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A Cambodian Selfie

Award winning artist Henrietta Manning considers the impact and superficiality of mass tourism through her own travels in Cambodia.

What does it mean to travel?
What is the worth of the images we take?
Do we really see or are they only blind selfies?

The word tourist was coined by the 17th century Grand Tour and today tourism is the world’s largest industry.

The idea of travelling for the sake of curiosity and learning was a developing idea in the 17th century. With John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), it was argued, and widely accepted, that knowledge comes entirely from the external senses, that what one knows comes from the physical stimuli to which one has been exposed. Travel, therefore, was necessary to develop the mind and expand ones knowledge of the world.Today tourism is the world’s largest industry. More people are involved, either as a member of a host community, a travel/tourism industry player or as a consumer/tourist than in any other industry.

The word tourist was coined by the Grand Tour, at its height from around 1660–1820. Considered necessary to complete a gentleman’s education the Grand Tour was predominately for wealthy young men, [and women if accompanied by a chaperon] and became a rite of passage forming part of an elite’s entry into polite society. Often accompanied by a tutor or guide the most popular destinations were cities considered to be the major centres of culture at the time, and sites with the remains of ancient Roman and Greek civilisation.

Surprisingly today’s tourist holds much in common with those earlier travelers; while the journey is unlikely to be as arduous, the mindset is similar. Our idea of a holiday reflects the reality that time on the Grand Tour was frequently spent in more frivolous pursuits such as socializing, drinking, gambling, and intimate encounters that left the journals and sketches that were supposed to be completed during the Tour blank.

The desire for souvenirs was as endemic as today. The trappings of the Grand Tour, to be displayed at home, were essential to demonstrate to others less fortunate the breadth and polish a person had derived. Equivalent to a postcard were paintings of local ‘types’ and popular landmarks by artists such as Canaletto who derived a valuable income providing formulaic paintings for tourists. While, like the modern selfie, the desire to record one’s own image as traveler was met by commissioned portraits, painted either in iconic settings or surrounded by tokens of learning and acquired mementos.

Most striking is the difference in speed. A Grand Tour might have lasted from several months to several years while today the tyranny of distance has been vanquished, it is possible to dip in and out of cultures and worlds different from our own for a few weeks/days or even hours. There is no slow acclimatization and the real sense of distance travelled has been lost. Everything is easier and faster. A selfie takes only seconds to capture.

Holiday travel is by its nature superficial and can only provide a small window to experience another culture but how much smaller is that window getting every day as the crowds hop off planes onto buses, following their tour leaders flag back to the safety and sterility of their generic hotel? The Grand Tour has become ‘grand tourism’, the crowds of people descending on ‘hot spots’ are now so vast that whole cities are considering limiting their numbers because of the impact physically and culturally of this stampede. What do these tourists really see and return home with? A bucket list ticked? A series of selfies loaded onto facebook and instagram?

A Cambodian Selfie contrasts the superficiality of mass tourism with the real world of a country struggling with extremes of wealth and poverty, corruption and privilege and the intergenerational trauma of civil war. In their tourist bubble focused on the stunning historical sites such as Angkor Watt what is learnt or understood about the current lives of its people? In 2017 the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs contributed 90 million of tax payer’s money to aid Cambodia’s ‘greater prosperity’. This to a country whose track record on human rights and democracy is lamentable, that the international Labor Organization reported that 10 cents in every dollar is lost to corruption. A government who’s Tourism Minister states ‘we have no crisis but there are politicians who are having a crisis themselves’ in reference to opposition party members fleeing the country after the forced disbandment of their party by the current government in preparation for the 2018 elections. While the tourism town of Seim Reap expands its accommodation and services government imposed economic land concessions rob farmers of their land and livelihoods. Half of the countries arable land, a quarter of the countries surface, has been conceded to private companies under the scheme. It has been estimated that 85% of Cambodians are now migrants, either internal, or external to countries such as Thailand.

The legacy of the Grand Tour lives on still influencing the destinations tourists choose and shaping the ideas of culture and sophistication that surround the act of travel, but of the staggering 2.5 million visitors to Angkor Watt in 2017, generating 52.5 million in six months, what is the real cost and benefit to the Cambodian people?

Friday 10 – Wednesday 15 August 2018
10:00am – 5:00pm daily

Friday 10 August 2018, 6:00pm – 8:00pm
Exhibition to be opened by Adriana Taylor, Commissioner Huon Valley Council

Exhibiting since 1985, Henrietta Manning is an established award winning artist represented by Colville Gallery, Hobart, and has been a finalist in many art prizes including The Wynne 1994/1996 and the 2017 Glover Prize.

Image Credits: Photographer Simon Olding.

Henrietta Manning. Worlds Apart. Acrylic on masonite. 70.5cm x 120cm.
Henrietta Manning. Grand Tour Self. Acrylic on masonite. 173.5cm x 120cm.
Henrietta Manning. Cambodia V. Acrylic on masonite. 98cm x 70cm.
Henrietta Manning. Cambodian Selfie I. Acrylic. 98cm x 74cm.

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