Guns and Art

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—A young Cambodian artist named Ouk Chim Vichet smiles nervously as cameras flash around him. He is one of 21 fourth-year Royal University of Fine Arts students participating in Peace of Art Project Cambodia. Based on a similar project in Mozambique, PAPC aims to weld collected decommissioned weapons into metal sculptures for showings around the world in venues like the European Parliament and the Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C. Friday night’s presentation at the Java Café and Art Gallery in Phnom Penh marks the collection’s premier exhibition, and more than 100 foreigners and expatriates have gathered to peruse and bid on the art.

The artists clump themselves together in a group, occasionally pointing to their pieces or attempting to speak in broken English to the handful of folks who ask questions about the project or about their experience. Given the weight and scale of some of the pieces, the gallery has only a representative sampling, with the remainder on display in a nearby warehouse where the artists have spent the past six weeks welding their pieces.

Animal themes are common. Old AK-47s have been fashioned into a bird, an elephant, a dog, a serpent, and a cow. “We’re mainly doing animals right now,” explains Vichet’s fellow artist Proeung Moulin, who wears Chuck Taylors and a necklace with a gym shoe charm, “Because they have a right to life and freedom just like people do. Animals desire life like people do. And they don’t use weapons against each other.”

One of Vichet’s pieces—a crowd favorite—shows two metal figures, a man holding up a woman, both in a graceful arc, arms extended and open as if awaiting an embrace or catching air. Called “In the Balance,” it sells early in the evening for $110.

Almost all the dozen or so pieces end up selling by the end of the night for $100-200. The proceeds go to the artists and to fund further PAPC exhibitions. The goals, for PAPC, are to promote a Cambodia without weapons and to provide international awareness and sustainability for Cambodian artists—many of whom are just emerging after the Pol Pot regime eliminated the vast majority of their number during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge rule.

For this first showcase, donors included actors Angelina Jolie and Emma Thompson, as well as several NGOs and Griffith University in Australia. The PAPC team also enlisted the help of veteran Vietnam War photojournalist Tim Page to document the entire project.

Page, whose exploits during the war were immortalized in Michael Herr’s classic Vietnam memoir Dispatches, wanders the room with a camera held in one hand and a glass of white wine in the other. His recent book of photographs by dead Vietnam War photographers, Requiem, won international acclaim. Most of those in the book had been friends of his. Once a cowboy photographer jumping into the middle of some of the Vietnam War’s worst battles, Page, who received multiple wounds including a gunshot to the head, calls this PAPC exhibit “sexy shit, guns and art” and speaks openly of the horrors of war. “It’s reconciliation art, war art, art therapy, whatever you want to call it,” he says. “It’s fucking art. It’s the perfect fucking metaphor.”

He asks me to hold his camera a moment while he goes off to the toilet. I am tempted, but refrain, from taking pictures. I used to teach a university class in the Literature of the Vietnam War. Page, to me, is a wonder—one of those people famous and infamous to a very small group for whom his exploits are legendary, but who is unknown to the rest of the world. Frankly, I never imagined meeting the man. Michael Herr made him sound utterly insane, fearless to a fault. To me, he’s old and pissed off at all the stupid wars around the world and absolutely taken with the idea of peace in any form. He returns. “What’d you take? Any wonderful photos?” He seems disappointed that I refrained. In retrospect, I am, too.

The young Cambodian artists wander outside for fresh air. Glasses clink, laughter. The room smells of wine and heat.

“Iraq is getting to be a fucking Vietnam,” Page says. “Every town in America is getting a body bag back home. Ten to 30 soldiers a week are dying. Kissinger and Cheney should be tried in The Hague. Kissinger is responsible for more than a million fucking deaths.” He snaps a photo of my hands taking notes, partly inside the conversation, partly observing it. He wears jeans, an anti-landmine T-shirt, and a krama, the ubiquitous checked scarf of the Khmers. It is to this country what the conical hat is to Vietnam.

A woman sidles up, offers him a fresh glass of wine. “Listen,” he says, appearing quite suddenly exhausted, “this exhibit would work in any fucking country. Name a country. Afghanistan, Salvador, Guatemala, Iraq, Iran, the Solomon Islands, Bosnia, Israel, Lebanon. Name any country.” He shakes his head, snaps more photos. “We’re going to take this thing around the world. These pieces? I’ll sell them for $2,500 each. Maybe more.”

Toward the end of the night, Vichet looks through a window of the gallery, from the outside, watching the dwindling crowd still milling around. Tim Page signs posters for foreigners who mass around a table where he sits. Three feet away, the artists huddle together near the balcony railing, watching the signing. One of the show’s most visibly powerful pieces is displayed tonight only as a large photo, and it is, again, one of Vichet’s. The photo looks down the barrel of an AK-47, encircled by a bouquet of similar, blooming AK-47 muzzles. “Life needs care just like flowers. And flowers are just like people.”

For more information on the project, send e-mail to: peaceartprojectcambodia@yahoo.com.