Fresh face at Romeet gallery

Camille Baczynski
New curator Camille Baczynski is putting her own stamp on Phnom Penh art gallery Romeet. KIMBERLEY MCCOSKER

Fresh face at Romeet gallery

Camille Baczynski is a curator who knows what she likes. Sitting in Romeet Gallery, where she took over in January, the French 23-year-old stares critically at the multicoloured, marbled effect tiles on the floor.

“We have to do a new floor,” she says. “For the installation exhibition by Srey Bandaul [Under the Sarong, which took place last November] I remember thinking: ‘Oh my God, that’s so sad, it ruins everything.’ His art work was amazing, but there was too much [distraction] on the floor. I would really like a white space.”

Looking at Baczynski’s employment history, it’s no wonder she is looking to bring Romeet’s exhibition room in line with the minimalist tendencies of contemporary art presentation. For a while she worked organising private events in the skeletal, sophisticated Pompidou Centre in Paris, then, as part of the production team at the Beirut Art Centre – a huge, ex-industrial space on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital that she describes approvingly as “really white”.

But the curator’s plan to bring a more stripped-down aesthetic to her new domain shouldn’t be confused with a desire to import the art world culture that white space galleries often breed.

“I don’t really believe in the ‘art scene’,” she says, laughing. “I think it’s just something for fancy people who like to go to the openings and drink wine and say ‘oh yeah I am part of the art scene’.

“They just want to prove that they know people, and that they’re important. It’s this side of the art that I don’t understand and I don’t like. Even if I do like wine.”

Baczynski was based in Cambodia for an internship prior to signing her contract with Romeet, and the opinions she has formed about art in the Kingdom over her six-month stint are original. For one, she disagrees with the characterisation of artistic production in the country as being a young person’s game.

Sin Rithy’s new exhibition is inspired by life in his back yard
Sin Rithy’s new exhibition is inspired by life in his back yard. Photo Supplied

“There are lots of young people trying to do stuff, for sure, but it means nothing outside of Cambodia,” she says. “The only artists who are famous on the international scene are in their forties or fifties.”

She attributes the lack of recognition afforded to young artists to the role that audience expectations play in the reception of art.

“Art depends on cliche and Beirut is known to be young and cool, whereas maybe Cambodia is known to have this old history and this really sad story. In Cambodia, you’ve got to always talk about your past, and when you’re young, it’s hard to talk about your past.”

Baczynski is also sceptical about the suggestion that Cambodian art is experiencing a particular “moment” of international recognition. “Nobody cares about Cambodia [in art]. The focus is more on Thailand, and Singapore in particular,” she says.

But she is in no hurry to correct this under appreciation.

“If you have too much attention, maybe it’s dangerous,” she says, pointing to the example of India, where the market for young contemporary artists rocketed in the early 2000s, before crashing at the time of the global economic crisis.

“Maybe we’re going to have this kind of focus in two years in Cambodia, but what’s going to happen after that?”

Baczynski believes firmly in the need to separate art from money, and Romeet, like all the galleries she has worked for, is a not-for-profit space – the gallery is intended primarily as a platform for young artists coming out of the Phare Ponleu Selpak art school in Battambang.

But thinking non-commercially isn’t a free pass for artists to exist in a bubble. Baczynski thinks that Cambodian creatives are often too quick to rest on their laurels, and to keep on producing the type of paintings that they have found to be most successful rather than experimenting with new things. She believes the solution lies abroad – not with global markets, but through interaction with the work of international artists.

“There is no museum here with lots of international art, so how can [local artists] know that maybe they are so bad next to international artists? … That’s a problem here.”

One solution, she thinks, is to send artists on residencies abroad – something she says she will be encouraging all the artists associated with Romeet to undertake. At home, her focus for the next year is on producing a calendar of events that will make the gallery an active hub of artistic activity. “It’s not enough to just do one opening every two months, which is apparently what it used to be,” she says. “We have to find our own identity.”

‘The death within life’

Sin Rithy’s new exhibition, Individual Nature, on show at Romeet Gallery until May 23, is intended as a high-brow commentary on the nature of existence.

“The death within life, the life within death” is the show’s tagline, and Rithy’s artistic statement describes him as torn between a pressing sense of the emptiness of human existence, juxtaposed with a looming sense that death – “a never-ending and certain journey” – is a fully formed fact.

But the 25-year-old’s material influences are prosaic. He paints fighting cocks – proud and furious, with flapping wings blurring their outlines – because the house where he works in Battambang is surrounded by the birds.

His looming, up-close portraits are all painted in grey scale because he once watched a zombie movie and was struck by the ambiguous place they occupied in the life-death divide. He works on rough, unbleached canvas, parts of which he leaves untouched.

One of the exhibition’s most striking features has risen out of a practical constraint. Many of the canvases are mounted on half-bare frames because Rithy had no suitably sized backings at hand.

But curator Camille Baczynski has decided to keep it like that, feeling that the missing space aptly communicated the sense of presence and absence that Rithy explained he was looking to convey.

Baczynski is aware when making these sorts of decisions that sometimes questions of an artist’s intentions can become muddied after the fact.

“Maybe sometimes I’m going too far because I love art and it’s so meaningful for me – maybe [Rithy] just loves chicken,” she says.

If that is the case, Baczynski doesn’t seem to mind. A plan to fill the gallery with live birds for last Thursday’s opening was only shelved at the last minute when it was discovered quite how messy they can be in
real life.

Individual Nature is at Romeet Gallery, #34E1 Street 178 until May 23.

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