Field of Dreams: Meta Moeng at Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Meta Meong and Kon Len Khnhom, and Erin Gleeson and SA SA BASSAC in Phnom Penh
When the word “dream” is spoken in well-established art systems, it is almost always rhetoric. Conversely, in countries where a contemporary art system is yet to be built (or re-built), the word suddenly becomes alive and bright with meaning. Art operators in new contemporary art scenes might face many difficulties, but the invaluable advantage they possess is the tangible perception that what they are doing really matters. There, art is not an individual pursuit: it is linked with the growth of an entire society.
Since the 1980s, the cultural spirit of Phnom Penh has been slowly making its comeback into the capital after the bloody repression of the Khmer Rouge regime and forty years of war. While spaces like the French Cultural Center (now French Institute), New Art Gallery, Reyum Institute of Art and Culture, and Java Café have pioneered the contemporary art rebirth, new spaces are springing up. The new kid on the block is called Kon Len Khnhom, which translates as “my place”.
“It was important to have a name for the art space in the Khmer language, because I wanted the locals to really feel it was their place,” explains Meta Moeng, founder of the space. “I’m catering not only to the art community, but also to the non-art people. I want to increase access to Cambodian arts and culture and build a network here in Phnom Penh.”
Meong explains that in Cambodia most people know little about local contemporary visual art, although there are a few artists, which are established internationally. “We don’t have art programmes in schools and the government is not really interested in promoting the art scene. We need education to be more focused on public programmes. We have to become part of the solution ourselves, to try to engage people who are not necessarily part of the art world and might be intimidated. We can’t complain. With Kon Len Khnhom, I set out to work mostly with art institutions, art independent projects and students.”
Audience building is a serious commitment for Meong, whose training is in management: “Perhaps this makes the way that I see things a bit different. Art was something that was never encouraged in my family; all I had to do was to go to study.” In 2013, she was awarded a place on the Creative Leaders Programme, a competitive personal development program for arts managers offered by the arts organization Cambodian Living Arts. That brought her closer to the arts, and she then became a co-founding member of the Cambodian Arts Network (CAN): “I was really amazed to see the passion and love artists pour into their work, overcoming every struggle and leading a life that is so different from the rest of society. I enjoyed their intellectual speculations and just spending time with them.” After meeting Erin Gleeson, a Phnom Penh-based curator and artistic director of SA SA BASSAC, she started working at this independent art space, becoming the Community Projects Manager.
Meong decided to open up her own space in February 2017 almost by chance. Initially, she was looking for a quiet space for herself in the city, to meet with clients and do her freelance work as a consultant and artist’s assistant, for she is currently studio manager to the internationally acclaimed Cambodian visual artist, Sopheap Pich. A friend offered her a house for rent: a two-storey traditional wooden Khmer house tucked in a silent alleyway near Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
“When I got there, I had no doubt. This was not simply a house, it was my dream,” she explains. Discarding the idea of a private studio, she started envisioning a space where the artistic community could gather. She immediately planned to use the space for art talks as opposed to exhibitions, as well as conjuring up a residency space devoted to students, researchers and curators: “I didn’t want to offer artist’s residencies, because we had Sa Sa Art Projects already and they were doing a great job,” notes Meong. “In order to contribute to the art scene, we need to do something different. I think the goal is to create and be part of a network.”
Gleeson is on the same page. “We are a small scene, and I believe the distinction of our different programmes should be seen as complements to one another and a broad range of artistic practice,” she explains. “I’m thrilled and excited for Meong and her new initiative Kon Len Khnhom, which has immediately become integrated as a warm and welcoming space for artists and audiences in Phnom Penh. Her passion is bringing people together.”
A native of Minneapolis, Gleeson first came to Cambodia as an artist with a grant from the Human Rights Centre at the University of Minnesota Law School. Her proposal was to be in Cambodia to research creative methodologies in human rights education and to extend her Art History honours thesis research on histories of photographic archives associated with genocide.
She then visited Cambodia again to pursue further research and interview Nhem En, a photographer at the prison S-21, and S-21 survivor and artist Vann Nath, as well as the painter Svay Ken and scholars Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan. “Meetings like these were highly moving and inspiring.” During that period, she was invited to teach an elective art history course at Pannasastra University, the first private liberal arts university in Phnom Penh, where she shaped a course in art history that would be meaningful in the Cambodian context: “I learned with my students as we entered studios, listened to artists and attended exhibitions happening at that time.”
Over the years, she became friends with Vandy Rattana, a leading artist and founder of Stiev Selepak art collective. Here the word “dream” comes into the picture again. “From there we started dreaming of a lot of things, including a space of our own.” That is how SA SA BASSAC was born: from the merging of Erin’s curatorial platform BASSAC Art Projects and Stiev Selepak’s Sa Sa Art Gallery.
Rattana once told Gleeson something that often comes back to her: “It becomes hard to think when we are forced to look down constantly so we don’t trip.” “He was referring to the sidewalks of Phnom Penh, literally and metaphorically,” recalls Erin. “He implied that, at that time, that their unevenness and obstruction was deliberately kept that way.”
Perhaps this is a suitable metaphor for the arts, in which most are operating largely without a local support structure or any semblance of an official cultural industry. Without government funding or established companies for the likes of art handling or PR in the arts, “we remain “D.I.Y.” says Gleeson. “It’s challenging, of course, but it also breeds the art that is made, some of which profoundly inspires.”
The programme of SA SA BASSAC is designed to fuel the local art environment, while connecting Cambodian artists to regional and international art networks: “SA SA BASSAC is based in Phnom Penh, but not isolated there. We were founded in 2011 with a focus on emerging Cambodian artists. These early exhibitions, complemented by our public programs, extended through informal networks regionally and internationally, leading to artistic, curatorial and institutional collaborations.” The many initiatives include a residency programme called FIELDS, which is programmed every three years by Gleeson and a co-curator and brings people together from different countries to exchange in different areas around Cambodia. SA SA BASSAC also dedicates a level of its space to its reading room and archive, which Gleeson notes “is primarily of use to artists, and is of growing use to the growing amount of students, scholars and curators engaging in Southeast Asia and Cambodia.”
In terms of the impact on the local cultural environment, Meong is open to the unpredictable: “Kon Len Khnhom is an experimental platform for me. If you ask me what it will be in the future, I don’t really know. I feel like I’m experimenting with the space, with the students, so we can mutually grow. We currently have students-in-residence from The Royal University of Fine Arts from April to August 2017 and research team-in-residence from Roung Kon Project, an independent research team from May-October, 2017. And I’m also interested in communicating with the wider art world and other fields, such as architecture. Above all, I want people to come here to do research and bring friends along.”
Thinking back to the sidewalk metaphor, Gleeson has nothing but appreciation for working in the so-called margins of the art world: close to art and its conditions, on a small scale, in close relation with one another. But at the same time, she says, ”It is welcome when continued growth in the field cultivates access to more sidewalks on which we can think together while walking.”
More information at konlenkhnhom.com and sasabassac.com.
This article is the third installment of the four-part ‘More Life’ series covering visionary — and determined — individuals who are breathing life into the art scenes in Southeast Asian capitals. It was written by Naima Morelli for Art Republik.