Cambodia – During a slow-moving ride through traffic in a tuk-tuk—a motorcycle taxi with an attached open cart for passengers—one has ample opportunity to survey the bland and decorative public art of Cambodia’s cities. It’s the kind of art that can be seen in most cities anywhere on the globe. Cambodia’s tends toward realistic and easy-to-read images of animals or humans. Some pieces are religious in nature, and others are similar to the Communist-era propaganda art seen in China and other parts of the former Soviet bloc.

But Cambodia, perhaps best known to tourists as the place to explore the ancient Khmer temples of Angkor Wat, is also an up-and-coming land of burgeoning contemporary art. Much of it has a connection to social work—rehabilitating street youth, helping underprivileged kids, and ameliorating results of the Khmer Rouge era, exemplified in the horrors of the “killing fields.” For example, the art projects and gallery at the Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap, a smaller gateway city for the Angkor Wat temples, provide young Cambodian artists opportunities to exhibit their works and to be employed as art teachers and mentors for disadvantaged youth and victims of land mines. Phare Ponleu Selpak, a famous art school in Battambang Province, trains street kids in performing and visual arts.

I found during my January 2012 trip to this developing country that exciting and innovative public art projects are also happening there in spite of the country’s troubled political past, recurring natural disasters, chronically poor economy, government corruption, and general lack of a market for contemporary art. In fact, many recent public art projects address the nation’s challenges directly.


Environmental Concerns

Conceived as an environmental awareness campaign to bring attention to the problems of plastic waste and to promote recycling, The Rubbish Project was started by artists Seckon Leang and Fleur Smith in 2006. This multimedia initiative, which was launched in Siem Reap and recently did work in Japan, involves the artists working with communities and volunteers to do large-scale public art productions created from garbage.

For World Water Day in 2008, The Rubbish Project created a monumental public sculpture called Naga, or great serpent, which is 255 meters long and 1.8 meters in diameter. Volunteers spent eight days hand-tying together its rattan “bones,” obtained from the World Wildlife Federation’s Sustainable Rattan Harvesting Project, with 10 kilometers of nylon and covering them in more than 100,000 hand-cut pieces of recycled plastic. Intended to bring attention to the need to keep waterways clean and use less plastic, Naga was installed and exhibited for over a month in the Siem Reap River and it will travel to Nepal for the Kathmandu International Art Festival, which opens November 25, 2012. The Rubbish Project also held fashion shows recently, featuring garments made from recycled plastic and other waste materials.

Jane Ingram Allen is an independent artist, curator, and arts writer. After eight years living in Taiwan and traveling throughout Asia, she is now based in the San Francisco Bay Area.