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Cambodian Artists Respond to Phnom Penh’s Rapid Urbanization

Phnom Penh's skyline is fast seeing new skyscrapers, prompting artists to create works commenting on the rapid urbanization in the city.
Phnom Penh's skyline is fast seeing new skyscrapers, prompting artists to create works commenting on the rapid urbanization in the city.

Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, was once known as the “Paris of the East” for its resemblance to the famous European city. During French colonial rule, Phnom Penh boasted spacious villas with French courtyards that were homes and reception venues to both the wealthy French and Khmers.

The mansions and villas are now faded memories of the city's former grandeur before it was left in shambles from the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of these former symbols of sophistication and wealth are now abandoned and waiting to be demolished to make way for skyscrapers.

Skyscrapers are Cambodia's new symbols of prosperity and modernity. While the city skyline is still largely spartan, all that is about to change, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen endorsing the construction of more skyscrapers in the city by Korean and Chinese contractors.

But this push toward a modern city has a cost in lost history, vanishing natural areas and evictions.

To increase the development, the government has recently filled in Boeung Kak Lake, which is located in the heart of the city, and evicted thousands of households living in the surrounding areas.

The ensuing controversy has prompted a movement among Cambodian artists and photographers to respond to the rapid urbanization of Phnom Penh.

Going against the tide, this group is concerned with the rapid urbanization of Phnom Penh and the mass demolition of its colonial-influenced buildings. In response, they have created and exhibited works to comment on the issue.

Erin Gleeson, a curator and researcher who has lived in Cambodia for a decade, said there is a strong pattern among Cambodian artists to document and archive the city's landscape, with the anticipation that it could become unrecognizable in years to come.

“Almost 80% of the local artists in advanced practices are committedly making commentaries on the rapid urbanization of Cambodia. These local artists are responding to the change in their lifestyles, culture and environment and some of them are also expressing their personal experiences as they are also residents near the lake that is now vanished,” she said.

Gleeson added that this movement of artists is not pre-planned, but the works seen so far have turned out to be a cohesive collection that presents a similar view.

“Phnom Penh is a flat city, and has never been a concrete city. But, as it develops, the artists here mourn for the loss of that landscape that they are so used to. It is an irony, as we feel that some things are dying, even though the city is growing,” she said.

Among the artists that have prominent works on the subject include Kim Hak, a photography artist that has exhibited several projects in and out of Cambodia, mainly on people living in and among colonial buildings in Phnom Penh.

“More often than not, a new building or skyscraper is constructed at the expense of existing buildings that have historical and social values, including schools and hospitals. I believe that the colonial buildings should co-exist with the new ones, instead of changing Phnom Penh's landscape entirely,” he said.

Another artist, Khvay Samnang, has worked extensively in producing art works to express his views on the vanishing lakes in Phnom Penh's city centre. He has recently exhibited a series of photographs of himself standing in the middle of the now-gone Boeung Kak lake and pouring earth over his body as the shot was being taken.

“My work is for the people. I use my body to react towards the loss of lakes situated in the heart of the city. I am not trying to change the government's mind about how they should develop this country but rather, I am expressing my experience of this loss and be critical about this issue,” he said.

Khvay said he is not against the government developing the land in Phnom Penh. But, he says it has to be done with proper urban planning. “Filling the lake with earth will result in environmental consequences such as increased floods in Cambodia in future years,” he explained.

Responses to these artists' work have been encouraging. Kim said his photographs of colonial architecture have helped raise awareness of preserving some heritage monuments. “When these photographs are exhibited in Phnom Penh, UNESCO wanted to use some of them as exhibits to discuss with the government on preserving these buildings,” he said.

Gleeson said the local artistic community did not produce art works to quickly change people's minds, but rather to engage with the community. “In their own individual ways, these artists want to be initiators of conversations, and not want to let things pass without saying something,” she said.