Thuye’dan Village – February 2013

I took one month to reflect on my attendance at the Thuye’dan village event and I still cannot seem to put it into words, at least not without failing to do it justice. Hence my surrender to the journal-style entry and my hope that some analysis will come forth from it.

In 2010, I met Aung Ko and Nge Lay. They invited me into their home, they fed me, they told me about their vision as artists in Burma. I was impassioned by their insistence that community art cannot be made with the support of a foundation but only by the support of the artists who grow in that community. Aung Ko explained their project in Thuye’dan, his home village on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River, and the freedom it allowed the artists. Three years later, as I walked along the same river beach where he grew up in Thuye’dan, he said to me “you feel so free, right?” Ya, I truly did.

I had seen the hundreds of photos of all the artists working in Thuye’dan over the last 5 years: the schoolchildren making paper fish with Wah Nu for her installation piece (the photographs of which I showed in 2012 at the Pingyao Photography Festival), MSO sitting on a plastic chair in the river, Aung Myint crouching in the sand, Po Po instructing the village engineer to make concrete his conceptual visions, Aung Ko’s ladder on fire, Nge Lay’s family portraits and many many more. I liked the concept and felt the connection to the land and the village. But I couldn’t know how close one felt to the work and the ideas until I went there myself.

I took the bus over the Yoma Rakine (mountain range dividing Western and Middle Burma) – an extremely bumpy, uncomfortable ride on a 40 year old bus carrying dried fish, coconuts and sandbags. It was sad to see the dusty mountains – no more trees. But coming upon the Ayeyarwaddy River the landscape came alive again and it seemed that everyone’s livelihood depended on it. Two hours from Pyay is Thuye’dan, a 20 minute drive off the main road filled with cattle and teak houses and dirt roads. Aung Ko was in his element and all the artists present were immediately at home, drinking palm wine and saying hello to neighbors.

The first order of business was the village library, a dilapidated teak house in desperate need of repairs, with stacks of old paperback books lining the walls and tables. A group of village elders, all men, sat around and discussed with artists like Po Po the needs of the library and how best to raise the money for new materials (and a new building.) The Thuye-dan project is not just about “making art” – it’s about that ever-present need to intertwine the art and life of life. And it’s a problematic thing, however beautiful.

Why do we have all these spaces and institution if we can simply “return to the village” and create meaning out of our pasts? This may seem like an unfair question: of course we can create meaning out of our pasts, as well as make objects, and bring attention to a place to create active interest and support, right? I prefer to think of this kind of project as an exercise for artists. A workshop or reawakening. It is arguable that one can create commodity out of the experience itself and though I find the whole thing completely inspiring, I should not say that the “return to the village” is the project itself. The lines delineated by the artists present are what becomes the art object – that which can be taken to the museum or the gallery. If artists run high on emotion and inspiration from their pasts, it’s a wonder that we expect them to make anything at all in a studio with white walls.

I could go on about the bathing in the river, or the boat at sunrise to the Buddhist temple on top of a mountain on full moon day, or even dressing in traditional dress to honor the head monk and eat coconut rice – but I”ll spare the details for another time. All you need to know is that Thuye’dan is real and the artists in Myanmar who prefer to get out of the city to make their art are more than enough to fill any museum you can think of with whatever object or installation of performance their pasts may inspire. This may be why the recent Guggenheim exhibit was so disappointing… but that’s another post.

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