A staff member of Psar Kap Ko taking a photo of PINAREE SANPITAK’s Breast Stupa Cookery: Prahok/Plaa Raa (2014), Phnom Penh, 2014. Photo by Sok Chanrado.

Nov 21 2014

Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared: Contemporary Art in Bangkok and Phnom Penh

by Vera Mey

An artist’s national affiliation still seems to reign as the dominant framework in understanding and contextualizing their practice, particularly within Southeast Asia. Although the region is amidst the process of understanding itself through this definition, there are attempts to intervene with this straightforward nation-based approach, which can be seen as an act of institutional critique—and one that is happening whilst institutional structures are still being developed within the region.

Taking a revisionist cue from art historian John Clark’s 2010 book Asian Modernities: Chinese and Thai Art Compared, 1980 to 1999—one of the first attempts at making two interesting but arbitrary points of comparison—“Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared: Contemporary Art in Bangkok and Phnom Penh,” curated by Phnom Penh-based Roger Nelson and Brian Curtin from Bangkok, sticks more closely to geographic proximity rather than distance. Phnom Penh and Bangkok are both capital cities of Southeast Asian constitutional monarchies and were each once colloquially recognized as “the pearl of Asia.” Perhaps this is the most direct point of comparison between the two areas and what led to the art symposiums that were held in each city: one on contemporary art from Bangkok, which took place in Phnom Penh, and the other on art from Phnom Penh, which happened in Bangkok. Even the language for each city, although sharing some similarities, bears a major difference, as evidenced at the symposium in Phnom Penh, where some aspects of the conversations were lost in translation between Thai to Khmer to English.

Instead of a singular monographic voice, “Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared” allows for multiple views and formats in which to understand the formation of contemporary art in Bangkok and Phnom Penh. The six-month-long project includes events, residencies, symposia and exhibitions and publication releases, held between the two cities. Instead of a merely reflective approach, there was a sense of history and an understanding of cultural exchange, a momentary contemplation of the contemporary, rather than a definitive statement of how things are, were and will be. This manifested itself most clearly through the first project of “Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared,” by artist Pinaree Sanpitak, who presented an iteration of her “Breast Stupa Cookery” project (2005– ) in famed Phnom Penh eatery Psar Kap Ko. Her iconic work of breast-shaped “stupas” were adapted into aluminum cooking molds and used to make a local fish-paste delicacy called prahok. The abundance and generosity of the feast were prosperous and foretelling of the conversational exchange that would later unfold under “Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared”—not only through the symposiums but also the residencies and exhibitions across Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Beyond Sanpitak’s new project, there has also been a presentation by Thai artist Orawan Arunak, of an earlier performance work that she created in art school in 2007, which shows an interesting generational interchange. An absence of performance art in her education led her to take on the streets of Bangkok in a humorous, oversized breast costume—an act of questioning the body and the public self born a generation after Sanpitak’s emergence.

Curator Roger Nelson’s lecture from “Contemporary Art in Phnom Penh: Some Divergent Views,” at the Reading Room, Bangkok, in October 2014. Photo by Orawan Arunrak.

This kind of lateral exchange between cities seems to mark an increased interest for Southeast Asia within the region itself, and looks at a more obvious point of comparison (and a less politically dubious approach) than generalizing all of its affiliated nations as a whole. Perhaps this exchange also demonstrates an increased intrigue and mobility for the emerging contemporaneity in the different nations within the region, as well as similar contexts of rising touristic attention and developmental opportunism despite politically precarious situations.

“Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared” took place amid threats of demolition being made to the iconic White Building district in Phnom Penh. This incident is a point of focus for artists Lim Sokchanlina and Srey Pansanga, who present two different approaches to preserving this cultural legacy: the former through Sa Sa Art Projects, an art space, archive and community embedded within the White Building; and the latter through Phnom Penh Visions, an urban project that aims to reimagine the city while preserving its architectural heritage. Meanwhile, in Bangkok, comprehensive overviews of contemporary Thai art, curated by Gridthiya Gaweewong and Brian Curtin, tackled the issue of the country’s military coup and changing political hands. Works of various artists were presented, including the photographic practice of Tada Hengsapkul, which feature subjects edging on social taboo. In both cities, there was a mutual attraction among artists toward photography as a subjective documenter as well as a narrative tool.

This interest in the photographic medium was also evident in the work of Amy Lee Sanford (a Cambodian-American artist based between the United States and Phnom Penh), which includes documentation of Full Circle, her performance of breaking and reassembling ceramic pots—an act of destruction and reparation as a memorial gesture. Similarly, artist Tith Kanitha also actively destroys domestic items as part of her practice, but as an act of resisting traditional gender roles and expectations. The symbolic, as well as cultural, references in these objects allows for a specific language to be expressed that often gets missed in global conversations.

The city as the contextual basis for “Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared” never escaped the impetus of the project, with attention drawn to the dynamics of each respective location in shaping artistic practices—from modes of restriction and censorship to the political realities of being an artist in each place, and what role or responsibilities this may entail. The Phnom Penh symposium was held at the Bophana Centre, an audiovisual archive established by filmmaker Rithy Pahn to salvage the cultural heritage of Cambodia, and in Bangkok the organizers utilized The Reading Room, a creative space embedded in the city’s active and varied independent art scene.

Instead of a country-based approach, “Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared” cleverly dissects regionalism through a more natural comparison between different urban conditions. In the artists’ practices profiled at both symposiums, it was evident how much urban development and specific city regulations shape the way in which the current generation of artists are working within their respective cities. This lateral exchange showed the impossibility of comparing two very close but very different contexts, as well as how productive this lateralism is for the development of conversations that do not get tied into national essentialism and aesthetics.

Assertively going against the straightforward act of comparing—“this is the same as that, this is different than that”—and reveling in the differences between the two, the productive comparison showed how we can create an alternative point of dialogue beyond the Western contemporary-art lingua franca and references, by looking more closely at our near yet foreign neighbors.

KANITHA TITH presenting her work as part of “Contemporary Art in Phnom Penh: Some Divergent Views” at the Reading Room, Bangkok, in October 2014. Photo by Orawan Arunrak.

Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared: Contemporary Art in Bangkok and Phnom Penh” is a series of events, exhibitions, residencies, symposia and publications that began in July 2014 and continues until January 2015. The latest exhibition will open at Bangkok’s H Gallery on December 4, 2014.