PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In Phnom Penh, cars drive like motorcycles, motorcycles drive between lanes and on sidewalks, and even the police don’t seem to care much about traffic lights. The apt and often-used term to describe the city’s traffic is the slang oral-only version of “រញ៉េរញ៉ៃ” (pronounced “nyeay nyeye”), which means messy or disorganized. This disorder leads to congestion, delays, and death. An ability to bribe your way out of anything and a lax attitude for drinking and driving compounds these issues significantly. Phnom Penh-based artist Meas Sokhorn wanted to confront this problem, one that all too many seem to be comfortable passively accepting.
When you first encounter Sokhorn’s installation Lane (2016) at the Asia Foundation’s Community Art Gallery in central Phnom Penh, you sense that nyeay nyeye. The main feature of the installation is a jumbled mass of tubes, painted entirely green, that represents the deadly “always go” attitude of city drivers. Stepping back, the form’s twisted contours become suggestive of a motorcycle or a handlebar. In the cup holder we find a glass filled with beer caps. The rearview mirror is a broken TV, face-down on the ground, useless.
Creeping along the floor and up the walls is an imaginary roadmap of Sokhorn’s design. Created entirely of newspaper clippings covering drunk driving accidents and deaths as well as alcohol advertising in Cambodia, the installations’ fictions collide with the harsh visceral realities.
Sokhorn graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh (the only true, fully accredited arts college in Cambodia) in 2004. While he studied interior design, and still does design work on the side, his passion and time has been increasingly focused on contemporary sculptures and installation art, especially using found materials.
As the show’s brochure says, the Community Art Gallery’s mission is to “provoke and sustain conversations about a rapidly changing Phnom Penh.” Lane presents for us a city in disrepair, possibly increasingly so. In recently post-colonial Cambodia, King Sihanouk invested heavily in urban planning, personally working with architects like Lu Ban Hap and Vann Molyvann to create a beautiful and organized city. This work led to Phnom Penh, which was already known as the Pearl of Asia and famously inspired Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, to say, “I hope, one day, my city will look like this.” Much has changed.
Now, rapid redevelopment is causing congestion and flooding. High-rises and casinos go up with little care to everyday people. Reflecting on this hodgepodge development with me at the gallery, Sokhorn suggested that the city has become “like a moving slum.” However his critique extends beyond Phnom Penh. As we see in the handlebar grips of the installation, there are 25 pipes running through the sculpture, showing that the problem spans nationwide, throughout all 25 provinces.
This is not the first exhibition confronting the issue. In 2012 at Java Gallery, Reaksmey Yean curated Cho (ចរ), which means “go,” referencing driving attitudes in Cambodia. The work dealt with the dangers of traffic in Cambodia, and featured art from the members of art collective Trotchaek Pneik (ត្រជាក់ភ្នែក) (which literally means “cold eyes” and is slang for something that is good looking).
A year later Yean curated another exhibition for Java Gallery, The New Age: Until Now, an exhibition that included similar themes, notably an installation by Sokhorn titled, “H.E. Drink and Drive” (2013). Just a few months before the opening of that exhibition, Kem San, an emerging Battambang painter, died in a motorcycle accident. This certainly shook Battambang’s community of artists, of which Trotchaek Pneik and Yean are an integral part of.
If we look regionally, Sokhorn’s installation forms an interesting dialogue with Vietnamese artist UuDam Tran Nguyen’s work, “Waltz of the Machine Equestrians—The Machine Equestrians,” (2012). Based in Ho Chi Minh City, under 178 miles from Phnom Penh, UuDam’s performance and resultant documentation captures for us the vivid colors, patterns, and the inexplicable emergent forms found in Ho Chi Minh City’s traffic. A profound commentary on rapid neoliberal development within a Communist context, Nguyen’s work captures the dream of finding harmony in a city of harsh juxtapositions. Within the so-called socialist-oriented market economy, skyscrapers are rising quickly for a wealthy elite increasingly disconnected from the majority of lower income residents. A communal spirit and any sense of harmony, real or imagined, is completely absent in Sokhorn’s installation.
Sokhorn instead focuses his critique on the media, drawing on newspaper articles and advertising, and asks the important question: To what degree can our media reflect, but also shape our lives, our cities? It’s a bit of the chicken and the egg dilemma, but I was left believing that the media undoubtedly reshapes society within its image. If true, Lane, is a worrisome reflection on the state of Cambodia’s roads, and also media today, which seems will only continue to exacerbate the problem.
Meas Sokhorn’s Lane continues at the Asia Foundation’s Community Art Gallery (#59, Street 242, Phnom Penh) through August 18.