Reject – Catalog Essay for pLay


The major problem in the approach to art in Myanmar today is the presumption that the contemporary has not yet grown out of the long-isolated country.  Those who work within the Southeast Asian art world now know this not to be true.   However, information is scarce and excepting those who have personally encountered the it, access to works, videos or writings are nonexistent.  The remedy is a self-educated audience, artists assuming the roles of teachers and consideration of Myanmar art as present under the umbrella of a global canon.

One of the most interesting and active branches of the contemporary in Myanmar is performance art.  However one may refer to this genre (live art, body art, action art) its intention and form offers some of the greatest insights not only into the time and space of a work but the concepts and history behind an artist and their place of origin.  Nora Taylor, a regional expert in Vietnamese performance art, describes the bodies of artists as tools of performance and goes on to say that in Vietnam, action art uses “simple tools or irreducible things” to challenge the traditional works.  The traditional or vernacular within the Southeast Asian region tends to have a final goal, whereas contemporary performance is seen more as process.[1]  Taylor contextualizes the key differences within the region while still enveloping Southeast Asian performance art as part of a greater international action art canon.

The performance artworks of Myanmar face even more of a challenge than those of Vietnam or other Southeast Asian nations.  In addition to limited information on the subject, the media, from the art world or otherwise, offers only one perspective on a country and population with many layers.  The result is an overly politicized view, which of course spills into the critique on Myanmar’s artists and artworks. More and more Myanmar artists travel the world to share their gestural expressions, often within the streets and public spaces of international cities.  Yet they are often mistaken as political prisoners, like the Russian ballet dancers of the Soviet Era.  Fragile and unknown, they slip into the ever-growing number performance festivals and gatherings throughout the world. The word “political” inevitably comes up when analyzing the works of the artists.  Yet the worlds of politics and art in Myanmar coexist to different ends.  In his essay, “Performance Art Events in Yangon Streets,” Myanmar critic Aung Min equates politics with rivalry and temporary unification and art with peace and permanent cohesion.[2]  The artists who choose performance in Myanmar seek the path of exchange within a globalised space and time.[3]

What Osage Singapore achieved with their exhibition “plAy: Art from Myanmar Today,” was a detailed look at thirteen artists whose worlds extend beyond the political.  It broke the barriers of misconception and asked the international audience to consider the other aspects of life Myanmar.  Appropriately, the show opened with a performance piece by Aung Myint. “The Intruders,” Aung Myint’s performance-turned-installation, explored the status-quo of Myanmar’s society as part of the exhibition titled “plAy: Art in Myanmar Today.”  By creating a life-size map of Myanmar, complete with “playful” objects and signage, Aung Myint transferred his own feelings on identity and isolation to an international audience.  This is a recurring theme of performance art in Myanmar today.  Given the lack of opportunity to move freely – whether in borders, thoughts or actions – the artists (often unconsciously) assume the roles of educators, audience members become students, and the artwork becomes a representation rather than a performative act.

It must be stated that most Myanmar performance artists only just began to perform for international audiences in the last ten years.  Before then and over the last decade they performed for fellow Myanmar artists or the general population of Myanmar.[4]  Therefore, “audience” includes both local and international audience members.  Misconstrued meanings grow out of both camps.  The artist’s challenge to reach the audience through performance art exists both in his home country and abroad.  In order to do this, they not only educate but become one of the audience.

No matter where the audience member is from, representation in Myanmar performance art is often interpreted as political.[5]  This interpretation stands in opposition to the idea of time and space-based art; that is, if viewed as political the audience neglects the gestures and moments of action art.  Such as it is, the artwork must assume a certain amount of misunderstanding on the part of the audience.  Myanmar poet Nyein Way, who often performs his poetry with performance artists, likened the misinterpretation of the audience to ventriloquism: “You throw your voice out there and it comes back as something totally different.”[6]  The key problem in rationalizing the reception of the action artworks is how to rectify this lack of understanding without utilizing the representative?  If one cannot neglect representation, how can the action art of Myanmar achieve both the time/space based element as well as the conceptual and representative?

One way is for the artwork to include the audience. By include, I mean the artwork or artist interrupts, interacts, invites or encounters members of the audience in a public setting.   This can be considered a particular characteristic of the performance art in Myanmar.  There does exist a culture of resistance and confrontation, especially prevalent over the last 50 years. [7] Not to mention the lack of resources and gallery spaces encourage a more grassroots approach to performance.  When Nyein Chan Su walked the streets of Yangon with his head in a nest of wire in 1997, he met with the public at street level.  He said he found the wire and acted on his simple desire to wear and walk with it.  His friend followed him with a camera.  Po Po created his first public performance around the same time, lying down in the middle of his gallery showing.  Po Po was already creating installations, paintings and photography at that time; no doubt the reaction of the audience was surprise and confusion.

[1] Nora Taylor interview Art Radar Journal, September 2009

[2] Beyond Pressure Art Catalog 2008

[3] It should be clarified that there are some artists who of course feel like political prisoners within their own country.  I am more trying to address the way the art is seen rather than delve into the sensitive subject of what the political situation is in Myanmar.

[4] this includes villages, city folk, government censors and generally those with no art background whatsoever.

[5] For example, people on the streets  (or the police etc) of Myanmar are used to protest.  An artist performing in the street might be likened to he who is making a protest of some kind.

[6] thesis appendix, interview with Nyein Way

[7] for example, protests, censorship, the intensity of spirits

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