In the mid-1990s, curators would often select Asian works for international visual-art events based on quotas, said Ly Daravuth, director of the Reyum Institute in Phnom Penh.
“At times they would virtually beg us to invent a contemporary artist,” to get their required number of Cambodian artists represented, he said.
Over the years, the quota approach faded away as visual arts in Asia exploded in forms and styles, which led to new, competitive selection criteria and specialized events. Today Cambodians must directly compete with artists from other countries for their work to appear at events—for example, they will not automatically be included in the Singapore Biennale 2006 on visual arts in September.
But to get curators’ attention in the first place, artists often must show that Cambodia’s art scene is worth featuring in the international arena, Ly Daravuth said. “If there is no effervescence in the art scene, it won’t be heard,” he said.
While a small number of Cambodian artists have gained international prominence on their own merits—such as Chhim Sothy, Leang Seckon, Pich Sopheap, Svay Ken and photographer Mak Remissa—homegrown art is still not vibrant enough to interest international curators, Ly Daravuth said.
Activities in the field remain the initiative of a few pioneers either privately funded or with international donor support such as the US-based Rockefeller Foundation.
The problem is, Cambodian artists have not given themselves a voice, said Tran Luong, a Vietnamese artist and a board member of Art Network Asia and of the Mekong Lab, an art network for Mekong river countries.
“Art has a strong social responsibility,” he said. There should be art movements in every country through which artists express their opinions on society, as Dada after the First Word War grew to denounce the absurdity of war and politics, he added.
In a democratic country such as Cambodia, artists cannot live separate from their community, he said. “Life here is very interesting. There are a lot of problems, but also a lot of material for the artistic brain to use.”
But stumbling blocks far bigger than direct political censorship seem to stand in the way of Cambodian artists’ social comments, Tran Luong said.
Before Vietnam’s “Open Door” policy for the arts became a reality in the 1990s, political pressure only made Vietnamese artists more determined to express themselves, he said.
But in Cambodia, although there already is an “Open Door,” the pressure of tradition appears harder for artists to overcome than political coercion, he said.
“Socially, they are expected to do certain things, and so they are going to fall in line with that,” said Dana Langlois of Java Cafe and Gallery. This is why local artists tend to work with traditional themes such as apsara dancers and Angkor Wat, she said.
“I think the biggest challenge for artists here is to be creative in their subject,” she said.
“In technique they will always be very skilled, and in being creative in their technique they are very skilled also. However, being able to truly express themselves, to express emotions is a challenge,” she said.
“I will probably get in trouble for saying that but, honestly, the Khmer Rouge is becoming a traditional subject as well,” Langlois said.
“It’s almost becoming an expectation. If you are going to be strong and bold, you talk about Khmer Rouge—nothing else. No one dares speak about any other social ills, or confront anything else or even themselves. Or any other emotional subject. What about abuse, what about internal conflicts—these things we expect out of art, dealing with all aspects of life?”
Though artists will talk of social problems in private, they don’t dare do it in works that will be displayed publicly, she said.
In spite of this, “I find there is energy here, potential energy, a vitality that is quite intense…and it’s been building, and building and building over the last few years,” Langlois said.
There is a young generation of artists, generally rather “cool” male urbanites, eager to create, she said.
“Where I see a huge potential and something very exciting is multimedia. I see some great stuff: photos, videos, some animation, Web. It’s a completely new media and there are no traditional values to hold artists back. They are able to jump right in and start creating—they’ve got the technology.”
The visual arts seem to be taking two directions: contemporary visual arts and mainstream design in furniture and interior decoration, which is a more commercial field based on Cambodia’s decorative arts, said Langlois.
Still artists direly need support for the art scene to develop, she said. They must have physical outlets—studios to work, museums to exhibit and galleries to sell both in and outside the country, as the local market is not sufficient to support them, Langlois said.
They require job opportunities and artwork commissions, she said. Also they need an art community with places for them to meet such as Stephane Janin’s Popil PhotoGallery, which has become a meeting place for Cambodian and expat photographers, she said.
Such meeting places are necessary when artists have yet to define the form their contemporary art will take, Ly Daravuth said.
To create true Cambodian contemporary art, the artists must have mastered and internalized the country’s traditional forms and then move on, Ly Daravuth said. This process takes reflection and discussions among artists, he said.
Following Western trends or simply modernizing traditional forms is not the solution
Plus both socially and politically, he said, “There needs to be a tolerance in the dialogue in order to go beyond fixed forms.”
Government support is also indispensable to help artists develop and exhibit, he added.
Cambodia’s contemporary art has the potential of going beyond today’s somewhat standardized contemporary art where artists seem to follow the trends of the moment, said Guy Issanjou, former director of the French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh and art professor at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Lyon, France.
Laws and regulations often going unenforced in business and other sectors of life in Cambodia produces a certain form of free-for-all in which all is possible, as it creates both tremendous liberty and tremendous difficulties, said Issanjou, who is working on a book on today’s arts in Cambodia.
“It’s the advantage of the drawbacks,” he said.
Also the fact that artists come from diverse training schools in former Soviet-Bloc countries, others in France or the US, may lead to a great diversity in artworks.
“Whether this will produce something remains to be determined. Nevertheless, there are new directions emerging in Cambodia’s art,” Issanjou said.