The Scars of Burma

4 November 2012

Artist Nyein Chan Su, artist and owner of Studio Square Contemporary Works Gallery in Yangon, likes to post event announcements on Facebook. Even if on short notice, admirers and artists alike will show themselves at each and every event. Not so on this Sunday in November. Barely a crowd, the audience members who turned up were friends and assistants of the participants of The Scars of Burma, the most recent performance event in Yangon to date.

Two hours were devoted to five artists including MSO (Maung San Oo), NCS (Nyein Chan Su), Kaung Su, Phyu Mon and Ma Ei. Each of them have years, even decades of artistic practice under their belt and no doubt this event was held amongst friend to mark the year of change confusion Myanmar is facing at present. For two hours, artists marked their frustration and vulnerability through body-based and interactive performance works to reveal their personal feelings on past isolation and present community, whose scars are now laid bare for the world to see.

It is not enough to describe each performance as individually expressive or canonical. Rather the performances’ importance resides in the way they are juxtaposed against one another, some strong and sassy and others methodical and safe. Ma Ei brought the sass with the first performance of the afternoon.

Never one to shy away from the sometimes cliché but always underrated subject of women in society, Ma Ei sat on an exercise ball larger than herself, against a table, her precarious position making her appear ready to tumble off at any time. Already the crowd was in suspense and as usual, the introverted artist commanded attention when she told a male audience member to choose from the make-up kits on the table beside her and decorate her face as he so chose. After each member placed blush, lipstick, black eyeshadow and more blush on her face, she took a hand mirror and primly observed herself, each time demanding more make-up. Finally satisfied, the unpacked her dress longyi (a type of traditional Myanmar sarong) and dropped it on the floor, after which the exercise ball was abandoned and she was on her feet, undressing under the longyi and tossing her loose shirt and pants to the side.

By the end, she was facing the small audience, looking thin and delicate in her traditional clothes, wearing the smile of a 5 year old who had just got into her mother’s make-up kit and made a mess. It was a scary and sad sight, her face made up by men who determined how she should look. Whether in a longyi or in jeans, the men in society still have a large stock in determining what and who is beautiful. Perhaps the scars left on the women are shown through all the materials one uses to “improve” oneself, be it clothes or exercise balls or make-up.

Scars are left on the victims of terror, so much so that that there is no time to self-analyze. But what Ma Ei does is use that hand mirror to reflect her own self and what she represents, as artist or woman. While the other artists used their own body as canvas, to paint and mark those scars, Ma Ei was the only one who looked at herself in the mirror, a self-reflective glance of what is to become of her.

With equal passion but more pugnacious, MSO and Kaung Su both used drawing to express their scars. Numbers and letters were written all over MSO’s body while he struggled on stool and floor. As is consistent with his other performance works, he acts under self-torture and in this particular setting, did not reflect on the scars but recreated them on his own body, using none other than Ma Ei’s lipstick. How did he channel her pain as well, using a female beauty product rather than paint?

In fact, MSO and Kaung Su’s performances reminded me of another performance done by Chaw Ei Thein in New York City in 2010. She recreated prison torture tactics, which many of the political prisoners have undergone over the tumultuous years of Myanmar’s military rule. She tripped and fell, covered herself in writing and drawings of faces, and tied herself up in order to experience the same humiliation that those prisoners must have felt. MSO, without direct references to his counterpart, creates a prison all his own through his performances.

Similarly, Kaung Su, using a bright red stamp, quickly marked his own white shirt with a big X, audience member’s hands and shoulders, and 2 pieces of paper, which he stood on throughout. To recognize that stamp as a tactic of categorical oppression is to realize how our own chosen markings, like make-up or letters and numbers, are a contribution to our own demise through complacency.

Nyein Chan Su and Phyu Mon recognized the scars through the familiar and practiced. As if knowing oneself is the first step toward knowing why you were wounded and have finally healed. The alternative being that once healed, you reopen your scars and visit again what was always there. In their practice it is  Nyein Chan Su’s utilization of red paint as a covering and Phyu Mon’s balloons which allow them to see their scars clearly. It has been years since they both began using these mediums as constants in their performances.

Phyu Mon’s quiet methodology in her performance speaks to her personal character in public, subdued but never faltering. As she covered the balloons in pages from local journals, she asked audience members to blow up balloons for her, as if, without them, the scars could not be revealed. After the balloons and paper had been covered with a long black cloth piece, she took a screwdriver, the size of her lithe arm, and with a loud POP destroyed each one. It was as though she had filled the balloons with the thoughts of those scars and, having suffocated them with printed news, freed them of propaganda with that decisive POP. It is no secret in Yangon that more and more journals come to print every month, no doubt a reaction to the alieviation of censorship laws (in name only) in Myanmar in the past 6 months. Phyu Mon, who has been working as a performance artist since the late 90s, might be the first to tell an unscarred youth to be careful of what is contained within those pages.

Ma Ei and MSO used lipstick to show their scars, or represent someone’s scars, and Phyu Mon used the delicate balloon and the heavy print. Kaung Su chose a red stamp as his act of scarring and Nyein Chang Su, in the last performance of the event, combined the previously used materials in an unconscious display of collective victimhood. The final performance began with an egg wrapped in a piece of journal paper and a white sheet spread on the floor.

NCS unwrapped the paper and held the egg while he chose a sentence to read. He then shouted at no one in particular and smashed the egg onto the white sheet. It followed with many more sheets and many more eggs, though some were preserved or handed to audience members and sheets were wrapped around the arms of onlookers. NCS, satisfied with the use of print journalism, got under the sheet and ordered the audience to throw the eggs directly at him. Red then seeped from the white sheet and as Nyein Chan Su crawled and squirmed across the floor, the audience watched with oddly knowing stares. Complete in his suffocation, the artist tossed off the now red sheet, tied it up and lifted it to the ceiling. It was a gross and dark testament to those scars which were never healed.

It is always difficult to analyze performances at events such as this one. Often artists have interpreted the title of the event in their own way, having never consulted their peers or fellow participants. It is not necessary to share the underlying meanings vocally – they must be experienced physically, with eyes and interaction. These artists chose to show the scars of the country of Burma through abused materials and movements. They left no choice but interpretation from the audience. And in the silence that follows every performance, there lies the healing of both artist and audience, the sewing up of wounds and scabbing over of scars, until they are opened again.

 

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