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Art en vitro as the Pasteur Institute celebrates 60 years

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Cambodia’s first printmaking workshop was enlisted to help create an exhibit marking the Pasteur Institute’s 60th anniversary. Photograph: Prom Put Visal

What does a printmaker, with rolled-up sleeves and fingernails smudged with artist’s ink, have in common with a methodical scientist in a lab coat? At first glance, probably not a lot.

However, the similarities between the two were noted by architect Yvon Chalm, who enlisted the help of Cambodia’s first print workshop to help illustrate the 60th anniversary of the Pasteur Institute in the country.

Not only do they share an emphasis on experimentation, and chemistry (printmakers use chemicals to etch out metal places), but also a devotion to extreme precision, he said.

As curator of the commemorative exhibition, Chalm was responsible for gathering artwork that could reference the achievements of the laboratory and also engage the imagination.

He chose printmakers from the new Char printmaking studio at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), and other visual artists including Tith Kanitha to celebrate the historic 60-year-journey of the centre. A large stone bust of Louis Pasteur, donated by Artisan’s d’Angkor, was unveiled yesterday at the institute.

For inspiration for their brief, printmakers were given a tour of the laboratories and explained the highly contagious viruses the institute worked on. With microscopes, epidemics and bacteria in mind, the artists went off and produced 12 prints, which will go on show today at the Sofitel Phokeethra, along with paintings by other Cambodia-based artists.

 “I think it’s interesting to make these parallels. I think the workshop is a kind of laboratory [where] they learn step-by-step … It’s a really scientific approach,” said Chalm.

The Pasteur Institute officially opened in 1953, after Cambodia’s independence from France caused it to sever ties with Vietnam’s Pasteur Institute, through which it ran a veterinary laboratory. The new Phnom Penh laboratories were established between the Institut Pasteur in Paris and the Cambodian government.

Until 1975, the institute produced vaccines to prevent epidemics, trained people, analysed food and agricultural imports entering the kingdom and conducted pioneering work in mosquito-borne viruses. By 1969 more than 140 people were employed at the site, which stood amid leafy surrounds on Chruoy Chang War.

After its destruction under the Khmer Rouge, almost all of the institute’s staff disappeared. It was not until 1995 and almost 10 years of discussions between France and Cambodia  that the new Pasteur Institute was reborn, next to the Calmette public hospital.

The Char printmaking studio at first seems a far cry from a sterile science lab. It smells strongly of ink and turpentine, and its walls are papered with striking black and white print tests and drawings are stacked on shelves.

But in his workman-like apron and rolled up sleeves, Mexican print teacher Fernando Aceves Humana could possibly resemble the leader of a research laboratory. He is determined to capture the finest possible image of the prints, as they come peeling off the oily printing press rollers, and is fastidious about process.

The Oaxaca, Mexico, artist returned to Cambodia at the end of last year to check the progress of the printmaking studio he and fellow printmakers established in 2011, with the donation of a brand new etching press to the university. On his second trip, with four other printmakers from Mexico, the group brought with them a lithograph press, for the production of prints printed from marble.

The vision of Char – the first ever print workshop in Cambodia – was to make a self-sustaining studio that could produce fine art prints to sell.

The 60th anniversary exhibition is the first time the students will be showing their lithograph prints – and they will be for sale.

“For us it’s important because it’s an [opportunity] to be recognised. Institutes like the Pasteur are important and this will help the studio.”

The resulting works of art explore the topic in different ways.

In his delicate etching-aquatint, Char artist Prom Putvisal placed an Apsara dancer in the lab, with a microscope. French artist JMCJ chose a subtle lithograph portrait of Pasteur himself, and Neak Sophal focused on the human minds behind the institute.

It is the last week that Aceves is in Cambodia and he is sorry to be leaving the print studio, which, like Pasteur, he hopes will contribute to a new generation of Cambodian of practitioners.

The Laboratory of Creation, showing 60 photos and artworks on the Pasteur Institute, opens at Sofitel Phokeethra today at 6:30pm. It runs until June.



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