Out-spoken Cambodian Meas SokhOrn uses his work to paint a picture of modern day life in Cambodia. Marissa Carruthers discovers what motivates the artist. photography charles fox.

Hunched over a worn notepad crammed full of sketches and sentences plucked from his artistic mind, Meas Sokhorn apologises as he puts the finishing touches to a drawing.

“I take this everywhere with me,” he says pointing to the tattered book and scraps of paper doused in doodles that spill out of it. “If I don’t get my thoughts and ideas down when they come to me, I forget.”

Trained at the Royal University of Fine Arts in interior design, art has always been at the forefront of Meas’ mind. But after graduating, his yearning for artistic expression remained unfulfilled by the work he carried out during his day job. “Even though interior design is creative, it’s also limited,” he says. “It’s not a free road.”

Deciding to experiment with different forms, Meas, who was born in Phnom Penh, took to sculpting, painting and live performances to appease his creative cravings. In 2006, he held his debut solo exhibition at Java Arts and his career as a full-time artist, with some interior design freelancing on the side, was launched.

“In this country vehicles are used as bullets and everything I address here troubles me very much”

Drawing inspiration from his surroundings, the talented 37-year-old is not afraid to use his work to make a statement. And that’s exactly what he’s been doing since his debut exhibition.

Carving out his own signature style, Meas is renowned for his use of waste materials and objects, and his work often breathes a new lease of life into scrap and waste he finds on the street, from gnarled and rusting barbed wire and rotting wood to chopsticks and plastic. “I see potential in everything,” he remarks. “I also want to show how objects are transient and can be perceived in different ways.”

Meas’ unique eye for detail and interior design training is evident in his sculptures, with his surreal debut pieces using bamboo and rattan to create giant, curved sculptures that sweep across the studio space.

As his form of expression evolved, Meas’ second solo show, Exhale, came in the form of a sculpture made from wire and indigenous reed, suspended from the gallery ceiling. This saw him scoop the prestigious Signature Art Prize from the Singapore Art Museum in 2008.

Eager to push boundaries, in 2010 he was invited to America to take part in a three-month residency. During this time, he created Self-portrait, an abstract, flowing sculpture made from more than 7,000 chopsticks.

Later that year he went on to exhibit, Contemporary Art Museum. For the abstract installation, he created a web of red wax string attached to the gallery walls and a former kitchen door. The piece was an attack on the lack of museums in Cambodia for contemporary artists to showcase their work.

This is an issue the charismatic creative feels strongly about and continues to campaign for in his drive to encourage more Cambodians to think conceptually and appreciate contemporary art. “Sometimes it’s hard because a lot of people in Cambodia are blind even when they have their eyes open,” he remarks. “I would like to try and change this. I think using my art is a way to start. I don’t expect everyone to change their views through my work but even if I get a few people talking that makes me happy.”

Now, after a short hiatus, Meas is back with a new exhibition in the form of Inverted Sewer, a series of 16 bold paintings that explore Cambodia’s traffic troubles. Underlying themes of class conflict and the exploitation of power pervade.

“Traffic here is terrible and it’s disturbing to me,” he says. “I feel like a zombie on an engine. Drivers are aggressive and don’t respect the rules of the road. Drink driving is a huge problem too. Then there are the gangsters with power who just don’t care. The whole system is broken and the roads are a symbol for the country itself.”

In the exhibition, a chaotic smattering of motorbikes, luxury cars, traffic police, pedestrians and bottles of booze sit, ungrounded, on a backdrop of blood red. Passengers are armed with booze and guns, police clutch wads of dollar bills with chopsticks, and the homeless, street cleaners and child sellers seen on the roads feature heavily, throwing the spotlight on social issues.

“In this country vehicles are used as bullets and everything I address here troubles me very much,” says Meas, who started work on the project at the end of last year. “I always wanted to write a book on traffic but here, as with all of my work, the paintings are my pages and my art the words.”

Inverted Sewer can be seen at Java Cafe and Gallery, 56 Sihanouk Boulevard, until November 16.