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Svay Sareth, The Traffic Circle.   At SA SA BASSAC, opens 16 June 2012

Originally published in Art Monthly Australia, Issue 249, June 2012

To ask ‘do you have a pipe?’ in the Cambodian language of Khmer is to ask for a connection to the ruling government: its money and its might. In a society infamous for endemic corruption (and rated the third-most corrupt nation in Asia by the NGO Transparency International), this question is of all-pervasive importance.

Svay Sareth’s monumental installation is a mess of blue plastic pipes and salvaged wood, a grotesquely imposing presence in Phnom Penh’s only ‘white cube’ contemporary art space. The pipes are the kind that channel water and sewage, and will be instantly familiar to anyone in Cambodia or elsewhere in developing Southeast Asia. Snaking in and out of a pyramid-shaped tower almost three metres in height, the pipes read as a wry indictment of the arrogance of an oligarchy in which all authority is concentrated at the top. By inviting visitors to amble around and around this object, the artist mimics the veneration demanded by the crooked cult of power.

In a large digital print alongside the installation, Svay has superimposed his ‘monument’ to corruption over an image of the grand Cambodian Independence Monument, erected in the 1950s to commemorate liberation from French colonial rule. In Phnom Penh today, this architectural gem (designed by the Le Corbusier-trained Vann Molyvann) remains a defining landmark – rivalled only by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s turgidly towering private residence, which overlooks it. In the evenings, the city’s residents stroll around the monument and adjoining Hun Sen Park under the watchful gaze of the Prime Ministerial guards; Svay’s installation is raised three steps above the gallery floor and invites a similar circumnavigation. Although gallery visitors won’t be under surveillance, their presence at this daringly pointed exhibition may feel risky. While legally permitted, open dissent is not often tolerated. If asked, the artist is likely to claim that this cunningly careful show is simply an experiment in improvised form and Photoshop.

Born near Battambang in 1972 and raised in refugee camps until age 19, Svay’s practice has until now centred on the lasting effects of war, in a series of durational performances presented in France and Cambodia. With The Traffic Circle, the artist bravely shifts his attention to the present. The exhibition will be accompanied by a colour catalogue and artist’s talk.

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