August 6, 2010
Traveled to Phyu Mon’s house around 9:30, only to get dreadfully lost in the Golden Valley Road area – a wealthy community of officials and expats, not to mention Daw Su. My taxi driver says she must be very rich but somehow this doesn’t add up. We finally arrive in front of a gated complex, inside a diminutive group of traditional homes made of that infamous Myanmar timber. Dilapidated and humble, her home is dark and cozy. She invites me in and we immediately begin to chat, albeit in halting English. She kindly serves traditional Myanmar steak and rice and sweet coffee and shows me all her photocopied books that she’s collected over the years, including Tony Godfrey’s book on conceptual art, which is one of her favorites. She is ecstatic to hear that he is my professor and there is a possibility of meeting him one day.
Most endearing were her old scrapbooks, kept since 1975, of Newsweek and Time magazine clippings, most likely acquired through friends or contacts working with expats, all describing art abroad. She mentioned her first memory of exposure to performance art was a LIFE Magazine article about Yoko Ono in 1975/76. She took it a bit more seriously in the 80s but did not do her first performance until 1997, when Jay Koh from Malaysia came to Myanmar, expressing his desire to share the performances of Myanmar artists through video. Imagine, the first ever performance piece you act on is videotaped and viewed by a wide audience of fellow artists!
She was born and raised in Mandalay, only arriving in Yangon in 2003. She studied at an Aborginal University with a professor U Ba Daw (sp?) who taught her watercolor painting. She was particularly interested in the Surrealist movement and so her early paintings are of large, buoyant objects, gently colored with grays and lavenders, floating in space or along planes with the occasional objects. She says nobody understood her work and there was much criticism. But she sold to expats and mainly showed through the American Centre and the Alliance Francaise.
Once she was considered a bit of an old hat at performing she did a tour around Japan, participating in festivals in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and others. Her favorites props are a birdcage and a balloon, which she often inflates inside the birdcage to signify edges, barriers, suffocation. She is self-taught. Read herself to death, found whatever she could and pasted it in her journals and sketchbooks and all the while kept painting, performing and now works with photo-collages and digital manipulation.
Also mentioned that Aye Ko’s library is for students only – other artists are not allowed to borrow them. She neglects to elaborate and I know why so I did not probe her. How awkward to have worked so hard to put on Women’s exhibitions and write about other’s work, only to have your contemporary reject your place and status and general good for the rest of the community. This factioning of the art world is complex and something I hesitate to talk about. I would never understand it and certainly do not feel it is my place to expose it for what it is.
She walked with me to have lunch. Her plan was to go to an expensive Western looking restaurant and she looked embarrassed when she found out how expensive it was. I tried to appease the situation by telling her how I wasn’t hungry and we could eat where she normally goes. Blessing in disguise because we ended up at Nyein Chan Su’s Studio Square, where we ordered in and ate great local food and talked a bit about the Nat Festival and performance. I promised to bother NCS another time with questions. I am attempting to have conversations before I start hardcore interviews. It makes me feel more prepared and they more comfortable. Ah, the luxury of time.
After 2.5 days I’m right where I began – desperate to talk about performance art in Myanmar but totally unsure under what umbrella it should be expanded upon. Do I talk about the connective tissue between modern painting, eventually leading to performance – a sort of model posing to model moving transition? Or do I talk about the state of performance and the “self” in spite of the institution? Is performance a citizen of the state? Is the artist having to operate within the idea of the State’s idealism? In a culture slowing being pried open to the rest of the world, what is the result? Performance? Is performance to Myanmar what abstract expressionism was to the post WWII world? An attraction to freedom of movement, of cause, of intent? In Afghanistan, the Americans are working to subvert the government via the populace. Is performance art a way for artists to reach the populace through working with the government, rather than in spite of it? But art is the human drive beyond the government, is it not?