Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Premises for Burmese Contemporary Art with Po Po, Tun Win Aung, Wah Nu and Min Thein Sung
A Burmese translation of the following text is available here.
ေအာက္ေဖာ္ျပပါ ေဆာင္းပါး၏ ျမန္မာဘာသာျပန္ကို ဤေနရာတြင္ ရယူႏိုင္ပါသည္။
There is a fixation with making Burmese art on a par with international standards. But the truth is the world does not exist only outside of Myanmar; Myanmar exists in the world.
– Maung Wunna1
As late as the 1980s in Myanmar, when paintings in the modernist idiom were still perceived as bastard expressions – literally psychotic or crazy, if not plain ordure, in Burmese – dissatisfaction with the two-dimensional picture plane had already led some Burmese artists to explore the expanded media and means of contemporary art, even if they did not necessarily understand or identify their work as such.2 San Minn’s 1983 work Food-Stall involved inviting the audience to share a meal at a table before a painting of a street hawker serving Chinese noodles; Po Po’s walk that same year, his thoughts written on the back of his jacket, on the grounds of the University of Yangon, went undocumented.3 By 1987, when Po Po staged his first solo exhibition ‘Untitled', comprised of 31 non-objective canvases and 6 installations in Yangon – uncensored in spite of its unprecedented avant-garde tenor and extended for two days due to an overwhelming response – his adoption of what is recognised as contemporary art’s modus operandi had become purposeful: that is, his resolve to transcend the praxis of painting as the sole source of art’s agency in Myanmar. Indeed, the Burmese term for ‘painting’ is often taken to stand for ‘art’ in the modern context.
In 1989, ‘Magiciens de la terre' at Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grand Halle at Parc de la Villette, Paris, jolted the contemporary art world into a more polycentric practice and polyphonic discourse. The rise of Burmese contemporary art is not without debt to this watershed exhibition and the art field's realignments over the following decade. In 1998, now defunct The Arts Magazine published the text ‘After the Exile: Art in Myanmar’ on Po Po and his groundbreaking exhibition held some eleven years before.4 Written by Burmese writer Ma Thanegi, the first to write on contemporary artists in Myanmar in the art world’s lingua franca, the piece marked the international audience’s first acquaintance with Burmese contemporary art. Right into the twenty-first century, artists pushed experimentation in the realm of contemporary art in Yangon – the hub of Myanmar’s art world since at least the middle of the twentieth century. There were collectives like the Gangaw Village comprising Yangon University alumni, graduates from the National University of Art and Culture, and artist-run spaces such as Studio Square and New Zero Art Space.5 Events like ‘Beyond Pressure', sometimes combined with poetry recitals and concerts, brought like-minded artists together.6 A few artists began to exhibit abroad, and in 2010, the first major exhibition of Burmese contemporary art outside of Myanmar, ‘plAy: Art from Myanmar Today', featuring thirteen artists took place in Singapore.7 At that point, the term ‘contemporary art’ could not even be used due to the military government’s conflation of it with political activism – a skewed appreciation of contemporary art that has been ironically perpetuated by some artists and curators both inside and outside of the country.8
Since 2012, the lifting of sanctions and the easing of the government’s censorship restrictions on the literary and visual arts have ushered Burmese contemporary art into a new phase. Resources and opportunities have increased exponentially. Invitations to residencies and other prestigious outlets like the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art are not rare; Burmese contemporary art is now represented at venues including: Fukuoka Asian Art Museum; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; National Gallery Singapore; Queensland Art Gallery; Singapore Art Museum; and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. In Yangon, independent art spaces such as New Zero and Myanm/art offer residencies; festivals showcase multidisciplinary approaches to film, music and art; public programmes initiate children and adults alike into contemporary art; commercial galleries feature local contemporary artists; and artist talks, workshops and training programmes are frequent. Even sites like the sacrosanct Secretariat enshrining the memory of national martyr General Aung San now host contemporary art events.9 Contemporary artists have also taken their practice beyond Yangon, as with the Mingun Museum of Contemporary Art and the Thuyedan Art Event.10 Increasingly, major projects are initiated or (co-)organised by Burmese writers, film-makers and artists wearing many hats; they are no longer as heavily reliant on foreign individuals and institutions.11 Youths trained in art-related disciplines are returning from abroad.
