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A rattan Khmer letter created by Sopheap Pich hangs on the wall of the Asia Foundation’s new gallery.
A rattan Khmer letter created by Sopheap Pich hangs on the wall of the Asia Foundation’s new gallery. Charlotte Pert

A gallery going off the grid

Sculptures and paintings inspired by Phnom Penh’s lattice-like street planning feature in the first show from an unusual new art space

Occasional visitors to The Asia Foundation’s offices on Street 242 will be greeted by a surprise the next time they make a trip. Over the past month, the ground floor foyer has been emptied, whitewashed and rebranded as The Community Gallery – one of Phnom Penh’s most compact art spaces.

The works that make up the inaugural group show, Phnom Penh: City of Grids, make ambitious use of the small room. One imposing bamboo sculpture descends from the ceiling into a pool of water on the floor, and the longest wall in the gallery has been smeared with a striking charcoal skyline. Catching the eye as you enter the gallery is a rattan sculpture forming a hollow letter “”. The polygon mesh is instantly recognisable as the work of Sopheap Pich – an artist whose work is held by the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art in the US.

Silas Everett, director of The Asia Foundation, explains that the initial impetus for the gallery came from an unlikely place – The Asia Foundation’s urban waste management program. “We asked: how can we start contributing to the conversation about what makes Phnom Penh a liveable city?” he says.

The mural depicts Phnom Penh’s skyline.
The mural depicts Phnom Penh’s skyline. Eli Meixler

Everett decided that the most creative way to address the question was to link it to existing critical debates in the art world, but he was at a loss when it came to transforming the idea into practice.

“We were noodling around what kind of art we should actually get in there,” he recalls.

The solution came in the form of Khiang Hei – a Cambodian artist who spent much of his life in the US, and who settled permanently in Phnom Penh five years ago. His ongoing project “art+society” focuses on bringing people together to create a communal discourse about the arts. Khiang laughs when Everett describes him as the space’s curator: “I’m not the curator, I’m just helping,” he says. But Everett is insistent: “Khiang is the answer to our prayers.”

Having met with Everett, Khiang set about selecting the five artists who would make up the show, focusing exclusively on artists whose work he felt spoke to issues of urban landscapes. The inclusion of Sopheap’s work was a case of good timing and the right connections. “[Khiang’s] a friend of mine”, Sopheap says when asked why he had contributed his work to the show.

“If it had been any other work, I would not have accepted, but the sculpture is the letter [the first letter of Phnom Penh in the Khmer script], which I just happened to have because I’d made a series of alphabet letters a few years back. It fits with the theme they’d already decided on.”

Painting the striking charcoal wall mural at The Community Gallery.
Painting the striking charcoal wall mural at The Community Gallery. Eli Meixler

Group shows are a relative rarity in Phnom Penh, which Khiang attributes to the result of the added difficulty inherent in trying to source artists whose works have an underlying commonality of concept or form. In Phnom Penh: City of Grids, that unity is provided by grid structures, with artists taking the lattice-like street planning that the French Protectorate introduced to Phnom Penh as their jumping off point.

In Vollak Kong’s mural, crosshatched towers are imposed over smoky mountains, and in Sokhorn Meas’ hanging sculpture, a jumble of toy houses are penned in by a twisted DNA-like structure. The other two works speak less explicitly to the theme:

Sophal Neak’s photographs of urban dwellers with their face turned away from the camera strike the viewer primarily as a reflection on human intimacy, and Kimhong Chheng’s technicolour painting of a kite silhouetted against pinks and greens conjures a sense of freedom, rather than of urban constraint.

Everett is keen to emphasise that this new venture is about much more than the artists it provides a platform for. “The number one issue isn’t even trying to promote art per se, it’s promoting a conversation about Phnom Penh,” he says. It’s this statement that clarifies the gallery’s name: he is hoping to generate community audiences rather than community artists. Everett wants to see “the people who you wouldn’t normally see at a gallery opening” attending the exhibitions. He explains that the label applies equally to the suited government officials and donors who rarely seek out interactions with emerging artists, and to the local community around the office who are affected by but rarely consulted about the effects of urban planning. “Part of the impetus was how we can be part of the fabric of the people we’re working for,” he says.

It is unlikely that The Asia Foundation’s ground floor will be transformed overnight into a hub of creative activism, with tuk-tuk drivers sparring with boardroom executives over urban planning problems and art. But as a step towards taking seriously a grassroots engagement with social issues, the significance is clear. “Our reception area before was just a load of awards and pictures of the president shaking hands with the King,” Everett says. “It’s an attitudinal shift about what we are.”

Phnom Penh: City of Grids runs from November 25 to February 25 at The Community Gallery, #59 Street 242

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