Installation shot of New Khmer Architecture at SA SA BASSAC (image courtesy SA SA BASSAC)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — There is a room in Phnom Penh where the myths of Cambodia’s modernization come into a strange, intimate focus. Grand narratives from the 1950s and ’60s of progress, modernity, and nationalism were forged together with a monumental amount of labor and cement. However, this tucked-away installation, Albert Samreth’s new exhibition New Khmer Architecture at SA SA BASSAC, reminds us just how thoroughly architecture and design can remain empty vessels.

The ruling regime of 1955 to ’70, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (meaning “People’s Socialist Community”), set out to construct recently independent Cambodia as “authentically” Khmer, but also legibly modern. Perhaps the most legible result of their efforts are iconic buildings like the Olympic Stadium, White BuildingPreah Suramarit National Theater, and Chaktomuk Conference Hall, to name a few of the most famous. These structures have come to be referred to as New Khmer Architecture (NKA), which blend modernist elements with traditional Khmer designs and forms.

Albert Samreth, “Memory Object 1” (2017) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Now, memories of that era and of those buildings, still standing or not, have become largely hallucinatory. Many could not survive the harsh realities of time and politics; half of the buildings listed above are now gone. Corruption, poverty, poor planning, and war have left many of the structures crumbling, yet their legacies continue, albeit not as originally intended.

The exhibition, made into a fashionable and modern living room, begins to pick at the edges of this history. NKA was modernist architecture without modernization; the buildings hinted at the Angkorian empire, but it was centuries gone. These oppositions are most clearly embodied by “Memory Object 1” (2017), an awkward cement cube, with suggestions of design elements from the villas around Phnom Penh. The quality of the object is such that we are unsure if it is being torn apart or repaired — whether it’s a remnant or a model to be built from. This is a lingering feeling throughout the city.

Detail of  “Portrait (Bodhi Tree, Olympic Stadium)” (2017) (photo by the author)

But Samreth delves far beyond surfaces, asking us what failed: architecture or society? The buildings, or the people inside them? As NKA attempted to construct a neat lineage bridging the gaps between a proud, ancient history and a hopeful future, what failed was not form. Cambodia remained caught between wars, corruption, and poverty, but also violent nationalism coupled with an obsession for a past long gone. In Samreth’s installation, these grand narratives collapse and become rightsized. Here we can look at the legacies a little more clearly.

The New Khmer Architecture becomes a means to explore memory, especially of Phnom Penh. The exhibition privileges the perspective of objects — which have experienced, endured, and carried the passing of time — and calls into question the tools we use to remember and document. In the video “One Lightyear on Earth” (2017) we find Samreth wandering the city, searching for Phnom Penh’s identity, but finding nothing but confused memories leaning into the present, tangled with ghosts. In “Materials for Archive” (2017), Samreth has replicated a shelf from the National Archive, with fluorescent tubes growing plants taken from the White Building right before its demolition. The documents are gone, the shelf is the archive, preserving only overgrowth from the White Building, which had been evolving into something else entirely. As “One Lightyear on Earth” says, “in Cambodia nature is always making its way in.”

Install view with “Portrait (Bodhi Tree, Olympic Stadium)” (2017) (photo by the author)

The material witness is explored again in the mesmerizing “Portrait (Bodhi Tree, Olympic Stadium)” (2017), where Samreth carefully photographed a Bodhi Tree (under which Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment) at the Olympic Stadium. Samreth meticulously recreated the tree in the gallery. The result is uncanny. The image becomes the thing itself, but not quite. Similarly, the Olympic Stadium was hurriedly built to host the 1963 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, which never occurred. Despite the noble name, nothing olympic has ever occurred there.

“Materials for Archive” (2017) (photo by the author)

Similarly, “Vision A Reality (Wat Ounalom)” (2017) — visually the most beautiful piece in the show — is a replica of a window grate from nearby Wat Ounalom, which houses an archive Samreth used to frequent. The smooth, acrylic sculpture glows blue with hidden LEDs, revealing an afterimage of the original design. The piece is perfectly complemented by the gallery’s window grates, which are themselves copies of a villa designed by Vann Molyvann, the starchitect of NKA.

Detail of “Materials for Archive” (2017) (photo by the author)

Despite the civil war, and the forced emptying of cities to increase labor in the fields, Phnom Penh has never died. As with the rivers that first defined the city as a trade hub, Phnom Penh has always been a negotiated site in constant flux. Complex histories intersect here, from various empires, colonialists, trades, and influences. Samreth asks us to not accept the surface-level stories and to not be wooed by the legends. Instead, he asks us to look.

“Vision A Reality (Wat Ounalom)” (2017) and “What Goes Up (Born Never Asked)” (2017) on the right (photo by the author)

Albert Samreth’s New Khmer Architecture continues at SA SA BASSAC (No. 18E2, Sothearos, St. 3, 12206 Phnom Penh, Samdach Sothearos Blvd 3, Phnom Penh, Cambodia) through December 9.

The author of this piece worked in public programming at SA SA BASSAC from 2016 to March 2017. 

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...