Against the context of prolonged isolation in Myanmar between 1962 and 1988, the recent transformations take on meteoric proportions. The thirst to embrace the new is fierce, and the exhilaration infectious. It is at this liminal juncture laden with possibilities, when a mere dose of intrepidity and a flair for opportunism suffice to carve out a niche, that it becomes incumbent to pause and to reflect.12 Taking the cue from Paul Gauguin, whose impact on the artistic consciousness of Burmese contemporary artists’ predecessors in the last century was not insignificant, the questions ‘Where do we come from?’, ‘What are we?’ and ‘Where are we going?’ function as an Ariadne’s thread in this essay.13 More specific questions of contextual significance include: how has the practice of contemporary art in Myanmar evolved in tandem with intensified international interest and the proliferation of opportunities? How have the dynamics within communities of artists and the larger ecosystem, comprising officers from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, foreign curators, art establishments, etc., changed? How do Burmese contemporary artists negotiate with the international art world that is their principal patron, platform and public? These are questions that data – the enumeration of artists, events and exhibitions – cannot answer. Their articulation is necessary, even if this essay only grazes some of the vital aspects of these questions that hold out for furthering thinking on Burmese contemporary art.
Where do we come from? Art historically, the modern and the contemporary in Myanmar overlap and interpenetrate at varying degrees of intensity in a distended rather than chronological manner. This is appreciable even within the careers of individual artists. Aung Myint, for example, moved from modernist painting to contemporary art without abandoning the former; his White Stupa Doesn’t Need Gold in acrylic and gold leaf on canvas dates from 2010 when he was already well known for his installations and performance works.14 Then there are artists who fall between the cracks of the modern and the contemporary like M. P. P. Yei Myint and San Minn who demonstrate the ontological quality of the contemporary as being-in-the-world, but do not espouse the label. The former’s National Registration Card and the latter’s theriocephaly, gun and eater series are indicative of this quandary.15 This essay’s interest in the historical dimension of Burmese contemporary art is more modest. It has less to do with its relationship to the modern than an acquaintance with the eidolons of its inception that have contributed to its shape today. At this point in time, when Burmese contemporary art is still some distance away from self-determination and scholarship on it is fledgling, what are our bases for construing it and engaging in discourse in a responsible and meaningful way?16 The aforenoted first text in English on Burmese contemporary art by Ma Thanegi stemmed from her commitment to counter the illiberal politicised clichés of Myanmar by making known Burmese art and culture; it was not impelled by academic ambitions or curatorial exigencies as is the case with most writings on art.17 If the art historian or critic must read Burmese contemporary art through premises, constructs and frameworks distilled from historical experiences and intellectual and artistic traditions alien to Myanmar, it should be made clear that the topic is not Burmese contemporary art, but the chosen tools of thought’s inadequacy to the purpose. An arguably more scrupulous approach is to allow the narrative to be articulated by the very artists that populate it.18 If it is indeed more prudent to formulate narratives of Burmese contemporary art based on its protagonists’ experiences and voices, whose shall they be?
