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For most of the time the mere mention of Burma (or Myanmar, as it is now called) will conjure up the images of military dictatorship, censorship, loss of civil liberties and of course, Aung San Suu Kyi, who in her bearing embodies the suffering of all these conditions. This may be the present political plight of the country but like all states that have passed through illiberality, the restrictive atmosphere has not completely stultified Burma’s cultural production and artistic voices. Totalitarian oppression is also a common spur to art, as is well known. The junta has provided Burmese artists with a suitable antagonist, one which they detest and yet one which inexorably powers their expression. It is in the realm of contemporary art that one perhaps finds this relationship at its most vivid and complex.
Whilst the world is busy raging against the Burmese regime, another kind of transformation is taking place as the country is slowly attempting to reach out to its (albeit select) international counterparts and admit capitalistic forces. Its contemporary artists are, equally, moving outwards into the global art circuit and showing the rest of us what can actually go on behind the ostensible iron curtain. Apropos of this subtle shift in the country’s economic and cultural climate, though this does not diminish the reality of the junta’s political stranglehold, the curators of the Burmese art exhibition at Osage Singapore, Isabel Ching and Yin Ker, decided to title the show simply ‘Play’. Injecting levity into the perception of a country that has often been associated with tragedy and gravitas, the curators usefully turned the conventional image of Burma on its head and try to engage the viewer’s imagination of the quotidian rituals in the country and the quiet dignity of its people. The exhibition was a demonstration of the artistic act as a signifier of ‘resilience’ and at the same time a ‘respite from reality’, as Ching and Ker pointed out in their curatorial foreword, quoting Johan Huizinga on the seriousness of play from his classic book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.
There was no missing the underlying political commentary in many of the exhibition’s featured works, but most spurned the route of drama and trauma, and instead focused on surfacing humour, daily absurdities and societal contradictions. Emily Phyo’s The Taste of Liquid was a good example as she brought into the gallery an earthen pot, traditionally used for keeping drinking water cool, filled with Coca-Cola, her own favourite drink. The pot had been broken during her flight to Singapore but she gamely strung up bits of it and used the remaining half as a crucible for the beverage, branding her pot with its trademark. The evaporating and undrinkable liquid spoke pointedly to the artist’s thwarted desires and yet was thoroughly shot through with the frivolity of disposable consumerism. In a similar vein, Burmese pioneer artist of the contemporary idiom, Aung Myint, provided a keen observation of the invasion of vulgar materialistic sentiments with his performance-installation The Intruders. Mapping out the shape of his country on the floor with strewn rice grains, he gradually filled the interior with toy vehicles, printed images of sexually suggestive women, cigarette boxes and beer cans, showing the collision of Burma’s agrarian base with urban commercialisation. Looming large above his work was The Maw Naing’s Untitled (Gently immerse like an oar, Like its blade that circles above water), a giant plastic scroll on which was printed repeatedly a single line from one of his poems. Unintelligible to the non-Pali-reading viewer, the poem functioned like a mute witness to the situation which Aung Myint drew out, and was every bit more ironic given that poetry recitation and performance is a well-loved activity in Burma. This silence was a timely reminder to us that not all is readily perceivable and understood about the country, including the esoteric lottery game of che ti and its arcane methods of number guessing, which was the subject of MPP Yei Myint’s posters Playing with 3 Numbers. According to his imagery, his country is ablaze with strange numerical divinations, displaying a maze of impenetrable symbols.
Works that were more in keeping with the theme of ‘play’ were, however, the more appealing works in the exhibition and they were certainly almost the funniest. Min Thein Sung’s penchant for traditional Shan paper was amply displayed in his mural installation of Shan Paper replicas of childhood objects. But this was surely trumped by his life-sized modern toilet crafted entirely out of Shan paper which was placed facing a video projection of rural pastures. Titled Restroom, its concept was wryly tongue-in-cheek but the work was earnestly felt by all who have ever yearned freedom from inhibition, whether in thought, feeling or bodily functions. Tun Win Aung’s The Train was similarly lighthearted. His video installation mixed three views: one view showed what the onlooker sees as the train moves steadily, the second was a stop-animation clip of a crude line of white bricks moving through different settings as if it were a real train, and the last showed the actual model train emerging from one of the installation walls. Despite the melancholy of his personal story of rushing by train to see his dying father, which motivated this work, The Train impressed by virtue of an effective comic transmutation of a near universal commuter experience.
Unlike their artistic predecessors, who were interested in advancing assimilated pictorial modes of the Western, Indian, Chinese and Thai varieties, the Burmese artists (or one should say edited list of works) on show at Osage mostly appear to be eschewing the painted canvas for experiments with new media, performance and installation art, as if proving that art from Burma has not forgotten to keep pace with the ‘now’ and is inserted within the global (biennale) vernacular. And if one looks to find hackneyed expressions of Buddhist art in this group of artists, one will surely be disappointed as the only artist who referenced it, Myat Kyawt, did so in order to reposition the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhist teachings. The most spectacular of the lot in the exhibition must have been Po Po’s Terrace. Copiously planting and growing rice-saplings in numerous Styrofoam lunchboxes, he filled the gallery’s indoor auditorium steps with these boxes of greenery, transforming the space into a veritable paddy field. And in keeping with the trend for relational and participatory art, the viewer was encouraged to bring in three leaves in exchange for one of the boxes, which he or she will presumably attempt to nurture.
The artists in the show succeed in varying degrees at this endeavour to engage present-day art idioms. Those that do not satisfy visually or intellectually are mostly freighted with too much superficial translation of their experiences into clichéd messages or remain too hermetic in their communication. The exhibition mixed a sample of older, established names with younger upcoming ones, presenting a valuable cross-section of Burmese art today. But it remains to be seen whether the increasing international funding for independent art spaces (the New Zero Art Space is supported by the Prince Claus Foundation and the Asian Cultural Council) and artist exchanges in other countries will lead to a more widespread maturation and sophistication of visual thinking.