Artist Tells Story of Power, Poverty Through Traffic

Meas Sokhorn’s latest exhibition, “Inverted Sewer,” which opens Wednesday night at Java Cafe and Gallery, tells a tale of chaos on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Depictions of motorbikes, traffic police and alcohol bottles tumble haphazardly against backdrops of bright, angry red. Together, the 16 paintings reveal the gravity of Phnom Penh’s traffic problem, which the artist calls a “mobile slum.”

Artist Meas Sokhorn's exhibition 'Inverted Sewer' depicts the chaos of Phnom Penh's traffic and speaks to the power structures in which it is taking place. (Chhin Taing Chhea)
Artist Meas Sokhorn’s exhibition ‘Inverted Sewer’ depicts the chaos of Phnom Penh’s traffic and speaks to the power structures in which it is taking place. (Chhin Taing Chhea)

“Traffic here is so messy and ugly to look at, like a slum,” he said. “The system is broken.”

Mr. Sokhorn, who has lived in the city his entire life, said the total disregard for traffic laws and safety has grown progressively worse in recent years. So he decided to go out on his motorbike, capture what he saw with a mobile-phone camera and create a series of paintings based on those photos.

Amid rapid urban development and government corruption, a self-serving mentality has taken hold of the psyche of Phnom Penh’s population, Mr. Sokhorn said, playing out most dangerously on the road.

“Nobody wants to make sacrifices for the community or for future generations,” he said. “People don’t think what they do today will have an effect tomorrow. They don’t care.”

According to Mr. Sokhorn, the chaos started with drivers of luxury cars and military vehicles using their positions of power to act above the law. Seeing this behavior going unpunished, everyone else followed.

“After one person stops respecting [the law], everyone else becomes infected by their bad example,” he said. “It’s just wrong.”

Dana Langlois, owner and curator of Java, said the city’s traffic problem is reflective of the social structures and power imbalances that allowed it to take root.

“I’ve always said if you want to understand a lot of the problems in Cambodia, just drive down the road,” she said. “Because all the innate problems of ‘every man for himself ’ are very evident in the traffic situation here.”

Mr. Sokhorn sees police corruption as a major driver of anarchy on the city’s roads—a viewpoint that comes across throughout the paintings in “Inverted Sewer.” One piece entitled “Picker” shows a figure in a police uniform staring down a row of motorbikes, grasping dollar bills with a pair of chopsticks.

Illustrations of homeless families, street cleaners and guns are also scattered throughout the paintings, representing the host of social problems that can be seen along the city’s streets.

Mr. Sokhorn said the problem of traffic, like many other problems in the country, ultimately boils down to a lack of cooperation between the government and the people.

This perspective is conveyed most starkly in a painting of a massive truck, with a government license plate, running through a woman with no eyes. A single shoe protrudes from the canvas.

“If you only have one foot, how can you move forward?” he asked.

Mr. Sokhorn says the exhibition isn’t meant to deliver a specific message to its audience. Instead, he hopes to unveil an artistic narrative about life in Phnom Penh that is up for interpretation.

“This is my medium, this is my microphone—my notebook and pen,” he said. “I’m not a writer, but I’m telling a story about what is happening here in Cambodia.”

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