PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — There's a room in Phnom Penh the place the myths of Cambodia’s modernization come into a wierd, intimate focus. Grand narratives from the 1950s and ’60s of progress, modernity, and nationalism have been solid along with a monumental quantity of labor and cement. Nevertheless, this tucked-away set up, Albert Samreth’s new exhibition New Khmer Architecture at SA SA BASSAC, reminds us simply how completely structure and design can stay empty vessels.
The ruling regime of 1955 to ’70, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (that means “Folks’s Socialist Group”), got down to assemble lately impartial Cambodia as “authentically” Khmer, but additionally legibly trendy. Maybe essentially the most legible consequence of their efforts are iconic buildings just like the Olympic Stadium, White Building, Preah Suramarit National Theater, and Chaktomuk Convention Corridor, to call a couple of of essentially the most well-known. These constructions have come to be known as New Khmer Architecture (NKA), which mix modernist parts with conventional Khmer designs and types.
Now, reminiscences of that period and of these buildings, nonetheless standing or not, have change into largely hallucinatory. Many couldn't survive the tough realities of time and politics; half of the buildings listed above at the moment are gone. Corruption, poverty, poor planning, and battle have left many of the constructions crumbling, but their legacies proceed, albeit not as initially supposed.
The exhibition, made into a modern and trendy lounge, begins to select on the edges of this historical past. NKA was modernist structure with out modernization; the buildings hinted on the Angkorian empire, but it surely was centuries gone. These oppositions are most clearly embodied by “Reminiscence Object ” (2017), an ungainly cement dice, with options of design parts from the villas round Phnom Penh. The high quality of the item is such that we're uncertain whether it is being torn aside or repaired — whether or not it’s a remnant or a mannequin to be constructed from. It is a lingering feeling all through town.
However Samreth delves far past surfaces, asking us what failed: structure or society? The buildings, or the individuals inside them? As NKA tried to assemble a neat lineage bridging the gaps between a proud, historic historical past and a hopeful future, what failed was not type. Cambodia remained caught between wars, corruption, and poverty, but additionally violent nationalism coupled with an obsession for a previous lengthy gone. In Samreth’s set up, these grand narratives collapse and change into rightsized. Right here we will have a look at the legacies just a little extra clearly.
The New Khmer Architecture turns into a way to discover reminiscence, particularly of Phnom Penh. The exhibition privileges the attitude of objects — which have skilled, endured, and carried the passing of time — and calls into query the instruments we use to recollect and doc. Within the video “One Lightyear on Earth” (2017) we discover Samreth wandering town, trying to find Phnom Penh’s id, however discovering nothing however confused reminiscences leaning into the current, tangled with ghosts. In “Supplies for Archive” (2017), Samreth has replicated a shelf from the Nationwide Archive, with fluorescent tubes rising vegetation taken from the White Constructing proper earlier than its demolition. The paperwork are gone, the shelf is the archive, preserving solely overgrowth from the White Constructing, which had been evolving into one thing else solely. As “One Lightyear on Earth” says, “in Cambodia nature is at all times making its approach in.”
The materials witness is explored once more within the mesmerizing “Portrait (Bodhi Tree, Olympic Stadium)” (2017), the place Samreth rigorously photographed a Bodhi Tree (below which Buddha is alleged to have achieved enlightenment) on the Olympic Stadium. Samreth meticulously recreated the tree within the gallery. The result's uncanny. The picture turns into the factor itself, however not fairly. Equally, the Olympic Stadium was hurriedly constructed to host the 1963 Southeast Asian Peninsular Video games, which by no means occurred. Regardless of the noble title, nothing olympic has ever occurred there.
Equally, “Imaginative and prescient A Actuality (Wat Ounalom)” (2017) — visually essentially the most stunning piece within the present — is a reproduction of a window grate from close by Wat Ounalom, which homes an archive Samreth used to frequent. The clean, acrylic sculpture glows blue with hidden LEDs, revealing an afterimage of the unique design. The piece is completely complemented by the gallery’s window grates, that are themselves copies of a villa designed by Vann Molyvann, the starchitect of NKA.
Regardless of the civil battle, and the pressured emptying of cities to extend labor within the fields, Phnom Penh has by no means died. As with the rivers that first outlined town as a commerce hub, Phnom Penh has at all times been a negotiated website in fixed flux. Complicated histories intersect right here, from numerous empires, colonialists, trades, and influences. Samreth asks us to not settle for the floor-degree tales and to not be wooed by the legends. As an alternative, he asks us to look.
Albert Samreth’sNew Khmer Architecture continues at SA SA BASSAC (No. 18E2, Sothearos, St. three, 12206 Phnom Penh, Samdach Sothearos Blvd three, Phnom Penh, Cambodia) via December 9.
The creator of this piece labored in public programming at SA SA BASSAC from 2016 to March 2017.