Nathalie A. Johnston
An Act of Will: Performance Art in Myanmar is the tentative title of my final thesis for the Contemporary Art Masters Program. My interest in Myanmar began around 13 years of age and has only grown in the past decade to be somewhat of an obsessive interest in finding out more, exploring, asking and, in turn, providing an international audience with an in-depth knowledge of the interpretive practices of Myanmar contemporary art. The reason being that there is very little written on the contemporary arts of Myanmar, let alone that of Performance art and its origins. My intrigue began with childhood memories in Yangon and Bagan but grew with my interest in the arts. With the market interest in China in recent years, I often wondered why there was not more on Southeast Asia. Once I learned about the sophistication of the Indonesian and Filippino art scene, I began to compare Myanmar, asking whether there should not be more exploration of the contemporary arts there.
The truth is there is an extremely strong and dynamic arts scene in Myanmar, which goes far beyond the post-colonial painterly practice. Within the country, several generations of talented artists work together to support one another and their practices. I witnessed this firsthand when I traveled there on a whim in December 2009. I went in knowing no one and I left having met tens of enthusiastic, multi-practice artists who, although not exhibited extensively outside Myanmar, have shown within their own country and its art spaces several times over. The performance art movement is particularly unique in that everyone participates: poets, journalists, painters, photographers, and installation artists included. In most cases, they do not limit themselves by such labels. It is this quality of the performance arts in which I am planning to investigate. All these artists share this common desire to express themselves performatively. I plan to ask why it happens to be that way and what release it offers them.
For my dissertation, I plan to map a discourse through the past few decades of the Myanmar contemporary art scene to examine how and why Myanmar artists choose to express themselves through performance art. Who are the artists? Why do they choose to do this temporal art form, which provides no sustenance in terms of a career through which they can provide for their family? What are their methods of organization, in a country where more than a few people gathering are suspected of crime and there is no funding for such art forms? What are their materials, methods and environments? What is their hope for the future of Myanmar art? How do they avoid the tension of their circumstances, for example, censorship? I will navigate the waters of contemporary art in order to start a conversation not only about where performance art has been in Myanmar, but also where it’s going.
These are some of the many questions I will be asking and answering in my thesis. Because of my short trip to Yangon in December 2009 I have secured several contacts in the city – artists and dedicated to the greater artistic movements. Since back in Singapore, I have remained in close touch with these artists in addition to making contact with new ones. In April 2010 I was a research assistant for Osage Gallery, providing valuable information for their artist biographies and future catalog. I was also an artist assistant to Po Po. He is one of the inspirations for exploring performance art more in depth, he being the first public performance artist in Myanmar. I am not too worried about the feasibility of the project as I have laid the groundwork for research and contacts for more than 6 months. I feel I am well prepared to carry out this project in a timely and organized manner.
As far as methodology goes, in August 2010, I will stay and conduct field research in Myanmar for one month, approximately. I intend to hold interviews and spend time with the artists, watch and learn from their practice, converse with them and learn not only about their own experiences but their colleagues and countrymen’s experiences as well. There is a need to provide the Myanmar art context with a voice outside Myanmar, to inform those who feel that Burmese artists are held back by their circumstances. It is my intention to provide this voice through the advice and guidance of the artists themselves. In the months prior to my field research in country, I will speak with several professionals of have worked closely with Myanmar artists, including gallery owners, curators and friends of the artists. I also intend to meet with Chaw Ei Thein, a performance artist living in New York City at the moment. She practices her art outside of Myanmar but is still seen as an inspiration to artists within the country. As a precursor I was able to speak with Wah Nu, Po Po, Nge Lay and Aung Ko, all who have participated in performance art events in Myanmar.
It is important to also familiarize myself with the history and circumstances of Myanmar. I intend to consult several institutions in the U.S. as I will be in the Washington D.C. area for the next six weeks. The Freer Gallery of Art, the libraries and several contacts in the D.C. area as well as at the Center for Burmese Studies in Chicago will give me some insight into international opinions and takes on the situation in Myanmar.
Research materials are not easy to find, especially in English. I have a large collection of Burmese history resources and a couple of books on Myanmar painting and the arts, but in terms of critical essays, there are only those in the few catalogs of Myanmar art, a couple in the various Fukuoka Triennal catalogs, and one in the recent Asia Pacific Triennal catalog. It is this very reason that a fair amount of travel is required to obtain interview material and other information, so that I might provide a cohesive written piece on contemporary performance art in Myanmar.
In the Beyond Pressure catalog of 2008, Aung Min wrote a very short essay categorizing performance art in Myanmar as starting with Po Po and continuing today with several artists, which I will mention in my final thesis. In the book Myanmar Painting, Dr. Sian Jay explores the art movements in an essay titled “An Outsider’s View of Myanmar Art.” Ma Thanegi wrote an article on art in Myanmar, focusing on Po Po’s work in Art Magazine titled “After the Exile: Art in Myanmar,” providing useful insight into the choices artists make when expressing themselves through varied mediums. Po Po himself wrote an abstract piece in the Fukuoka Triennale Catalog of 2005 called “Even S/superman Can Come Back into Punk Style.” The piece provides a bit of a timeline of contemporary art in Myanmar, albeit in a very poetic and abstract manner. With these writings, combined with many interviews, conversations and observations, there will be enough information to argue critically and knowledgably about the importance of performance art to artists in Myanmar.
There is no guarantee that all information will be easy to find or access or that the interviews will go on without a hitch, but this is a subject matter that I have the utmost respect for and sincere attachment to, therefore I have no intention of being anything but honest and true to the artists and their practices. It is my intention to one day build off of this particular thesis and expand it to a greater study of the Myanmar arts and artists. I look forward to working through the challenges of this piece and look forward to begin writing as soon as possible.