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Urban life under microscope

Phnom Penh: The Life of the Streets', which opens today at the Meta House, offers up a trans-cultural perspective on the shifting landscape of a city in the midst of transition

Photo Supplied

Slum Buildings by Ian Whittaker, above, and Steamed River Snails by Chhim Sothy.

Daily life in Phnom Penh is played out in the streets. Any pedestrian on the capital's boulevards and alleyways cannot help but see, feel, hear and sometimes smell the vitality of this rapidly changing scene. It is this urban dynamism that a collaborative exhibition between renowned Cambodian artist Chhim Sothy and Australian Ian Whittaker attempts to capture.

"Phnom Penh: The Life of the Streets" was conceived by Whittaker in response to the capital's continual state of flux.

"I just started painting, and a strong theme emerged that I was trying to capture. The city is in such a state of change and development, and I got excited about the idea," he said.

After approaching Meta House about the project, Whittaker was paired by the curators with the renowned Cambodian painter Chhim Sothy.

"We thought it would be interesting for him to work with an artist of the same age and similar family situation but from a different culture," said Meta House art manager Lydia Parusol.

Whittaker explains that the match proved apt.

"One morning we went for a ride around town and kept stopping at the same places. All the things we noticed were the same," he said.

Chhim Sothy agrees that the duo has very similar feelings and emotions about the city. Above all, it was the city's many contrasting facades that struck the pair.

"Before [the Khmer Rouge], there was mostly wealthy people living in Phnom Penh, but afterwards, lots of people from the countryside came to the city. Now, there are a lot more poor," said Chhim Sothy.  

To Whittaker, conversely, the relative nature of material prosperity was prominent.

"I heard about the terrible history of Cambodia and I think I expected something much worse.... There is definitely poverty, but there is also progress," he said.

Visiting slums as well as more middle-class districts, Chhim Sothy and Whittaker have attempted to convey both aspects of affluence and deprivation in their depiction of the city.

"I focused a lot on the contrast between rich and poor. There is so much poverty, but luxury too," said Chhim Sothy.

Whittaker agrees.  

"I see a lot of progress and development, but we are also both very aware that it's not for everybody, that a lot of people are missing out."

So too, the artists are conscious that physical development does not always equate to social development.

"My country is not at all like developed countries, not like Europe and countries with enforced laws. Whatever people think of here, they just do. You can see this on the streets," said Chhim Sothy.

I see a lot of progress and development, but we are also very aware ... that a lot of people are missing out.

While this anarchy can make for colorful viewing and equally creative road rules that engage foreigners such as Whittaker, it is not always conducive to a functional urban environment.

"We have built roads and waterways and created laws, but because of our history and lack of education, people still have little understanding of them," Chhim Sothy said. "It's not just about building, but also about capacity building."  

From traffic jams to boulevards lined with coconut trees planted by the Khmer Rouge, the country's social and political history is reflected in Phnom Penh's streets.

Photo Supply

Salon by Ian Whittaker.

And while there is much furious development, there are also signs of a stasis.

"Because the Khmer Rouge emptied out Phnom Penh, no streets or high rises were built during that time," said Chhim Sothy. "So it's like in some ways the city was frozen with just the old streets built by Sihanouk."

So too, he suggests, Cambodia's history is reflected in the capital's residents.

"Maybe some young people don't understand or want to know about our history, but old people always remember it," Chhim Sothy said.

For Whittaker, reconstruction efforts across the city suggest a tangible move forward from this disturbing past.

"When I got here and saw so much building and construction, it felt like people being brave enough to try to come out and catch up with the last 30 years," Whittaker said.

Yet he is equally wary of superimposing history onto either his perception or artistic depictions of Phnom Penh.

"If you study history, you can read things into the country, things that maybe aren't there," he said.

Whittaker's own portrayal is more personal than political.

"I see all the poverty and the underdevelopment, but I feel like as a guest; it's not my job to analyse or criticise that so much," he said. "I love the colour of the streets, so what I've captured is more something in myself and my response to the streets."

Nor, Chhim Sothy claims, are his own artworks a political treatise.

"Everything I show ... is what I see. It's not a critique of government, just my view," he said. "I want to inform my people to think about how to make the country clean and peaceful, to create the best society in Cambodia. When a country develops, people must develop too." 

"The Life of the Streets" opens at 6pm today at Meta House. 

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