As small as it is, the Burmese contemporary art scene is uneven, internally diversified and fragmented into coteries based on ideology and practices. Opinion on even the definition of contemporary art differs among artists, art collectives and spaces. Artist-run galleries displaying landscapes and nudes refer to them as ‘contemporary art’, so too do local museum authorities. Even the much-awaited English edition of Myanmar Contemporary Art I (2017) makes no distinction between the wording of ‘pre-modernism’, ‘modernism’, ‘post-modernism’ and the contemporary.19 In other words, ‘contemporary art’ in Myanmar can refer to anything created in the present – as well as the last century! The different voices in the Burmese art world are moreover not equally audible: some are vocal on social media and with the press, as if its spokespersons; others work in retreat. Inclinations are inevitable, and they ought to be laid bare. If I almost exclusively drew on conversations with only four artists – Po Po, Tun Win Aung, Wah Nu and Min Thein Sung – to inform reflections and to cross-examine assessments throughout this essay, it is not out of a disregard for the plurality and multiplicity of Myanmar’s contemporary art scene. Rather, it is to favour the exposition of its internal complexities, whose scrutiny is instrumental in expanding perspectives and methodologies in complement to aesthetic analyses of Burmese contemporary art. Embedded in five premises for prioritising these four artists’ standpoints, their allusion in the rest of this essay seeks to elicit rumination as well as debate on more rigorous ways of looking at, thinking about and engaging with contemporary art from Myanmar.20
The first of the five premises for Burmese contemporary art – or its internal complexities – is simply how unmistakably ‘contemporary’ these four artists’ turn of mind and practice are. In Myanmar where the idiom and syntax of contemporary art are not always understood, few artists have transcended their modernist predecessors’ preoccupation with the ideal of personal expression. Po Po, Tun Win Aung, Wah Nu and Min Thein Sung are amongst the handful taking on artistic practice as an open invitation to actively experience, investigate, critique and transmute actuality – in the here and now – through a range of methods, media and spaces. If we are to assess their works within the context of the global contemporary that has been their asylum, they exceed the first two of Terry Smith’s three phases or currents of contemporary art, which pertain to nationalist imagery and naïve internationalism, to engage in ‘a broader search for an integrated cosmopolitanism, or worldliness, in the context of the permanent transition of all things and relations’.21
The second reason has to do with their detachment from local art collectives and spaces. Without completely isolating themselves, they have cultivated a relatively high level of autonomy in thought and action. They neither accept being co-opted, nor seek to influence. Po Po, for example, even restrains impressionable youth from making a beau idéal of him. While their stance has resulted in them becoming outsiders of the Burmese art world, this alterity is what favours their formulation of critical perspectives on Burmese contemporary art and the ways in which it has been negotiated, translated, shown, consumed and construed locally and abroad. This is prodigious in Myanmar where deference and complaisance, in addition to the fascism of political correctness, have asphyxiated constructive critical discourse and continue to compromise the integrity of many projects.
Third, they respond to obstacles and limitations with inventiveness within the limits of decorum. ‘We learn to design, make and fix things ourselves because there are no professionals for exhibition installation in Myanmar’, says Min Thein Sung.22 When confronted with censorship, prohibitions or cultural inhibitions, adversity becomes an opportunity to hone resilience and ingenuity. As Po Po explains, ‘the greater the difficulties arising from political, social, cultural or environmental limitations, the greater the puissance of the ensuing work of art’.23 That sort of mettle has been similarly observed in the most outstanding Burmese thinkers and artists throughout the modern period under colonial and military rule; we are far from the essentialised narrative of the Burmese artist as the archetypal political victim. Although the absence of a receptive public, an institutional infrastructure and formal training since the inception of ‘art’ in British Burma continues to hamper contemporary artists in Myanmar, it has also staved off its institutionalisation. Art collectives in Myanmar come and go and operate with greater spontaneity, for example, than those in countries like Singapore where substantial funding for the arts is equalled by the high level of surveillance.24 The fact that all Burmese contemporary artists, with the exception of the few that study overseas, are self-taught – including graduates from the State School of Fine Arts and the National University of Art and Culture, whose curriculum remains sorely inadequate – also means that their practices are less conditioned by the Western theoretical discourses that prescribe most art curricula throughout the world today. As Min Thein Sung observes, ‘that is why we think and work differently [which is] an asset in itself'.25 The poverty of resources and narrow margin for manoeuvre is not antithetical to innovation – on the contrary.
