Artist Phe Sophon works on a piece for his exhibition, Waterworks, at the Asia Foundation’s Community Art Gallery.
Artist Phe Sophon works on a piece for his exhibition, Waterworks, at the Asia Foundation’s Community Art Gallery. Eliah Lillis

In an exhibition opening tonight at the Asia Foundation’s Community Art Gallery, artist Phe Sophon uses waste – specifically plastic bottles – to both explore the human impact on the environment and to interrogate the meaning of life.

“When I went to other countries like Japan, I noticed the beauty of the cities and that urged me to think back to Cambodia, and what do we have [in Phnom Penh] compared to those other countries and cities? So I came up with the idea of using what Phnom Penh has the most – plastic bottles,” Sophon says.

Many of Sophon’s works are suspended in mid-air, interspersed with giant elliptical shapes, all crafted from plastic. With funding from the Asia Foundation, Sophon created the sculptures over a period of three months, using 5,000-6,000 plastic bottles in total.

In line with the Community Art Gallery’s aim as a space to showcase visual interpretations of residents’ ideas and visions of a liveable Phnom Penh, the exhibition seeks to raise awareness about the rapidly growing problem of solid waste and poor waste management, in particular the mounting heaps of plastic bottles in Phnom Penh.

Artist Phe Sophon at the Asia Foundation's Community Art Gallery.
Artist Phe Sophon at the Asia Foundation's Community Art Gallery. Eliah Lillis

Other than being mindful about the environment, he also hopes to make a larger statement about the purpose and consequences of our actions, by bringing his audience through a three-stage thinking process: participation, intelligence, and memory or death.

When the exhibition is viewed from a certain angle next to the main entrance, the sculptures align to to form “Phnom Penh” in Khmer. However, the word is intentionally left incomplete and can only be filled in by a participant physically standing next to the sculptures.

Hanging over the main entrance to the gallery is a sculpture formed in the shape of the symbol of Buddha, called Chhorpon, which by extension represents intelligence.

And one pointed sculpture called Jethei, or stupa, is meant to represent a temple or grave, as seen at Wat Phnom. To him, Wat Phnom is a symbol of the capital, with every modern development stemming from this central point. But he sees Jethei as a symbol of death, memory and loss.

“Everything, everyone, no matter how good he or she or it is, no matter how beautiful he or she is, no matter how modern he or she or it is, will be lost, dead, left as memories,” he said. “[Seeing] this causes people to think – what are they living for? What memory or legacy should they leave for the next generation of people?”

It is also a subtle reference to the enormous clock found next to the Jethei at Wat Phnom, considered the most accurate clock in Cambodia. To Sophon, that represents the ongoing process of people’s lives, and is a reminder that time does not stop for anyone, no matter who they are.

“In all aspects in life, people are different. But they all eat three meals a day to survive, to keep themselves alive. But why are you living? That is the question I want people to answer … No matter how rich, no matter what you buy, no matter how much money you have, you still end up dead … Maybe people are living for participation, for intelligence, or just for death.”

Phe Sophon’s newest solo exhibition, Waterworks, opens at 6pm tonight at The Asia Foundation’s Community Art Gallery, and runs through June 28.