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Intercultural art experiment investigates creative process

FOR most artists, a gallery exhibition is an opportunity to present polished work to the public. The plans, rough sketches and early blueprints are locked away in the studio, and only the “finished products” are allowed to see the light of day.

But this is precisely what viewers should not expect tonight at the French Cultural Centre, where the collaborative efforts of four Khmer artists and three French artists will be unveiled starting at 7pm.

For the past month, the student artists – Chan Pagna, Pauline Juvenez, Loeum Loan, Pierre Michelon, Phe Sophon, Jean-Phillipe Rykaert and Tith Kanitha – have been involved in Pleased to Meet You, a workshop based on the premise that if you throw a group of creative people from two different cultures together, interesting things might happen. Or not.

The students were supervised by Daniel Perrier, a French artist and instructor at the School of Fine Arts in Nantes, who said the collaboration started with the most basic of questions: How are you?

“After that, if you want something to happen you have to give everyone your identity, your background, your desire,” he said. The goal of the workshop, explained Perrier, was not to create masterpieces for exhibition, but to focus on the unfolding process of collaboration itself.

“The idea is not to present our art, but to present our activity, our discussion,” he said. “I would like the artists to explain what happened or not. It’s not a question of you win or not. It’s a question of why something happened and why something didn’t happen, of what happens when you meet someone from another culture.”

The students were given few specific instructions for the workshop, with Perrier providing guidance with sharpening ideas but refraining from telling the artists exactly what to do or how to do it.

The participants were free to work in their chosen media – photography, video, painting, sculpture – but were also expected to contribute ideas and assistance to the projects of other students in the group.

At their best, such artistic and intercultural collaborations can lead to the emergence of unexpected discoveries and the birth of surprising art forms, sometimes challenging even the most basic assumptions about what can be encompassed by the term “art”.

Perrier related how, for example, Pierre Michelon called everyone together to help with his project, and also asked two historians – one French and one Khmer – to join in a discussion about Cambodia’s independence and what it meant for young people today.

“The Khmer historian and one Khmer artist asked him why he wanted to speak about history when he was an artist, not a historian,” Mr Perrier said. “Pierre was really surprised because he thought that as an artist, it was OK to be interested in history to get some ideas for making a work of art.

“It was the best illustration of the duality between Khmer and French cultures. In French culture especially, we love to have discussions, but sometimes the Khmer artists do not like to talk about their ideas.”

Discussion itself, however, can be a problem when the collaborators don’t speak the same language, as several of the artists involved in the workshop acknowledged.

“We are trying to build a real discussion, but translation is an issue,” Mr Michelon said. “English is a problem because it’s not our language. If we speak about something serious it’s better to use our own language because it’s more real.”

Phe Sophon referred to communication as “the first art” without which the students would be unable to share ideas with each other.

“I have difficulty with communication with the group, but I’m improving my artistic skills by working with others,” he said. “I’m learning about the feelings and ideas of foreigners, and I think they are learning from us as well.”

The students agreed that within the context of the workshop, misunderstanding can be frustrating, but it can also open up spaces from which new ideas can emerge.

“Yes, it happens,” Pauline Juvenez said. “Someone might say ‘do this’, expecting the person to do it in a certain way, but the person might get a different message or idea and do it in a different way, creating a new, unexpected look.”

“Sometimes a new idea might be an accident,” Tith Kanitha agreed, “but also we try to understand each other. Sometimes we have to speak through body language or use the internet to show what we mean, or sometimes we just to sit down and draw what we mean.

“Even though the language is hard, we still try to get together and create something new. This is the most important thing. We help each other to try to find something new and unique to tell,” she said.

It is precisely these new possibilities that excite Mr Perrier most about the project.

“To connect something, we must make a choice. Maybe you can connect something from subjects that have no relation at the beginning, but when they connect it creates new meaning,” he said.

If all of this sounds confusing, even the artists agreed that the workshop lacked a clear definition of purpose. But they also agreed that this was not necessarily a bad thing.

“We never mind about that, but we have shown that artists from different cultures can work together,” said Tith Kanitha. “We didn’t know where we wanted to go or what we wanted to do, but we just liked to work together.”

Pleased to Meet You opens tonight at 7pm at the French Cultural Centre, 218 Street 184. The exhibition runs through May 15.

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