An old appartment block built during the time of defunct King Sihanouk in the sixties is turning into a centre for art and proves the emergence of the art scene in Phnom Penh.
Between the late fifties and the early seventies, Sankum style was seen as a contemporary modernist reinterpretation of Khmer architecture. Buidligns of this period were characterized by minimalist lines and geometrical elements echoing classical Cambodian architecture. The White Building was part of a string of projects which transformed Phnom Penh into a modern metropolis.
Years of neglect, humidity and a lack of funds give a sorrow ghastly look to the structure today. It became then a squat for poor people. It seems that the dilapidated grey/black building has some 2,500 inhabitants, including some involved into reprehensible business such as drugs-dealing and prostitution becoming part of the life in the dilapidated structure.
But the structure of the building remains attractive, its location is second to none: this is why a new breed of life is coming within its structure as groups of artists are settling in its premises. They are painters to circus performers, comedians or sculptors. 19-year old artist Sok Chanrado was part of the recent exhibition. His contribution was helped by
Snit Snaal – a collaboration between the community’s NGO-run Aziza school, the Sa Sa Arts Project team and film-makers Koam Chanrasmey and Martin Potter. Sa Sa Arts Project is a not-for-profit artist-operated space founded by the Cambodian arts collective Stiev Selapak comprising six artists. They operate together a studio and exhibition space, teaching mixed media – photography, visual arts, installation and drawing – every Sunday to students from inside and outside the building.
As part of the festival, 20 Sa Sa students have exhibited their works. The collection includes photographic observations of everyday life in the building, ethereal and abstract paintings of the Khmer Rouge and installations expressing the community’s fears of eviction. Curator Vuth Lyno explains recently to Cambodian newspapers that given the site’s history it was important to foster a contemporary arts culture within the building.“It was a home of mostly performing artists who worked at the National Theatre and in other cultural departments after the Khmer Rouge... we were told they were called back to mobilise resources and see who had survived”.
Sa Sa Art Projects does this by serving as an experimental venue to accommodate installation art, residencies, special art projects, artist talks, meetings, and art classes. In collaboration with UK-based arts organisation Incidental, Sa Sa Art Projects is now implementing 'The Painted Room' as part of a long-term project called 'New Building'. The ultimate goal of 'New Building' is to allow residents at the building to take lead in designing and implementing art projects of their wish while us taking lesser role as facilitators and supporters.
Under this context, in 2010, Stiev Selapak (a group of six artists) decided to rent a space inside The White Building hoping to revive the spirit of this iconic structure as being community of artist and to engage with the residents there to speak about issues that concern them using art as a medium.
'The Painted Room' will transform the traditionally formal environment of the gallery into an open, collaborative painting and community workshop, constructed from the voice of its residents. At the end, Sa Sa Art Projects space will become a canvas box full of painting/drawing/writing from the residents. 'The Painted Room' will offer unique insights into the personalities, hopes and fears of the living community. In a second phase, Sa Sa Art projects to create “The Sounding Room” will build up an interactive, immersive sound sculpture constructed from familiar elements of traditional Khmer musical instruments. The project will include local residents throughout the process from designing, producing, and performing the instruments.
With the support of Arts Network Asia (ANA), Sa Sa Art Projects (a Cambodian-based experimental art space) and Incidental (a UK-based organisation specialised in participatory and site-specific arts and music) want to engage residents at the Phnom Penh's iconic White Building in an experimental, interactive art experience which is likely to remain unique not only in Cambodia but most probably in the entire Mekong area.
The return of artists is important as many buildings of Van Molyvann projects disappeared or were dramatically altered over the past decade due to uncontrolled urban development. The White Building is effectively the last large structure to have preserved its sixties layout. And a probably future testimony to 21st century art and creativity in Cambodia.