary barriers that determine what constitutes art and what is chosen for the white cube.
These displays are surrounded by red stools, which, along with black lines, tie together the entire exhibit.
Ms. Yoeu Ali has appropriated these stools, which are ubiquitous at street side cafes and restaurants in Cambodia, and made them the central aesthetic of the exhibit. A seven-meter high wooden replica of those plastic stools is a central element of many of her photographs and the replica is on display too — placed on a square white mat in the center of the upstairs veranda.
The photographs, which were conceptualized by Ms. Yoeu Ali and taken by well-known Phnom Penh-based photographer Vinh Dao, cover almost all of the wall space at Java. These images contrast the stunning dresses, designed by Ms. Yoeu Ali and produced by students and teachers at the Friend’s sewing school, with lush rice fields and sweeping cityscapes. There is a surreal quality to the images, borne out of Ms. Yoeu Ali’s imagination and executed through careful material manipulation and seamless post-production work by Mr. Dao.
In one photograph, Ms. Yoeu Ali appears at both ends of a red dress, standing on a coconut cart at one side of a roadside café and reclining on the giant red stool at the other. The contrast between the elegant red dress and the decrepit yellow walls and soiled umbrellas in the background is jarring. Bold colors, red and orange in particular, often enter the artist’s work.
“They can represent so many things,” she said. “Life, fire, blood…. I’m trying to interject life and vitality into this decay and dilapidation.”