Fourth, they pursue artistic excellence in terms of an artwork’s specificity, not its compliance with projections of Myanmar as the other, or international art trends, as if coming off the production line. Self-fulfilment being key, instead of courting foreign curators by trading on the newfangled fads of academia, icons of our spectacle culture or the colonial game of the authentic in the form of exoticised, politicised tropes of Myanmar, they focus on wrestling media into the desired form, as well as making their practices and circumstances complement each other.26 Consistently throughout their careers, these artists have shunned reductionist postulations like, ‘all Burmese artists are political activists’ and ‘any artist from Myanmar must make political statements’ – and apparently nothing else.27 These statements have immense currency in both the media and art world at the expense of artists, such as those mentioned here, who opt for subtler strategies towards the human condition and the quotidian in Myanmar in its fuller historical, cultural or simply whimsical dimensions. Indeed, they have risen to be among the most sought-after Burmese artists on the international circuit without giving in to easy aesthetic tourism whose agents are unknowing curators. As Hans Belting observes, these curators constitute a ‘newly emerged class [that] seem to level the different art worlds in that they apply similar concepts with respect to an international clientele, in biennials and art fairs across the globe’. Further, their training in political, social or cultural sciences privileges art’s political or cultural agenda and aggravates the loss of art history in art theory and art display. This immunity safeguards these artists’ practices in a country where global (essentially Western) trends tend to be ipso facto worshipped, not pondered over.28
Fifth and last, as anticipatory as they might be about the accelerated expansion of the Burmese contemporary art scene, they are not naïve about the euphoria masking nuisances that characteristically afflict developing art worlds, such as the confounding of event coordination and management with curating and even scholarship. Wah Nu states point-blank that ‘contemporary art is not fully developed here’.29 Increased capital, knowledge and outlets have been heartening. But the lack of rigour in the implementation of programmes and vetting of resources is as dismaying. The questionable ethics of purported ‘experts’ acting in conflict of interest and the exaltation of mediocrity as progress in the absence of compelling exemplars, amongst other woes, render the scene a Wild Wild West. The corruption of contemporary artistic practice as well as the community is inevitable, and the consequences are already palpable. International interest in performance art from Myanmar, for example, has caused it to become perceived as the fastest route overseas.30 Parents who cosset their children sign them up for it: because the performance artist always gets invited abroad to make the performance! Artists with inadequate education and exposure also propagate aberrant ideas about it – that it necessarily involves undressing, for example – hence deterring serious artists from practising it and jeopardising its development. ‘Contemporary art’ has become a bandwagon in Myanmar, just as the tag ‘Myanmar’, along with ‘human rights’, ‘censorship’ and ‘women artists’, is good for export, regardless of the artwork’s calibre.
The global conditions of art production ensue from top-down globalisation, and discourse around Burmese contemporary art cannot be adequate without a connection to the larger forces that brace it. Yet, the global turns spoken about by scholars, curators and commentators in Euramerica and its satellites are not part of the Burmese artist’s space-time; the Burmese artist is as much an outsider of the global contemporary as he or she is of Myanmar. This condition is ironically what justifies his or her place in it. In this world in which Myanmar exists – according to Maung Wunna’s expression – the Burmese contemporary artist is still an exhibit of ‘Myanmar’ and a detainee of orientalism 2.0 couched in politicised rhetoric. He or she occupies the same space as Gauguin’s subjects – a prison more immanent than the military government’s cells, in which sanity and mindfulness must prevail. For Burmese contemporary art to take flight into the future and play an active role in world-making, there are a few prerequisites: a community of informed and proficient educators, scholars, policymakers, administrators, curators, collectors and dealers, a thriving society and strong diplomatic ties with the international community – none of which yet exists. Even more imperative, however, are the artists. Burmese contemporary artists do not need to ‘catch up’ on nominal international standards by importing or simulating the West as much as they need to question and to think with questions that are their own. It is then that the inflow of knowledge and capital might be purposefully harnessed with discrimination to develop greater self-knowledge, an autonomous practice and a sustainable system. As Tun Win Aung repeatedly enjoins, ‘Know yourself’.31
