– Autumn/Winter 2018

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

Yin Ker

Nyein Chan Su (NCS), On the Road, 1997, performance, Yangon, Myanmar. Courtesy the artist

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. See Aung Min, Myanmar Contemporary Art I, Yangon: TheArt.com, 2017, p.213.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. On ‘Beyond Pressure', first organised in 2008, see http://www.beyondpressure.org/ (last accessed on 13 April 2018).

  7. ‘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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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).

  10. 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.

  11. 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).

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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).

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. Email from Ma Thanegi, 5 December 2017.

  18. 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.

  19. See A. Min, Myanmar, op. cit.

  20. 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.

  21. See Terry Smith, ‘Contemporary Art: World Currents in Transition Beyond Globalization’, The Global Contemporary, op. cit., p.188.

  22. Conversation with Min Thein Sung, 29 April 2018.

  23. Conversation with Po Po, 17 February 2018.

  24. 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).

  25. Conversation with Min Thein Sung, 1 April 2018.

  26. 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).

  27. 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).

  28. 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.

  29. Conversation with Wah Nu, 19 March 2018.

  30. 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.

  31. Conversation with Tun Win Aung, 19 March 2018.