Rising Tonle Sap 4, Lim Sokchanlina’s portrait of the Siem Reap tourist attraction Kampong Phluk and its flooded forest, is an arresting one. Silhouettes of mangrove trees melt into tawny waters and flicks of tangerine reflect off large cubes of melting ice in the foreground.
The Phnom Penh-based artist’s photograph is part of a new exhibition that aims to provoke local discussion on climate change and the fate of Cambodia’s wide waterways.
The ice blocks – dissolving into fishing communities and important ecosystems – represent global warming, melting ice caps and last year’s devastating floods.
The Mekong, the Tonle Sap, the Red River, in Vietnam’s north, and Thailand’s Ping River — integral for centuries of transport, food production, energy supply and dynamic ecosystems — are widely acknowledged to be in grave danger because of economic exploitation, development and climate change.
The rivers now form the backdrop for Riverscapes In Flux, a regional exhibition sponsored by the Vietnam-based Goethe Institut that opened in the capital’s Sa Sa Bassac galley on Thursday.
Three Cambodian artists are exhibiting in the display: photographer Sokchanlina; sculptor and artist Than Sok with an installation of scarecrows (metaphors for his family when they were stuck for months on their roof on the Tonle Sap); and photographer/audio artist Vuth Lyno.
Each spent time living on the Tonle Sap — a river and lake distinctive as the only waterway on earth with the ability to reverse directions every year, coerced by the monsoonal Mekong.
Thai video and installation artist Sutthirat Supaparinya and Vietnamese artists Luong Hue Trinh and Phan Thao Nguyen round out the show.
Nguyen’s stark film blurs the boundaries between documentary and more abstract art. It juxtaposes the idyllic imagery of the Mekong Delta with its sterile, smelly, industrial catfish factories.
Budget restraints have restricted the project to six artists — it showcased 17 in Bangkok, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh — but the white, minimalist cubic sphere of Phnom Penh’s Sa Sa Bassac gallery is a good size and milieu.
Artistic director and Sa Sa Bassac co-founder Erin Gleeson said she had been hesitant to base an exhibition on a broad theme such as climate change, but had a change of heart after witnessing the tragic effects of the 2011 floods.
“We’ve been really surprised at the different reflections on one theme, which can often be limiting,” she says.
Gleeson said it was important to look at the waterways of South East Asia in a different medium.
“The Mekong River Commission has to work with five countries; it must be so complicated, and you think of all the technical reports we read about damming and pollution and so on.
“So I think it’s important to look at the river in a different space, to be able to look at the river and reflect on it in a different way... perhaps this platform can provoke something else than what we read in media reports,” she said.
Sokachanlina, who spent four months living on the Tonle Sap with fishing communities, talking to them about climate change, said he had been interested in the beauty of placing the 80kg shards of ice in a landscape and watching the landscape morph into something else as the ice melted.
“I went to all these places and looked at darkness, reflections, light coming through the trees. I want this to provoke discussion among Khmer people, and that our actions are contributing to these great disasters.”
Riverscapes In Flux runs until November 11 at Sa Sa Bassac, second floor, #18 Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]