A stainless steel weighing pan, three chicken legs and a torn scrap of notepaper caught my eye during a recent trip to Phnom Penh's main markets. As did other things. Food markets, wherever their location, have a magnetic pull over me. I seek them out and I stumble across them by fluke. Not entering is not an option. I forsake museums and temples for markets often. I suffer more regret for what I might miss at the market than I would by not seeing the Mona Lisa, Ho Chi Minh lying in state or, indeed in this case, the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
I did see it from a distance, though, while walking to the Central Market.
Art-deco in style and very yellow, the market's main hall is an arrangement of fluoro-lit glass cabinets sparkling with precious metals and gemstones. The maze of corridors leading away from the hall are lined with stalls trading in all manner of goods for household and personal use, from underwear to stick-on eye lashes, every size plastic basin to brooms of rice straw. As the market stretches to its exterior reaches, there are souvenirs and food.
The fresh produce sections, for me, are like the special exhibitions at the art gallery might be, for an art-lover or aspiring artist. And I'm not necessarily talking about food from an eating or cooking perspective, though casting an eye across the range of eggplants and other vegetables can transport one to the kitchen, knife and chopping block at the ready. What appeals more is the construction - whether it be deliberate artifice or haphazard action on the part of the vendors - of harvest or yield into visual feast.
Consider the discoloured lotus leaf, its midrib severed so it can sit flat. On it, two species of fish: one whole, their gill covers savaged open to reveal shiny red flesh, their tails and fins elsewhere; the other in parts, cutlets clumped like paperweights, ready for the pan. And what of the tiny ringlet of tangled paddy herb set in this fishy carnage. Which artist did that and what was the intent?
Repetition or pattern are techniques used at the next fish vendors. Whole fish corpses are packed under ice, all facing the same direction, each giving a dead stare; while the vendor's intention is that the fish are still so fresh and that no matter which one the customer chooses, the quality will be the same. As a shopper, one might feel reassured by the pattern. Viewing the fish arrangement as installation might elicit responses of eeriness or hopelessness. A child might be scared.
What of the poultry that has been hacked at to leave an unfamiliar perspective of bird, a bloodied weird one-legged half-carcass, rhythmically arranged, again on lotus leaves? Is that to shock? Or to show that the bird was not long ago a scratching feathery live being? Most definitely the latter. These vendors are in the business of making money, not making art. They will employ whatever devices they can to make their produce look fresh and alive as opposed to perishing and a long time dead.
I, on the other hand, can interpret the way they merchandise their wares in whatever way I choose. I wish to view the market with an abstract eye, not a cook"s eye. Can I therefore advance the theory that what they are doing is, to my eye on this day, art? In lieu of a gallery visit, I have my morning of culture.