In circus, street art, photography and architecture, the ancient Khmer capital is rediscovering its artistic mojo.
Angkor was once the capital of a mighty empire, the cradle of art and culture for an entire region. The fabulous temple at its heart is inscribed with the stories of its greatness. Here, in thousands of carvings and statues and bas-reliefs, in a frenzy of creation, the artists of Angkor recorded all the adventures of their gods, their kings and themselves.
Then some terrible tragedy befell the city. Its million inhabitants fled, and for 800 years Angkor reclined into the jungle, its generative force spent.
Now, suddenly, Angkor’s creative vigour is surging back as the city on its fringes leaps to the forefront of Southeast Asia’s booming art scene. An extraordinary proliferation of contemporary arts is afoot in once-sleepy Siem Reap, encouraged by, and encouraging, the town’s emergence as a luxury travel destination.
Siem Reap now boasts a resident avant-garde circus in the contemporary style of Cirque du Soleil. Street art by some of the world’s biggest names graces urban walls alongside the works of up-and-coming local talent. Today you can take photographic tours led by internationally acclaimed Cambodian photographers. And as travellers relax at the end of the day, they can do so by enjoying cutting-edge modern-Khmer or colonial-revival architecture at some of the region’s plushest new hotels.
This remarkable artistic renaissance is distinctly modern in flavour, and yet Angkor Wat remains its source, in ways both obvious and subtle. It’s not hard to see how increasingly sophisticated and well-heeled guests drawn to Angkor by Siem Reap’s new constellation of top-end hotels – like the FCC Angkor at the former colonial governor’s mansion, the new Anantara and Phum Baitang – have commensurately sophisticated tastes. And this sets up a reciprocal dynamic where luxury travel spurs and is spurred by the upsurge in Siem Reap’s artistic and cultural offerings.
But it is hard to shake the sense that the fantastic monument smouldering in the jungle is nourishing this creative outpouring on more subliminal levels. Angkor’s massive concentration of artistic accomplishment seems to exert an occult gravity of its own, drawing artists to the site, and drawing the art out of artists.
That is what happened when street artist Fin DAC came to Siem Reap at the invitation of TRIBE urban art gallery to promote and inspire the work of the region’s young artists. “When he got here he just wanted to paint,” said TRIBE’s co-owner Terry Mcilkenny. “So we found him a wall on the side of the gallery and he picked up his brushes and set to.” Now visitors wandering Siem Reap’s Kandal Village may turn randomly down a narrow alley and encounter Kandalis, a mysterious masked Khmer goddess created by one of the world’s leading talents.
Fin originally came to Siem Reap to paint a mural above the entrance of the school at Battambang, the only art school in Cambodia where all the students are supported by scholarships. Prints of that work, the steely protectress Anapyabal, sold out in three minutes when they were auctioned in Paris. Fin donated the entire proceeds of more than USD40,000 back to the school.
Fin DAC’s not the only big name to turn up in Siem Reap; Carne Griffiths, who recently painted the former Kate Middleton’s portrait, came to Cambodia at TRIBE’s invitation to instruct art students on painting with tea, coffee and whiskey, and Pure Evil – aka Charles Uzzell-Edwards – taught them screen printing.
“Young Cambodians are natural dreamers,” says Terry. Many want to express themselves through art, but don’t think they can do it as a job. When they see people like Fin and Carne – they’re living proof that you can make a living out of it.”
Siem Reap’s artistic revival is especially poignant because of the horrors of Cambodia’s recent history. The Khmer Rouge regime of the late 20th century targeted artists as a class and murdered any they could find. There are, as a consequence, no previous generations of artists to look up to and emulate. For the same reasons, the need to tell the often difficult stories of modern Cambodian experience is very keenly felt.
This is part of what makes a trip to Phare Circus so compelling. “These are absolutely authentically Cambodian productions on real Cambodian themes,” says Phare’s Craig Dodge. “The performers choose the subjects, write the scripts, design the sets and compose the music.” The Phare show Sawasdee saw was an unforgettable dramatic and acrobatic experience – and a highly emotional one – about overcoming the stigma of disability in a country which has the highest per capita number of mine amputees in the world. The performance was so joyous and exuberant that the audience were won over in the first minute and kept riveted in their seats until the final note.
If Siem Reap’s artistic renaissance is about young Cambodians telling their stories, then photographer Kak “Phirom” Sokphirom is a perfect exemplar. Born in a refugee camp with 10 siblings and an absentee father, Phirom did every job he could find until, after years of struggle, he saved enough to buy a tuk-tuk. He thought this would be his career until someone gave him a camera to play with. “Looking at an image on the screen – an image I’d made – made me so happy!” Sokphirom had found his passion, but it wasn’t until he met other artists and gallery owners that he started to believe it could be his job. “Terry gave me confidence to make this my work,” he said. Now Sokphirom’s candid portrayals of Cambodian life in the 21st century have been featured in overseas magazines and international photography exhibitions. His tuk-tuk is still in service, but these days mostly for photographic tours.
Sokphirom’s new career highlights some of the virtuous circles between artists and tourists that power Siem Reap’s artistic renaissance. And he sees no difference between the pictures visitors want to take of the famous temple and his own artistic interests. For him, they are all ways of telling the stories of Angkor.