Myanmar, formerly known as Burma (though I will refer to it as such in this article), now a shadow of its former self, burdened by sanctions and an immature system of government which causes people to flounder rather than flourish. I traveled there at the end of November 2009 to attend the second annual Beyond Pressure Performance Art Festival. I was in contact with the organizer beforehand and was struck by the audacity of such an event. For those who are not familiar, performance art is a time-based art, taking place in the moment where the body is not necessarily the performance but the movements of the body and the space around the body become the art object and therefore the basis of the performance itself. It is a unique art form and is often neglected in the contemporary world, including but not limited to the world of art and art criticism, because of its unusual use of space and time. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of such an event in a place like Burma. The title itself, the organizer Moe Satt explains, is indicative of the struggle: “Burma is not yet beyond pressure, we are still under pressure. So the title expresses our desire to move beyond the pressure.”
The artists, including one American, Joseph Ravens, the first American artistever approved to perform in Myanmar, were required to attend a meeting with a censorship board, a group of 15 individuals from various departments of the government, to describe themselves, their work and what they planned to do throughout the festival. All were warned that those who addressed any anti-government sentiment through their work would be dealt with accordingly. The organizer, Moe Satt, went through this painful process for almost all of 2007, trying to get the festival underway. It is the first performance festival with government approval in the history of Myanmar; quite an achievement to take on the military junta at the young age of 27. He includes many local talents in his entourage: a couple of local writers, a journalist, several performance artists and a videographer – the first to graduate from university in Myanmar with a multi-media arts degree – as well as an international crowd from countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan, China, Thailand and India. The festival comprised three days of workshops with the different artists as instructors and two days of performance, open to the public. Unlike many museum goersin the West, the Burmese locals do not need to see art worth its weight in gold to appreciate it; much of the local art community, including local gallery owners, showed up to show their support.
At least 50 artist-run galleries exist in Burma and more are planned and encouraged everyday. Much of the space is devoted to Burma’s numerous Master painters, such as New Treasure Gallery in Rangoon. Other spaces are contemporary platforms for art and education, like New Zero Art Space, also in Rangoon. When there is little turnover and no auction house to develop a commercial market out of an art community, it remains strong, sincere and replete with enthusiasm and genuine encouragement. It was with extreme excitement that I disposed of my preconceived notions aboutthe Burmese people as downtrodden and disenchanted and replaced them with a vision of the future when the rest of the international art world will be lucky enough to experience the brilliance with which these artists are reacting to isolation: by making something bigger and better, all on their own.