Maung Wunna (1946–2011), father of artist Wah Nu, was a two-time winner of the Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Awards with Wearing Velvet Slippers, Holding a Golden Umbrella (1971) and Seventh Degree Multiple Sorrow (1990). These works, along with Tender are the Feet (1973), represent the golden age of Burmese cinema. I am grateful to T.K. Sabapathy for spurring reflections on Maung Wunna’s declaration with respect to the contemporary in world-making, as well as the artist as an active agent in writing (hi)stories of art. Conversation with Wah Nu, 19 March 2018.↑
We refer to Burma as Myanmar, conforming to her appellation within the ASEAN. ‘Myanmar’ is generally used to mean the people and language too, but for the purpose of grammatical distinction, the word ‘Burmese’ is used here to denote the citizens and national language of Myanmar.↑
See Aung Min, Myanmar Contemporary Art I, Yangon: TheArt.com, 2017, p.213.↑
See Ma Thanegi, ‘After the Exile: Art in Myanmar’, The Arts Magazine, January - February 1998, pp.35–37. The bi-monthly The Arts Magazine launched by The Esplanade in Singapore ran from 1997 to 2003. It covered local, regional and international art forms.↑
Gangaw Village was founded in 1979, Studio Square in 2003 and New Zero Art Space in 2008. On Gangaw Village, see Contemporary Asian Artist VI: Freedom in Blossom! Gangaw Village and Experimental Art in 1980s Burma (exh. cat.), Fukuoka: Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, 2012.↑
On ‘Beyond Pressure', first organised in 2008, see http://www.beyondpressure.org/ (last accessed on 13 April 2018).↑
‘plAy: Art from Myanmar Today', funded by Osage Art Foundation, was held at Osage Gallery, Singapore, 2010. See Yin Ker, ‘Why Play? An Outsider’s Point of View on Making and Seeing Art in Myanmar Today’, SouthEastAsia: Spaces of the Curatorial (ed. Ute Meta Bauer and Brigitte Oetker), Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016, pp.104–25.↑
Censorship regulations on the visual arts were not clearly expressed or uniformly enforced in Myanmar, and likewise, official opinion on ‘contemporary art’. The consequences could be nonetheless severe, even when the artist exhibited overseas. For examples of the authorities’ arbitrariness, see ibid., p.107.↑
Arguably the most significant secular heritage site in Yangon, the Secretariat was British Burma’s administrative seat, and where General Aung San, who brokered national independence was assassinated in 1947. Proposed to serve as a museum after government offices were relocated to Naypyidaw in 2005, the Secretariat as a space for art was inaugurated by Wolfgang Laib’s Where the Land and Water End in January 2017. To understand the site’s historical significance, see Maung Maung, A Trial in Burma: The Assassination of Aung San, Dordrecht: Springer, 2012. On Laib at the Secretariat, see Lilian Kalish, ‘When Pollen Becomes Political: Wolfgang Laib in Myanmar’, ARTnews, 16 March 2017, available at http://www.artnews.com/2017/03/16/when-pollen-becomes- political-wolfgang-laib-in-myanmar/ (last accessed on 1 May 2018).↑
Initiated by Phyoe Kyi as a workshop in the historical village of Mingun in Upper Myanmar in 2003, the Mingun Museum of Contemporary Art has seen local villagers and artists collaborate on projects and site-specific installations and performances. Similarly community-orientated, the Thuyedan Art Event was first organised by Aung Ko and Nge Lay in the former’s eponymous natal village by the Ayeyarwady River in 2007.↑
Consider, for example, the bilingual 3-ACT: 9-issue Cinema Magazine launched in May 2018 and Pyinsa Rasa Art Space at the Secretariat from February to July 2018. See 3-Act Films, available at https://www.facebook.com/3actmyanmar/ and ‘Pyinsa Rasa Art Space @ the Secretariat’, Pyinsa Rasa website, available at http://www.pyinsarasa.com/#post-226 (last accessed on 13 April 2018).↑
