Plans to transform a derelict boat on the Tonle Sap into a hub to showcase Cambodia’s burgeoning contemporary art scene have been unveiled. Editor Marissa Carruthers and photographer Lucas Veuve step on board The Boat.

Plans to transform a derelict boat on the Tonle SapSix thousand square-metres of empty space, more than 100 spaces, six floors, four open decks, a rooftop pool; bars, a restaurant, cafes, live shows, concerts, shops. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking these are just another set of plans to create another luxury complex on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

The curiosity of those with an observant eye may well have been piqued by the absence of any mention of accommodation in this development. And rightly so, because these are in fact grand plans for floating contemporary art hub, The Boat, which has been creating quite a stir in the capital since word of its revival first spread late last year.

For years, local artists have been crying out for a dedicated space to gather, work, brainstorm, learn and showcase the contemporary art movement that is sweeping across the country. While the capital is home to a host of independent galleries and studios, one central educational and creative space for artists is lacking. And it seems the derelict decks of an abandoned ship on the Tonle Sap are the perfect place to plant the seeds for this venture.

A Rocky Ride
Docked past the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge, the giant red vessel, riddled with rust, looks abandoned; left to slowly crumble on the river. To some it may seems an eyesore, to those behind the venture – Hotelier Alexis de Suremain, Dana Langlois, of Java Arts and businessman Jeroen van Daalen – that forms part of its charm, giving it a rustic, raw appeal, and acting as a symbol for the country’s growing arts scene itself; a Phoenix rising from the ashes – perfect for its target audience of Cambodian artistic and creative souls.

Life has been far from plain sailing for The Boat, which started life as a water hotel. The French-Cambodian owner set about creating luxury on the Tonle Sap, with more than 100 bedrooms, a grand ballroom, dining areas, spacious decks and outdoor swimming pool on the agenda.

However, a reported lack of funds led to him pulling out in 2012, and construction was abandoned, – evidence can be seen in the stacks of unpacked air conditioning units and plastic-wrapped heavy wooden beds that sit under centimetres of dust – leaving the structure to fall into its current dilapidated state.

In September, De Suremain secured a deal to lease the space and set about raising funds to give it a new lease of life in the form of a meeting point for creative minds, a hub to encourage the creative juices to flow and spark big ideas.

Changing Course
With plans to host an array of artists, dedicated exhibition spaces and hall, installation exhibitions, a dance lab, learning centre and workshop, galleries and studios and a series of creative social enterprises and art organisations selling their wares, the vision is spectacular, and the venue more than breath-taking.

The six storeys are home to a web of small rooms – designed to be bedrooms – the perfect place to host the proposed studios, stores and cafes. A decadent and spacious ballroom with high ceilings and a large dancefloor surrounded by wrap balconies and accessed by four impressive spiral staircases, is the ideal setting for the installation space, and when standing on one of the decks, it’s easy to imagine sipping a cocktail as the sun sets.

While hopes remain high that the first part of the project, which is set to open in stages as decks are ready, will open this year, a lot of hard work lies ahead. Restoration of the top two floors is pretty much complete, but the four that lie below are far from inhabitable. Resembling a building site on board a boat, planks of wood, piles of bricks and mounds of rubble litter the dusty decks, and rust, mould and creeping cracks invade the walls.

But a fund-raising campaign is in full force and hopes remain high that a new lease of life will very soon be breathed into the boat to create a venture that would undoubtedly help plant Cambodia rightfully on Southeast Asia’s artistic map.

De Suremain says, “I launched this project to add an interesting attraction to Phnom Penh, and because I love contemporary art. Then there is the water, the river and this most crazy floating structure. This would not only be a space where artists can produce and exhibit, it is also an exciting attraction for residents and visitors; it will give us something really unique that none of the neighbouring capitals have.”

For more information on The Boat and how to help blow some wind in its sails, visit theboat.asia.