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Friday, July 17, 2009

An opportunity to absorb it all

Two young Cambodian artists make the most of their Tokyo Wonder Site residency


Staff writer

Tokyo's vast facade of concrete and steel is a long way from the dusty, tree-lined streets of Phnom Penh. The distance is obvious to anyone who has experienced both cities, but it seems particularly clear to two young Cambodian artists who are now participating in an artist-in-residence program at Tokyo Wonder Site (TWS) in Aoyama.

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Taking in Tokyo: Cambodian artists Peou Sam-an (left) and Phe Sophon outside Tokyo Wonder Site where they are in an artist-in-residence program. EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS

Phe Sophon and Peou Sam-an are young — 27 and 23 respectively — and bursting with enthusiasm. In the two months they have spent in Tokyo so far (they return to Phnom Penh at the end of August), they have each completed large sculptural pieces. Phe's is a giant buoy-like object made of artfully sculpted food and drink containers collected here and in his home city. Peou's is an elegant tree made of wire that has chicken eggs where a normal tree might have fruit.

But, talking to them in front of their artworks late last month, it was clear that each is devoting their attention while in Tokyo to much more than art.

Phe, who speaks a little English, says he is fascinated by Tokyo's restaurants. "They create the whole restaurant, the idea of the design. In Cambodia they have no interior design," he says.

Peou, who speaks no English, says through a translator that he loves Japanese architecture. "Everything around here — the new and the old — is interesting," he says, casting a broad net of approval over Aoyama's urban jungle.

Peou is also impressed with the law-abiding nature of the Japanese: "There is more respect here. Like when people are driving, they wait for you. That doesn't happen in Cambodia."

Talk of Tokyo's virtues turns quickly to comparisons with Cambodia, and even more quickly to how the two artists might, in Phe's words, be able to "help my country develop."

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Artful consumption: Phe Sophon has been busy producing a large sculptural work using packaging from food items he has consumed here and in Cambodia and empty drink bottles left at his studio by visiting Tokyoites.

"I will remember what I see here, and when I go back, maybe I will have more ideas, more development. I show them what I saw here. I want to help to do something for my country. How can I help my country? I think about that," he says.

The breadth of each artist's interests in Tokyo is obvious in some ways. First, for Peou this is his first trip overseas. And what Phe lacks in naivete he makes up for in youthful enthusiasm. But, there is something else at play too: The very precarious grasp that they and most Cambodian "artists" have on their careers.

I visited Phnom Penh in March this year as part of a research trip sponsored by The Japan Foundation to mark the Mekong-Japan Exchange Year. I found that the normal career trajectory for an "artist" in Cambodia consists essentially of two steps: education at the Royal University of Fine Arts or its affiliated technical college and then a job making reproductions of traditional paintings or sculptures.

What happens to those who want to be a creative artist in the Western sense of the term? I put that question to Ly Daravuth, the 38-year-old French-educated Cambodian who runs what he describes as the de facto center for contemporary visual art in Cambodia, the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture.

"You cannot be a practicing contemporary artist in Cambodia," says Daravuth. "Maybe I shouldn't say that. Say you have one exhibition. Maybe you sell one work. Often you don't. But, I cannot tell the young artists here to do this as a career when they ask me how they can live on that."

Both Phe Sophon and Peou Sam-an were educated at the Reyum Institute. Part of the reason my research group spoke to Daravuth was because he had helped The Japan Foundation select the artists who would participate in the artist-in-residence program. (In an unusual partnership between two Japanese government bureaucracies, Phe and Peou's stays at TWS are funded by the Foreign Ministry's Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths Program, part of which is administered by The Japan Foundation.)

In addition to holding exhibitions, the Reyum Institute provides free art education to disadvantaged youth. The four-year art course starts with the same technical skills taught at the Royal University.

"A lot of the students aren't able to finish the course, so we want to give them skills to help them make some money, like drawing portraits for tourists, from an early stage," explained Daravuth.

Still, he believes strongly in the importance of creative thinking, and it is this that he tries to impart to his longer-term students.

Phe and Peou are two of his stars. Phe reports he heard about Reyum from a friend. At the time he had some "family problems," so he had dropped out of high school in the northern Kampong Thom province to work in Phnom Penh.

He recalls Daravuth's lesson on how to draw a palm tree creatively: "When we draw palm trees, all the Cambodian artists paint it in the same way — with two trees, one shorter and bending to the side," he says, reflexively tracing the two lines in the air.

Daravuth told Phe and the other students to do it differently. "He said, you need to make it new. You can put more palm trees. Or just put one. Then I felt it is my idea and it is different to other people's. I thought it up myself. I didn't follow them," Phe remembers.

But what good is a picture of three palm trees if there is no one to buy it?

Daravuth admits the main market for his liberated acolytes is abroad. "What I try to do is give them opportunities (to go overseas)," he said. And hence his work with The Japan Foundation and TWS. In the past Daravuth has also taken Phe to the United States and Shanghai to participate in exhibitions.

When they return to Phnom Penh at the end of August, Phe is likely to resume his work as a motor scooter taxi driver and Peou will continue his studies in computer science. "I want to do art, but I need money to do that, and there are lots of jobs using computers now," he says.

Phe says that the lessons of palm tree-drawing can be applied to any task he sets himself in Cambodia, and to the country on a whole.

"Cambodians must be contemporary, must express themselves," he says. "It can help Cambodian development, too. If everyone is the same, then I watch you and I copy you. But that is not development. If everyone makes the same palm tree every time, there is no development."

Phe Sophon, Peou Sam-an and several other current artists-in-residence will hold an open studio at TWS Aoyama from 2 p.m. till 6 p.m. Saturday July 18; admission free; for more information, visit www.tokyo-ws.org/


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