Process: Repeat – Myanmar Contemporary Photography Explores the Continuity of Life and Death
In keeping with the 2012 theme at the China Pingyao International Photography Festival, Returning and Exceeding, this year’s artist photographers from Myanmar display selected works representing their ideas on life, death and its role in nature. In Myanmar there is a special relationship not only to a physical world surrounding human life, but also the processes of the human body in relationship to that physical world. Much of this has to do with Myanmar’s environmental make-up. From high peaks in the Himalayan mountain range, to deep jungle forests teaming with flora, fauna and creatures, to the mighty Ayeyarwady River, the lifeblood of the country running from far North all the way South to the Andaman Sea.
Another reason for the relationship to life, death and nature is the weight given to spirituality throughout the population. Thousands of temples dot the landscape and Buddhism is practiced by nearly 90% of all people. Birth and rebirth are in constant play between humans and nature. It is easy to see why artists choose to explore the processes of life and death with the evolving presence of nature as the setting.
We begin with Ma Ei, a young female artist working in Yangon. Over the past 5 years, she has participated in over 20 exhibitions throughout the country and a many abroad. Her work often discusses themes on gender politics and the life cycle of a subject matter, namely herself. Ma Ei’s self portraits not only describe her own feelings on place in the process of life and death, but how women are placed within that process. Very close to her Buddhist roots, she describes her belief in Samara:
“I believe in Buddhism…Samara, which as I know, is an endless rebirth/death of oneself in different time, space and body. “Endless” plays a major part in my art.”
Not only does she draw on her major themes of life as it is interpreted and lived by women (bearers of new generations of human beings with cyclical bodily processes) but also the Buddhist belief in the death, return to nature and the rebirth of the human being into something new. One can see the imitations of cells, skeletons, fetuses, and various life forms bordering her self-portraits. Ma Ei explores the woman’s body as the portal through which life travels. Her body amongst rose petals symbolizes the nature of death and returning to earth.
The next artist displayed is Nge Lay, another young female artist working in Yangon. Nge Lay often uses photography as her artistic medium, along with performance and installation. In the series ‘Observing of Self on Being Dead,’ she questions the differences between life and death based upon her own experiences:
“…Death became very interesting to me after I had experience with a close, young and old friend’s death one after another, my father’s last days in my childhood, and my own loss of a child before I have known – boy or girl? Can death really put the life to an end?”
Experiencing her own joys and tragedies of life and death, she too uses her body, thereby producing a self-portrait amongst nature. Many of the images were photographed on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, that mighty body of water, which allows the people of Myanmar to live, grow and travel through their homeland. She appears in the photographs to have died a violent death, covered in blood. What she asks, however, is what is the difference between life and death, as she lies amongst nature, the human’s natural surroundings? What are we by repeating a life process? The blood on her body speaks to the pain she experienced in life but her stillness the peace we achieve through death.
Both female artists bring so many aspects of their cultural upbringing and surrounding environments to their photography. Perhaps more importantly, they identify themselves as part of the larger conversation. They use their bodies as subject, object and theme.
Identifying the bonds between the process and repetition in life and death becomes a bit more complex with our last artists, Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu. This husband-and-wife team often collaborates on projects that use photography, video, installation and sculpture as mediums. ‘Seascape’ is a project completed in 2002. Though it does not carry the weight of life and death with human as subject, it connects the tree in the Myanmar countryside not only to the photographer but the objects, which hang from its branches. These objects are fish, made with cardboard and paint, transpose the sea to the tree. Life supports symbolic life and the process repeats once again, asking what forms life may take, after death and in rebirth.
This exhibit reflects the deep and questioning nature of life and death and our profound relationship to it. These artists from Myanmar, Ma Ei, Nge Lay, Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu, all use photography to examine not only themselves but also their environments in order to express their relationship with life’s complex processes. Myanmar as a country embodies the contemporary state of Process: Repeat, with its continued evolution not only in environment but its people, politics, society and culture. It is “opening night” this year for Myanmar and the world is their stage. These photos set the scene for what existed in the past, what continues in the present and what it will mean to the future. The process of life and death, repeated.