The challenges faced by Burmese contemporary art today are comparable to those of Chinese contem- porary art about twenty years ago, with the main difference being the absence of pervasive market forces. See Carol Yinghua Lu, ‘Back to Contemporary: One Contemporary Ambition, Many Worlds’, Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture (ed. Hans Belting, Jacob Birken, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel), Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011, pp.108–19.↑
The painting in question by Gauguin is Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897–98) painted in Tahiti. His life became influential in Myanmar through the translation of Charles Gorham’s The Gold of their Bodies (1955) and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence (1919). The leading exponent of modern art in Myanmar, Bagyi Aung Soe, emulated his disposition.↑
See ‘Aung Myint, White Stupa Doesn’t Need Gold’, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Collection Online [website], available at https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/31261 (last accessed on 1 May 2018).↑
See ‘National Registration Card’, Roots [website], available at https://roots.sg/learn/collections/ listing/1029096 (last accessed on 13 April 2018). National Registration Card is now in the collection of National Gallery Singapore, not that of the Singapore Art Museum as indicated on the website. On San Minn’s theriocephaly, gun and eater series, see Aung Min, Myanmar, op. cit., pp.214–19.↑
There is thus far only one academic text on contemporary art from Myanmar. See Isabel Ching, ‘Art from Myanmar: Possibilities of Contemporaneity?’, Third Text, vol.25, no.4, July 2011, pp.431–46.↑
Email from Ma Thanegi, 5 December 2017.↑
Within the region of Southeast Asia of which Myanmar is a part, artists have been actively partici- pating in the articulation of its histories of art since the colonial period: Sindudarsono Sudjojono (1913–86) and Jim Supangkat (1948–ongoing) from Indonesia and Redza Piyadasa (1939–2007) from Malaysia, for example. See also Redza Piyadasa and T. K. Sabapathy, Modern Artists of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Ministry of Education Malaysia, 1983 and Jim Supangkat et al., Outlet:Yogyakarta Within the Contemporary Indonesian Art Scene, Yogyakarta: Cemeti Art Foundation, 2001.↑
See A. Min, Myanmar, op. cit.↑
The ‘freedom of expression’ championed by many players and artists in the local art scene entails the relaxation of censorship on female nudity and naked anti-government content, but not the facility to critique the field, especially from within, and hence this essay’s recourse to allusion.↑
See Terry Smith, ‘Contemporary Art: World Currents in Transition Beyond Globalization’, The Global Contemporary, op. cit., p.188.↑
Conversation with Min Thein Sung, 29 April 2018.↑
Conversation with Po Po, 17 February 2018.↑
A recent addition to the fluctuating list of art collectives is Pyinsa Rasa that brings together local and foreign artists, film-makers, photographers, designers and musicians. See Pyinsa Rasa, available at http://www.pyinsarasa.com/ (last accessed on 1 May 2018).↑
Conversation with Min Thein Sung, 1 April 2018.↑
See, for example, Po Po’s Narcissus (1987–94), Road to Nirvana (1993–2013) and VIP Project #1 (2010–15) Tun Win Aung’s The Train (2003–09), Wah Nu’s Cloud series (2002– ongoing), Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu’s 1000 Pieces (of White) series (2009–ongoing) and The Name (2008–ongoing), and Min Thein Sung’s Restroom (2008–10) and Another Realm series (2011–ongoing).↑
Conversation with Po Po, 17 February 2018; email from Ma Thanegi, 21 August 2010. As Min Lwin, the owner of Gallery 65 in Yangon, argues, ‘the majority of the Burmese artist community is indeed in the opposition camp but that doesn’t mean that their artwork is necessarily political’. Chloë Carlens, ‘Burmese artists caught in self-censorship’, HuffPost, 22 December 2015, available at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/chloe-carlens/burmese-artists-caught-in_b_8861660.html (last accessed on 21 March 2018).↑
See H. Belting, ‘From World Art to Global Art: View on a New Panorama’ and ‘The Plurality of Art Worlds and the New Museum’, in The Global Contemporary, op. cit., p.184 and p.247.↑
Conversation with Wah Nu, 19 March 2018.↑
For a brief overview of the development of performance art in Myanmar by one of its youngest and most enterprising practitioners, see Moe Satt, ‘Short Introduction to Myanmar Performance Art’, Modern Art, no.173, June 2014, pp.76–80.↑
Conversation with Tun Win Aung, 19 March 2018.↑