Turn down a side street near the Central Market in Pbnom Penh and you will find Pech Song painting in his storefront studio. Depending on his most recent commission, the studio may be full with standard panoramas of Angkor Wat, repetitively posed apsaras, or idyllic and imaginary landscapes of tropical settings, This is the repertoire of painterly subjects which tourists and expatriate Cambodians have come to support. As Pech Song laughingly explains, he "doesn't have to think much any more " when he paints such oft-repeated themes. Several metre-long canvases depicting identical views of Angkor Wat can be finished within a few days through an assembly-line like procedure in which the same elements in each painting are finished one after the other -first all the towers, then all the grass, then a row of identical suns followed by patches of white highlights.
The placid surfaces of these conventional themes
seem all the more surprising when one considers recent Cambodian history
in general and Pech Song's own history in particular. Born in the
late 1940s, his life has spanned a kaleidoscope of political regimes
and all the tumultuous events that have beset Cambodia over the last
three decades. Through it all, Pech Song has painted, on commission
and on command. Thanks to a recent collaboration with Situations,
a newly established non-profit gallery located across the NationtionaI
Museum in Phnom Penh, the painter has finally found the time and support
necessary for producing a body of work specifically for exhibition.
Five large canvases represent each of the regimes which Pech Song
has lived and worked through. These new paintings are on view at Situations
Pech Song's earliest memories of painting recall the huge posters which filled the facades of movie houses in and around Phnom Penh in the early 1960s. With each new movie, old scenes were literally rinsed out in the Mekong River and vivid new scenes were painted into life on the same huge canvases. After helping these movie painters for several years, Pech Song decided, against his parents' wishes, to enter the painting section of the national art school. Pech Song lived for free in nearby temples and supported himself by playing the guitar in nightclubs after school.
As Pech Song remembers it, life in the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, the political regime of the 1960s, was peaceful and prosperous. The first canvas in his new series of paintings commemorates this memory with a metaphorical image of then Prince Sihanouk working together with villagers to plant crops.
By the early 1970s, Pech Song had become a successful Phnom Penh painter with exhibitions at the Maison de France and contracts for paintings that were then given as gifts by the Lon Nol government. In the second painting of his new series, the increasingly fractured society of the early 1970s is portrayed. Multiple juxtaposed scenes of demonstrations and battles, burning countryside and carousing soldiers end in what Pech Song calls "the results of war" - invalids, orphans and broken sculptures of the Buddha. The concluding image in the painting of this era shows the black-clothed Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh following its 1975 victory.
Like most of the urban population, Pech Song was expelled to the countryside immediately following the Khmer Rouge victory. His memories of this flight organise the third painting in his series. A procession of city inhabitants leaving on foot is depicted behind a foreground swamp in which Khmer Rouge cadres execute soldiers and the sick. Headed towards Siem Reap with the intention of leaving the country via the Thai border, Pech Song was arrested and accused of being a student soldier in Lon Nol's army. He eventually managed to draw the attention of his prison guards by sketching images of victorious Khmer Rouge on the walls of his cell using bits of stolen cooking charcoal.
Because his skills were recognised as useful, Pech Song was released from prison and sent to work as a painter for the regime in Battambang. His duties included making large posters for roadside health campaigns, drawing banners and slogans for meetings and rallies, as well as redrawing the maps of the province to reflect the massive restructuring of the existing agricultural system under Pol Pot's regime of forced labour. "I painted what they told me to paint," he says matter-of-factly. "Sometimes there was a lot of pressure to complete things and we stayed up all night. I did what it took to stay alive."
It was particularly his map-making experiences from the Khmer Rouge era which enabled Pech Song to make a smooth transition to the subsequent Vietnamese-installed regime of Heng Samrin. When these "liberation" forces reached the Western front in 1979, they were using maps dating from the pre Pol Pot days and therefore quickly became lost and vulnerable.
Pech Song's visual memory of the changes Pol Pot had brought made him an invaluable information source for the incoming army. He returned to Phnom Penh to serve in the publicity section of the new government where he produced roadside posters urging productivity, health and support for the war at the border. In addition, he painted many of the official portraits of figures such as Ho Chi Minh, Lenin, and Stalin which hung in ministries and government offices.
The fourth painting in his new series shows the "liberation" of Phnom Penh and the haunting nocturnal return of crowds of displaced people to their former homes. Scenes from the subsequent period of rebuilding follow in a fractured, almost cinematic, style which hints at some of the underlying tensions of the period. With the coming of UNTAC and the post-election transformations, Pech Song has once again re-invented himself to become a painter for the Royal Palace as well as for the tourists who now return to Cambodia.
Given his rich and remarkable personal history, it is surprising indeed to see mostly scenes from ancient Angkorian history and culture in Pech Song's studio. As Pech Song wistfully explains, little of his own past - or of the present reality in which he lives - can creep into the pictures he usually sells. "People don't want to buy paintings about those things," he declares. "Those experiences aren't beautiful. Real life isn't beautiful. People want to buy beautiful paintings so that at least the inside of their houses can look good."
Pointing to the last painting in the five canvases set on exhibition, Pech Song says that feature he wants "to show real reality for once". The life on his street has all the garbage, tangled electric wires, dubious karaoke establishments, and obvious inequities of wealth found in the rapidly developing urban society of Phnom Penh today. "I wanted to make this show," he adds softly, "so that we don't repeat ourselves. So that we can see all these regimes and roads and not follow them again."
A visitor asks him if there shouldn't also be a final sixth painting of the future. Pech Song only smiles and says that if there is to be such a painting, he hopes that it will be "really beautiful".
Situations is located at #47, Street 178 in downtown
Phnom Penh across from the National Museum More information is available
at Tel. (855) 12-806-150 or (855) 12-876-471 or via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org