Cambodian conceptual artist Sao Sreymao’s latest solo exhibition, Under the Water, documents villages once full of life, but now submerged in water and deserted by their inhabitants as a consequence of the construction of hydroelectric dams and environmental degradation in the Lower Mekong Basin.
Through digital sketches on photographs and a waxwork installation, Sreymao depicts irrevocable changes occurring in communities struggling to cope with the effects of climate change, depleting fish stocks and dam construction along the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River.
“In Under the Water, Sao Sreymao constructs images of this disappearance, reflecting the life which was once there and now it’s gone,” says an exhibition press release.
Sreymao, a graduate from Phare Ponleu Selpak School of Visual and Applied Arts in Battambang province, has long been a vocal advocate of environmental issues and it has played a central theme in her art.
In 2007 to 2008, she worked in environmental education with communities on Kratie province’s Koh Ro-Ngeav, the largest island on Cambodia’s section of the Mekong.
Today, only a few elders and children remain, while most adults have moved to seek jobs in nearby provinces and neighbouring countries due to the diminishing fish stocks over the last decade as a result of the dams.
“I have returned to those communities regularly in 2017 and 2018 and I was moved by the alarming changes to them. The villages, once full of life have become almost deserted,” she says.
Environmental groups have expressed concern over the impact of dam construction on communities living on the Mekong, saying it is disastrous for the entire ecosystem as villages disappear and families are evicted in the name of economic growth and energy security.
Among the villages depicted in Sreymao’s art is Stung Treng province’s Srekor village, which remains today only in name as the entire area – including homes, farms, temples, fishing grounds, riverbank gardens, and ancestral graves – is now underwater as a result of rising waters from the Lower Sesan II Dam.
While Sreymao’s hauntingly beautiful digital sketches over photographs of communities now lost comprise the bulk of the exhibits, also featured is a waxwork installation.
The wax model depicts a cluster of small houses and human sculptures installed on a mirror lying on the floor in the middle of the exhibition space.
The model will be lit at the beginning of the exhibition as attendees witness its gradual disappearance, acting as an allegory for what is occurring to communities living on the river.
“The waxwork models melt as the fire burns, suggesting a contradictory consequence of the energy source.”
Under the Water is supported by the Dam Dos Grant by Cambodian Living Arts, and organised in collaboration with Sa Sa Art Projects at the MIRAGE Contemporary Art Space in Siem Reap. The exhibition is open from January 11 to February 11.