We are officially opening on 9 June 2016 with The Ash (1970 – ) a solo exhibition by the bold and experimental artist Nyein Chan Su, a household name among contemporary artists in Myanmar. We are proud to be a part of this investigative look into Myanmar’s past as Burma, the Socialist Utopia created by Ne Win, and its simultaneous effect on women, including Nyein Chan Su’s own aunt, a famous actress in the 1970s, and of course, The Lady herself, who was just a young woman at the time, not yet aware of the profound impact she would later have on her country.
Please join us 9 June 2016 for our Myanm/art space debut and Nyein Chan Su’s exhibition The Ash (1970). Starts at 6 pm.
Please see below for our essay on the work of NCS – oil and digital scans printed on vinyl.
The Ash (1970- ) at Myanm/art
By Nathalie Johnston
It is with great pleasure that Myanm/art is able to present this new series by Nyein Chan Su (NCS) titled The Ash (1970- ). It takes a courageous artist to bring forth the topic of the past when the image of the future is all that anyone in this transitioning society can speak about. But NCS recognizes something that many of us do not – one cannot understand or predict the future without deeply investigating the past, with all its images of grandeur and flawed logic. NCS takes those images that many regard to be all too familiar – The Lady, the former flag of the Socialist Union of Burma, the archival photographs of actors and citizens – and offers the viewers an opportunity to reassess what Burma’s past means for Myanmar’s future.
The Burmese Way to Socialism, the introduction to which was started under U Nu in 1948, and radically devolved into a debilitating movement under Ne Win starting in 1962, is still affecting the nation today. Myanmar is once again reinventing itself in the wake of real change.
NCS volleys between a particular painting technique, with thick swathes of color built up to the abstract images of Myanmar’s most famous landscapes, and a multimedia approach steeped in history and mixed use vinyl, oil paint and photography. These are his performative works, translating research and rendition into personal images reflecting on history. NCS questions the young generation, asking if they know what it meant to grow up over many decades of isolation. He remembers with images of his own childhood, and perhaps unwittingly questions their significance. How many times must we talk about this flag? How many ways can we interpret its meaning and who it represents? What of The Lady and how has she changed? What does this history mean in the present day? Who is the enemy now?
NCS deftly addresses these issues through a series of portraits – photographs printed on vinyl, overlain with smears of oil paint and those all too familiar colors of red and blue. The Socialist flag of Burma, used from 1974-2010, is one to which many citizens are still attached. The flag was that of the Socialist Union and the Union of Myanmar, the protestors of the 8/8/88 movement and the military regime. It colored everyday life with pride and isolation, violence and unity, wardens and prisoners. Then one day, it too was rendered part of the past. Hence, NCS washing over the portraits with the colors of the flag, associating the people, the citizens of that flag, locked in time.
The use of vinyl to portray these portraits has much to do with the comparison of then and now – the plastic takeover of Myanmar, the unnatural smell, feel, and quality of the material that is cheap and easy to use. NCS reinvents it while seeming to mourn the loss of tradition. The old cinematic glamour of his aunt’s photograph in black and white is similarly cheapened by the presence of plastic. Myanmar’s golden age of cinema is no longer – the classic film era along with the old, hand-painted movie posters, have been replaced by poor quality pop culture. What happened to those good old days?
In an interview with Blouin Art Info in 2013, Nyein Chan Su described his aunt, pictured in many of the portraits in his newest series:
“My aunt Toe Toe Lwin was a movie actress who worked in the 1970s. She sang many songs for the state-run radio Burma Broadcasting Service. She acted in 20 films and was the lead in five. During the socialist regime instituted in 1966, she had to perform for free. In 1982, she got married to a captain from the Burmese military and since then, she stopped working in the arts as her husband did not appreciate her doing cinema nor any other art form.” – NCS
Women have always been an integral part of society, and as compared to many other nations, female leaders in local communities, the family unit, and in politics are not altogether uncommon. Toe Toe Lwin was a movie star, an idealized female character, but in her marriage she was no longer an actress. In the past she was young and beautiful, now she is elderly – a relic of a Burma that does not exist anymore. Whereas The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, has only gained relevance and prestige through her image, unstoppable in past and present.
The use of the flag in the new series is meant to posit questions about how we should speak about the past and present. What was once a clear divide between government and citizens under one flag, is now a named transition between citizens and government, under a different flag. The ills and wants of the past still reign. The conditions in the cities and the countryside have hardly changed. In hindsight, Socialism was a simpler time. Today presents numerous challenges to the individual who now is empowered, supposedly, with far more choices.
Nyein Chan Su (NCS) is testing the strength of the history, willing the power of a flag of the past to show itself, guide the restless, wash the guilty, all the while embracing the new plastics: vinyl, capital, and commerce. What does Myanmar wish for the future? When the men and women who lived through the Socialist regime envisioned a democracy, was it the same one Myanmar is experiencing today? Herein lies the contradiction of the series – the flag versus The Lady, the photograph versus the oil paint, the plastic versus the canvas. Each fights for the attention of the viewer. Which image, which material will win? Nostalgia plays favorites and the results are in: history, defined by the symbols and images of our past, repeats itself.
– Nathalie Johnston (2016)