San Minn, Po Po, Nge Lay

August 7, 2010
Today attended the Pre-Collegiate Program Diplomatic School in Yangon, where an elderly couple, Dorothy and Jim work as Educational Consultants to enhance the English experiences of students through discussions.  Each week a different student hosts a different discussion.  Today’s was about fashion.  A reading by Thorstein Veblen titled “The Economic Theory of Woman’s Dress” was read allowed and then the students broke up into small groups to discuss two questions: one was to think of examples of “conspicuous waste,” a concept taken from the essay written by Veblen where he criticizes women’s dress as wasteful and lauds the practicality and affordability of clothing.  The second question was whether a longyi was clothing or dress.  I wonder why they chose the writing from 1894 to apply to today’s contemporary students, all wearing western dress and speaking with American accents.  The language was dated and the idea that fashion was a non-necessity, not a form of self-expression but a veritable waste.  These students responded very logically.  They were highly critical of “dressing to impress,” party dresses, and wedding gowns.  I was surprised.  Perhaps the creative vein does not run within them.  Then again most were interested in studying things like biochemistry and economics.
I just wonder if the Western exposure they’re getting is really worth mentioning. Do a couple of magazine clippings make performance art argument worthwhile?
August 8, 2010
Today is the anniversary of the 8/8/88 uprising.  Haven’t heard a thing about it.  But I was made more aware of the difficulty of living in Myanmar than I ever have been by another artist, Aung Ko and his wife Nge Lay.  I arrived in the Eastern part of the city to a 6th floor apartment, basically one big room with a back kitchen.  We sat on the floor and began our discussion.  We covered so many things, I’m afraid I can’t recall them all.  How inappropriate to be having a conversation with these artists and pull out a voice recorder – so I never do.  They tell me to listen and consider, then write what I will.  He first explained performance art as an essay – there is an introduction, the body of the work, and the conclusion.  He explains that documentation is important.  Everyday life is not recorded but art can be, and he says it is for the importance of art history and the next generation.  He spoke about difficulty.  They all do.  He says that he had Yellow Fever once and he nearly died, but his friends and his will saved him.  He is adamant that he and his fellow artists and humans are determined not to show difficulty on the outside, even though they are facing it everyday.
“The problem is not important. The solution is.”  Aung Ko
Then he did something I never expected.  He used a film, a European made film to put into context how difficult life is for the Myanmar people.  “The Pianist.” He compared the endless suffering to the tragedies of the Holocaust, told so poetically through the story of one musician, also an artist in the face of everything.  He talked about being able to see the piano, but not being able to play, about the filthy water – how he had to brush aside the filth in order to drink, in order to stay alive.  After I left he gifted me a copy and I just finished watching it.  It was awful.  I had to fast forward some parts.  But he said he watched it over and over and over again, so taken with its message and struggle which he felt similar to his own.  Here’s what I wrote as I watched:
       being told what to do via the news, soldiers, “walk in the gutter”
       watching your people die in the street
       people disappearing with no word, no hope of finding them
       poverty
       facing death but choosing life
       terrified that one of the dead in the street will be yours
       contact/communication difficult if not impossible
       short lived sense of relief
       spawning resistance movements, to look at one another and immediately and intensely understand each other’s difficulty, no need for words
       slow and painful, daily
       when music and art is your only escape, to keep your spirits up
       the piano, it is there, he can hear it in his mind, he can imagine its music, but HE CANNOT PLAY
       mockery and misunderstanding because of ignorance
       not anger but tolerance, determination, dealing with it
       how does one react, with what mode, what materials?
       Survival
       “play something”
       when taste a bit of what you’ve been missing
       and after it was all done… MUSIC
So incredibly eye-opening.  Before I left we also discussed we spoke about language and the description of performance art in Burmese being something very different in English.  As in the word “Dead” which means one thing in English and 5 things in Burmese.  We spoke of the pure intention of the African masks, when he pulled out a book.  Their aim was to create something with power, that meant something to them.  Performance art is like a 7th sense.
“We cannot stop time but we should find peace in our daily life.”
“We are just human beings and we should relate to one another as such.  You are not just a student and a writer.  I’m not just an artist.  We are human.”
Humm 2007 – first performance work, ladders, fire, sunrise in the village, cold, in the water, “invisible ladders on the back,” refers to childhood, ladders lead to places we may never reach. Memory.
Used to create his own versions of African masks and Greek vases.  Identity, soul, spirit, purity.
Don’t worry about why when what is right in front of you.
Met Htoo at the hostel.  We sat for a few hours and drank and smoked.  It’s always the same with him.  Great talks, including relational theories and social contexts, artist gossip (not to be used for blackmail purposes) and general life frustrations.  He thought Aung Ko’s comparison was a bit dramatic.  But I think Htoo feels it differently.  His parents and sister work for the government.  In spite of them, he just says whatever he wants.  The difficulty is not as potent or emotional for him.  It’s more about practicality.  He even wrote down some thoughts in terms of my questions and vocabulary.  First impressions basically encompassed the social background and political impact.  Many artists cry censorship or limitations, hence their reactional art.  But Htoo says, “what would they do if they had complete freedom?  Would their work really change?  Maybe they would stop making it altogether.  They have no idea.”
We talked about costs.  I said 200 he said 300. I’m impressed.  It kind of depends on how much he does but I’m happy to give him at least a couple hundred.  He’s a writer so bouncing ideas off of him is so much easier than the same with an artist.  He’s responsive, discursive and keeps it light.  I hope I get to meet his wife and new baby while I’m here.
We talked about definitions of performance art.  In Burmese it has changed and evolved to fit the form over the centuries.  Htoo’s favorite term is one that means “action and presentation.”  It is recent, only a few years old, coined by a French teacher at Alliance Francaise.  We talked about the fact that almost ever single young male is a monk at some point or another, to learn meditation, a more tedious way of live.  The practice of seeking alms.  (Alms can be given in 4 forms: food, shelter, clothing, and medicine.)
Most importantly, he helped me translate a couple of passages in Mrat and Aung Min’s contemporary art book. As follows:
San Min
       noodle with soup/wide noodles (writing on painting)
       Oo Nun Wai (sp?) was San Min’s teacher.  He invited his teacher to sit with him at the table in front of the painting and drink tea with him.  On the table was chilli sauce and chillis with vinegar.
       San Min was detained by government from 1975-1978 due to political activity
       Lives on 29th Street in a small studio.  Friends with Aung Myint.
       Part of the Ganjaw Village Group since 1979
       Participated in month long artist in residence in Helsinki
Po Po
       “if we can be so bold to say there are two Po Pos.  Pre-1987 and Post 1987, when he abandoned painting
       writer afraid to say that he feels Po Po is the pioneer of conceptual art in Myanmar (Po Po would disagree)
       Po Po says how difficult it is for a viewer to enter a painting when it is illusion or reality so he asks how he can make his work reflective of reality?
       A painting laid down on the ground becomes 3D and, just as a human being, exists.
       Po Po wanted his work to become like a human being, like human life.

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