What a weekend. The 5th Beyond Pressure – now multimedia art – Festival held 2 days of workshops, 2 days of symposiums, an opening night in the Sein Lan So Pyay gardens, displaying installation, video and graffiti art AND a performance event in the Kara Weik Gardens last night. It’s not over yet! Today the artists will go to the city of Pyay to interact and study with the spaces through their performance.
For the record, I was skeptical, not to mention disappointed, that this year’s festival was not exclusively performance art. As mentioned in my previous post, the “international multimedia” claim is a bit played out. But, also for the record, I was wrong. Beyond Pressure V went beautifully and perhaps the most charming aspects were the art pieces in the public gardens of Sein Lan So Pyay and the crowd-pleasing performances in Kara Weik.
I’ve had many an argument with comrades – those not working in the art world (such as it is) – regarding performance art and its “elitism.” They say it’s pretentious and not for everyone and too difficult to interpret. But what I saw last night proved them wrong. Women, men and children, young and old, crowded around the performance artists last night for HOURS. The curiosity and confusion on their faces made it one of the most exciting performance events I’ve ever seen. In fact, myself and other writers and artists were mainly relegated to the sidelines of the crowd, without a proper view. The critical eyes were sidelined. How often can you say that about a performance event?
Duc D, a visiting Vietnamese artist, said that they did not understand, only observed. I think that’s valuable too, especially since some artists claim is it pure expression through action. This means they greatly benefit from simply “registering” the movements, rather than digesting what those movements mean. A personally touching moment was when my friend and Burmese tutor, Winma, who I brought along to observe, reacted poignantly to Malaysian artist Istan Rafiza’s work.
Istan bought a cage full of birds in the market. In her performance she gingerly removed the dead birds from the bottom of the cage and buried them in the ground in the garden where the performances were held. Then she took wire-cutters and slowly removed the top of the cage, before reaching in and “freeing” the birds. I say “freeing” because she later explained her concept to me. Some of those birds are free inside the cage, because everyone’s definition of a cage is different. Some people find freedom in religion, and some see religion as nothing but another kind of cage.
Winma has never seen a performance art work and she had no preconception of what it might be. I only told her to have an open mind. When she saw Istan releasing birds from the cage, she noticed that some birds didn’t fly away. She then said to me, “you know, it’s like us in Burma. We’ve been in a cage for so long, we don’t know how to be free anymore.” A few minutes later some tiny, flying thing landed on her skirt. She was scared and started to shake her skirt, thinking it was a bat. When I reached down, I picked up the frightened baby bird and held it up for her to see. Once up higher, it could fly into the tree, and so it did. However symbolic or sentimental it may sound, we both felt like we had been touched by that particular performance. Watching performance art, or viewing any kind of art, isn’t always about what the artist wants you to see or feel. It’s about your own interpretation. Some observers of the performance event last night asked if they were filming a movie or putting on a magic show. (Note, I later found out that organizer Moe Satt did in fact register the event as a magic show, in order to get around certain restrictions and censors). Did their perceptions take away from the event or make them understand any more or less? Not really. Like I said, the people who were there to see performance art couldn’t even get a decent view!
Now onto the “multimedia” aspect of this year’s Beyond Pressure: overheard some artists complain about less payment for performance artists and some confusion from other non-performance practitioners about what performance art actually is; these are all good things. The interactions were ace. The best part was the art work in the garden at Sein Lan So Pyay. Phu Mon’s towering rattan sculpture with tiny, curtained windows cut out so that one could look IN, Rudy from Jakarta wrapped trees and benches in white tape, Bibi from Kuala Lumpur collaborating with Myanmar graffiti artists on a large panel placed in the middle of the garden, all of these and more offered the public an experience with new and multimedia art from abroad. There is a real need for public art in Yangon.
I’ll close with what I thought was the most beautiful addition to the park. Artist Sudsiri Pui-Ock from Thailand told me that she had asked Moe Satt prior to the festival about the gardens. She wanted to get an idea of what they looked like but also why people went there, what do they do there? She poked and prodded Moe Satt and it eventually came out that mainly young people go there, they’re usually lovers, and they like to sit on the benches along the lake where they can talk and kiss privately. Su then created mosquito-like nets in bright colors. They could stand alone or hang from the trees and offer the young people that much more privacy.
When I asked her about the piece, she said that this kind of innocence is now lost in Thailand. Young people display their affection in public. But here in Myanmar, she was touched by the subtle, conservative way relationships are maintained. There was some objection by the park manager, who said he didn’t want the kids doing inappropriate things behind the curtains. But the young people flocked to them and by the time of the show opening at 6 o’clock, when the sun had just set, the installation pieces along the lake were all occupied with couples, doing “inappropriate” things.