‘Ruin to Riches’ Weighs Development’s Double-Edged Sword

With rapid economic growth, booming construction, ever-advancing technology and a steady improvement in public services, there is little question that Cambodia is developing.

But this “development” often comes at a cost, a theme that is explored in “Ruin to Riches, a multimedia exhibit that opened this week at Meta House. While celebrating Cambodia’s progress since the Khmer Rouge, artists also depict the damage that has been done along the way.

Photographs showing various aspects of Cambodia's development are displayed at Meta House as part of the exhibit 'Ruin to Riches.' (Olivia Harlow/The Cambodia Daily)
Photographs showing various aspects of Cambodia’s development are displayed at Meta House as part of the exhibit ‘Ruin to Riches.’ (Olivia Harlow/The Cambodia Daily)

Nicolaus Mesterharm, the founder of Meta House and organizer of the exhibit, said the country’s impressive economic gains have also brought environmental and social destruction, making the title “Ruin to Riches” not entirely representative of the works on display.

He noted that as road networks improve, the rise in the use of motorbikes and cars causes a rise in pollution; as technology increases, so too does cyber bullying and reliance on phones and computers; as shopping malls increase, insecurities revolving social status and physical appearance rise; as the modern construction projects go up, people are evicted to make room.

“It all shows that there are two sides to everything. All of this is ‘new’ Cambodia,” Mr. Mesterharm said. “There are negative moments in which we look at the weaker parts of society, the people in the countryside, and it’s clear that city development is kept to a very small group in this country. Most people don’t benefit from it.”

To open a dialogue on the meaning of “development” in the country, a group of 10 students from various universities around Phnom Penh worked together with experienced filmmakers and other professionals to create “Ruin to Riches.”

The exhibit displays a collection of photographs that are chronologically displayed to show how Cambodia has changed over the last 40 years. The photos include work by John Vink on land evictions as well as Nicolas Lainez’s photos of The White Building—one of the last remnants of an urban development plan created under Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s.

More recent images, taken by 14 other photographers, include shopping malls, construction sites, felled forests, garment factories, grocery stores, street kids and rural farmers.

Also exhibited is a series of paintings titled “The Standing Rubble,” by Rena Chheang, a 25-year-old artist from Phnom Penh, showing how some of Cambodia’s most iconic architecture has endured, first through civil war and now in the face of a construction boom.

Ms. Chheang’s collection of oil and acrylic artworks portrays six of Phnom Penh’s landmarks: Central Market, the Cambodia Post office, the Mansion (behind the Foreign Correspondents’ Club), the Royal Palace, Chaktomuk Theater and the National Library.

She said the grand buildings point toward the possibility that the city will again become a thriving city with new, iconic architecture.

“Every time I go out I see new construction sites,” she said. “It’s kind of crazy how there are so many apartments and office buildings in general, how fast it’s growing.”

However, she said that those designing modern Phnom Penh seem to have strayed from Cambodian tradition and culture, choosing instead to take inspiration from development in the West.

“I feel like Cambodia has not fully grasped the importance of its own culture here,” she said.

“Ruin to Riches” runs through January 5.

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