Cambodia is slowly sinking under the weight of its own rubbish, and it isn’t hard to see the evidence on the streets. Apart from several areas that are lucky enough to have daily rubbish collection, piles of trash – often as high as an adult’s chin – can still be seen. And the amount of waste will only continue to increase as Phnom Penh’s urban population continues to increase. With this increase comes a domino effect that is more often than not, so geographically far removed, that many do not even bother to think so far ahead.
According to the Asia Foundation’s report released in 2016, Cambodia’s landfills are filling up at a much faster rate than previously projected, with new plans already in the making for a new site should the Cheoung Ek one exceed its capacity before its planned decommissioning in 2031.
Yet, it seems the country’s general population is still neck-deep in its addiction to the use of non-biodegradable material in every facet of their lives. From takeaway containers, plastic wrappers and water bottles, it is ever-present. For as long as the monopoly on waste management remains unchallenged, the only way to help stem the increasing environmental damage caused by the use of plastic has to come from each individual.
This, is where ‘Afloat’, an exhibition brought together by curator Christine Ege and artist Deborah Lavot, comes into the equation.
“The idea extends beyond mere rubbish. What we are trying to do is to make people see what is going on in the sea,” said Lavot, the co-curator of the exhibition.
“We often drink a cup of coffee and we don’t think about where this plastic cup is going to end up, and this is what we are trying to convey.
“There are things at sea that we don’t often see – involuntary human migration, for example,” continued Lavot, gesturing to a nearby exhibit.
“Less attention is being paid to those souls who are lost at sea in their effort to seek a better life.
“Operation Mare Nostrum [in the Mediterranean Sea] comes to mind – thousands are still at risk of drowning at sea, and many have forgotten about that.”
Ege added that since there are no constraints set apart from the theme, participants are free to explore and present their own interpretation of the concept.
“We wanted to give each individual artist here the ability to express their feelings and emotions about what’s happening in the way they wanted to do it,” she said.
“Furthermore, we wanted to break free from the ‘disease’ that often plagues exhibitions in Phnom Penh,” continued Ege.
“When [viewers] are given limited options, they would probably stay for five minutes as they have no real connection with the art form.
“Here, they are free to enjoy the different mediums that all exhibition participants have chosen, which allows people to explore and talk in a more open and sociable setting.”
Indeed, ‘Afloat’ is unique in that the various art forms exhibited are designed to facilitate audience discussion and re-examining of human relationships with the sea.
Cambodian Chi Phuoy, for example, chose photography as his medium. In his installation, ‘Breath’, he wants to the audience to re-examine by photographing his subjects all wrapped in plastic – intended to ‘humanise’ the suffering of animals who are often trapped in plastic waste that makes its way to the sea.
To accentuate the overall sense of despair and entrapment, Chi’s triptych is set against a backdrop of fishing nets.
“The heavy use of shadows and contrast is aimed to convey my interpretation of the theme. I wanted to show the dark side of our over-dependence on plastic,” he said.
Lavot, who also participated in the exhibition, used sculpture as her medium. Shaped in the form of a plastic octopus, her piece, ‘Tribute to Costi’ is exhibited above the pond – where DJ Ma Lo from the Thuong Bass Cahoots entertained guests with his own interpretation of being ‘Afloat’.
“The octopus sculpture is a symbol, my interpretation of how pervasive the use plastic is in urban areas,” she explained.
Whereas the opening can be hailed a success, there was one crucial element that was missing from the exhibition. It seems, like many other cause-related exhibitions and events that are held in Phnom Penh, expatriates dominated the scene. Despite the seeming gap in interest among locals and expatriates, to Ege and Lavot, things are moving on the right direction, and awareness among young Cambodians is on the rise.
“Did you see the tuk-tuk at the front that’s made entirely out of plastic? That is my students’ own initiative,” said Lavot, who is also a design lecturer at Limkokwing University.
“The more we can involve students along with more established artists, the more we can get the discussion going, and this is where change begins.”
Ege concurred with Lavot and added that these events would inspire more Cambodian artists in the future to use the art form that they’re passionate about to create change in society, reflecting their vision of what the future of Cambodia will be.
“They can use their talents and their passion to convey their message – not a mere expression of who they are are as an artist, but also what they value and believe in,” she said.
‘Afloat’ will be held at the Lotus Pond at Plantation Urban Resort and Spa, Phnom Penh, where various works including paintings by Chhan Dina, installations by Chi Phuoy, Deborah Lavot, Jen Holligan and Gem Habito will be exhibited throughout December.