China Myanmar Myanmar China
When describing performance art in China versus Myanmar, I’ve often stated that there is an enduring pain and violence examined in works by Chinese artists, in opposition to the Myanmar performances, which tend to be a delicate and somewhat self-censored look into daily life, social interactions, and frustrations. I would not be surprised, however, if the artists shared exactly the same sentiments and totally and completely understood one another especially in this transitional time. I long to see the two groups come together for some kind of performance exchange. There is much to discuss and a long and infamous political history between the two country’s governments which bears discussion and active commentary.
This transition that Myanmar is now going through – China seems to have experienced something similar over 30 years ago. Not smooth, not without its fights or disagreement, but a time when the trauma of years gone by acts like an aphrodisiac, and sends everyone into chaos – creatively and socially. People talking, putting themselves out, news stories, artwork display which was previously censored, the topics they never touched, the lives they lived that never seemed to be complete until now. Not all can be compared. Myanmar experienced a definitive censorship under dictators just over 50 years and most people were impoverished and well aware that the humility and pain they were facing was the direct result of their government. China, on the other hand, still experiences censorship in a major way and there was no dictator, there was Mao. Let’s not be so naïve to call him thus. He remains a veritable god in China and his leadership changed China forever, many would argue for the better…eventually.
But there is a consistent strain of conversation which artists in both countries engage with: that is the the fact that the institutions do not exist (at least not outside the art market), funding is scarce, expectations are high and the general quality of mass art production is low. Not to mention, there is a scarring which occurred from previous generations of painters and artists. Temple and traditional art became propaganda art, with a few imitation Euro-modern painters. This is not to say Myanmar and China do not have their points of pride, it is merely pointing to various quotes from artists which say “whatever exists now is not enough – there is more.”
I hope I will continue this exploration in posts to come, but for now, here is a brief anecdote from this past Saturday, when I heard 2 resident Beijing artists speak about their experiences.
Wu Yuran spoke at Home Shop this weekend in Beijing and began by describing the artist struggle with art institutions versus government institutions. It has been observed that China is full of institutional support and funding. Unfortunately such support is overshadowed by mechanisms of censorship and global market acceptance of certain artists and not others. Wu Yuran describes what many artists feel about their counterparts, or even countrymen, exhibiting in the West, “admiring them for their freedom.” It wasn’t so long ago that I heard Myanmar artists lamenting the same – those Burmese artists in London and New York were able to be “political” without consequences. Artists back home still had to struggle against the machine of discontent, live action censoring, and almost total lack of funding.
Wu Yuran mocked these institutions in 2009 with his installation, “The art here stinks.” He took gutter oil from the sewer systems (the same rumored to be used in cooking for those who wanted to save money) and drew in bold letters in the gallery “the art here stinks” – using the same oil. The gallery began to smell instantly and it was difficult to stomach for more than a few minutes. It is thought that he was commenting on the arrogance of the Beijing art world, believing they were coming from a place of honest and authentic stature when really, they “stunk” of corruption just like every other valuated art world. Myanmar artists don’t exist in the auction house, in fact they barely factor into news reports or even art magazines. There is no valuation system – yet. But the distinct smell of something about to go wrong is there. So many times has China relayed its successes to its political system and yet acts as a consumer economy in line with the US and western Europe. Myanmar is well familiar with all the ways in which the world, and their own government, has taken advantage of them. They are not tricked by who values them because, indeed going back to the pre-colonial period and all its fractured societies, there was no union.
In a documentary by 10 Men called “On Hteedan Road,” they film the children who climb onto the trucks to collect palm oil out of large canisters of waste. They squeeze the oil out into their buckets, transfer to carry-on containers, and sell it on the street to restaurants and cafes. The waste that we create is recycled and reused by ourselves.
Wu Yuran then proceeded to explain his dilemma with the city government in the artist studio district Section 8. He and many of his art contemporaries joined together to conduct protests, sit-ins, and documentation of the brutal treatment of artists by local police and their hired thugs. He later spent almost a year in jail for his part in organizing such activities from 2010-2011. He wisely pointed out that “you can’t make art unless you are paying attention to what’s around you. There are artists concerned with their work and the market, and then there are artists who care for their work in society.” Another exquisite performance of his was digging about 5.8 feet into the floor of a gallery. Enter 4 artists, who held up a wooden part of the floor on their heads. Guests would unknowingly tread on the floorboard, not knowing their weight was born by the people below. A telling example of how much of the world operates today – whatever we enjoy exists because someone had to suffer.
It is not difficult to see the correlation between artists in China and those elsewhere. Theirs is a public struggle but not given much focus because it is art. In Myanmar the government was well-aware of the “poison” spread by art-related activities. Just as China experienced a forcible entry into propaganda art and bumpy road to contemporary practice, so too did Myanmar. It was the late 1970s in China when things really began to change, as they are now for Myanmar. Foreigners began creeping in, investment opportunities grew by the day, cars were imported, factory products exported, allowances were made because there was an opening up. In Myanmar, they say it’s because censorship ended that foreign governments were then encouraged to invest. But that is not true. Censorship never ended in China and the Western world was perfectly willing to engage. In Burma, there are opportunities to take advantage and exploit. So they invest.
Fang Lu of Video Bureau in Beijing said there are no resources, libraries or institutions to support educational endeavors related to art. Artists who found associations are “focused on speed and quantity rather than infrastructural construction.” With video bureau she hopes to be in “constant adaptation to the local ecology while everything else seems to be focused on galleries and sales.”
*How would a Video Bureau go down in China? There is not even enough video art to fill one bookshelf. But an archive… that would be something.
To be continued…
Performance Art in China
Where China Meets India
Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence