Ghosts at a dinner party

Bharti Lalwani in conversation with Dinh Q. Lé

Dinner plates and cutlery, abandoned
Unwashed dishes 
Remnants of rice and congealed gravy
Wilting flowers in vases forgotten
Wine glasses empty of their contents…

A trail of ants, a buzz of flies, 
Seating for twelve
A stench
A teak staircase…
A house uninhabited. 

Ghosts have surely been here, 
their ceaseless echoing in a villa of a hundred years.

 

The villa in question is a 1920s-built Tudor-style home on No 8, Ko Min Ko Chin Road in Yangon, that embodies a hundred year history of Burma. Originally built as the extravagant abode of an affluent Burmese-Chinese family and abandoned in the chaos of the British retreat after the Japanese attack on Yangon in 1942, this splendid building became the Headquarters of the Burmese independence movement, Aung San’s and U Nu’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) at the end of the war. Since then the building has witnessed the vicissitudes of Burmese politics pre- and post-independence.

Today the villa stands as the premises of the newly reinstated Goethe-Institut, which had closed after the 1962 military coup, and now was cautiously hosting its first thematically curated exhibition ‘Building Histories’. One of the nine artists invited by Southeast Asia specialist Iola Lenzi, to consider Myanmar’s complex past through the hundred-year history of the building, was Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê. Lenzi has collaborated with Lê previously on exhibitions such as ‘Negotiating Home, History, Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia 1991-2011’ and recently ‘The Roving Eye: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia’. 

Dinh Q. Lê orchestrated a performance titled Aung San’s Dinner on 28 February 2015. Widely recognized for his video and installation-works, his woven photographic imagery of war and its victims, Lê probes history and memory so as to counter mass amnesia and dispute historical revisionism, reminding his audiences of innocent lives displaced or lost as collateral damage wrought by the exigencies of imperialism and war. Through his latest performance at Goethe Villa, Lê continues to uncover historical chapters that bear consequences for Myanmar’s present and future. 

Bharti Lalwani: Dinh, please give us the gist of this unusual dinner performance.

Dinh Q. Lê: This performance was a collaboration with Aung Lwin (Actor), Aung Soe Min (Artist, Director Pansodan Gallery), Bo Bo Kyaw Nyein (Independent researcher, Son of Kyaw Nyein), Grace Swe Zin Htaik (Actress), Khin Lay (Triangle Women Support Group), Kyaw Swar Moe (Journalist, Chief Editor Irrawaddy Magazine), Myint Soe (Artist and Performer), San San Nwe (Writer), Soe Myint (Journalist, Chief Editor of Mizzima Magazine), Than Soe Nain (Politician and Writer), Tun Win Nyein (Editor and Writer) and Zarganar (Comedian and Activist). 

Zarganar is the host of this dinner and he leads his guests into a discussion about General Aung San — a much admired figure in Myanmar’s history. As food is served and the conversation deepens, a discreet signal is sent to Zarganar prompting him to end the discussion in a somewhat abrupt manner. One by one, guests leave their place without warning never to return, leaving their audiences with a sense of incompleteness with regard to Aung San’s history and the leader’s vision.

Bharti Lalwani: Let us begin with the formal elements of Aung San’s Dinner: the table setting, the flowers, the wait-staff, the served dishes known to be favoured by General San — how were these elements incorporated to allude to a different time and place? 

Dinh Q. Lê: For a start we tried to find furniture and other items from the ’60s which were as authentically Burmese as possible, but it was not easy to find objects dating back to the ’50s and ’60s. It seemed like so much is in fact imported from China these days. We visited a number of old furniture shops and second hand stores but in the end it was Aung Soe Myint who lent us chairs from his house. So we secured those, but the serving dishes used in the performance were new. 

As for the food that was served, we definitely made an effort to find out what General Aung San’s favourite dishes were. We contacted Aung San Suu Kyi requesting her to shed some light on what her father’s preferences might have been. We did not hear back from her though, so we did some research on what locals might likely serve at a formal dinner back in the day. We also learnt of a note Aung San wrote to his wife in which he mentioned that he missed a particular sautéed string bean dish. It’s the only dish we could be sure of and asked our cook to prepare it. But apart from that, we went with recommendations our Burmese friends made on traditional recipes. That helped us in closely recreating the environment, the taste, the smells.

Bharti Lalwani: Was this concept born out of conversations with the curator, Iola Lenzi? Was the building itself a gift of inspiration, considering its unique history, or was Myanmar’s political history a subject you had intended to broach even without curatorial intervention? 

Dinh Q. Lê: I think so, at least something to do with the history of this Villa, but I did have many conversations with Iola about the history of this building and the numerous political communications that must have gone on within its walls. This struck me as most interesting as we were talking about what it would have been like to be present between the 1940s and 1960s; to listen in on the discussions and arguments taking place regarding the future of Burma, an independent Burma, free from British control. During that period, there were numerous complexities as Burma had nine states and it was not a given that these would come together once independence was assured. 

Naturally, we wondered about the kind of struggles people must have had and what it would mean for us today if we could witness this. Listening in on all those conversations would have been quite something to experience. And that’s how we decided to stage our Dinner. Remember, this was originally a home that was abandoned after the Japanese attack on Rangoon in 1942. It remained abandoned for quite some time during the ’40s before it was adopted as the AFPFL Headquarters. So in a sense I wanted to reawaken the political environment within these walls through Aung San’s Dinner. Goethe Villa will become an important site for cultural exchange in the future, therefore, I wanted to bring that element, the political nature of this building, out in a prominent way.

Bharti Lalwani You made a trip to Yangon around December 2014 to see this Villa and the Bogyoke Aung San Residence Museum. But you also met up with Burmese activist, comedian and former political prisoner Zarganar and Gallery owner Aung Soe Min. How did this come about?

Dinh Q. Lê: The show was supposed to be in December but the Goethe had not yet secured the signed agreement with the Burmese authorities. This turned out to be a good thing personally, as I got the time to meet some people and learn more about Burma, as I have not been in Yangon since the country opened up. 

Bharti Lalwani: When was your first trip to Burma? 

Dinh Q. Lê: Some seven years ago. I’ve been there a few times but not since it opened up and it was really different this time round. Aung Soe Min and I were talking about who to invite for this dinner, Zarganar’s name came up and I got a chance to meet with him. I knew him indirectly as he is a Prince Claus Laureate, as am I. He was awarded by the Prince Claus Fund in 2012 and I was in 2010; so I made that connection and it became easier for me to approach him. I wanted Zarganar to be the host of Aung San’s Dinner. He loved the idea, and 2015 is also the centenary year of Aung San’s birth, so it all came together quite nicely.

Bharti Lalwani: Going back to my question on the Museum. Did you find a great gap in the museum’s official narrative?

Dinh Q. Lê: The Museum is interesting because it hardly tells the whole story of Aung San. For a long time, the military Government of Burma sort of … I wouldn’t say they banned him from the public eye, but they did not tolerate public discussion about him. So though he is a much revered figure, there is very little information.1

Apart from the internet, there’s not much material available in English that I could find. Through discussions with some historians, and other sources, we learned that Aung San went to China to seek help from Chiang Kai-Shek to fight the British. But Aung San was intercepted by the Japanese who then brought him to Japan and convinced him to work with them. I think they must have made promises to Aung San regarding the independence of Burma. They must have been reassuring, as Aung San later brought a number of his colleagues to Japan for training in an attempt to raise an army to fight the British. However, when it became clear that the Japanese were losing, he switched alliances. He then worked with the British against the Japanese, so he’s a complicated character, maybe an opportunist who was just trying to find a way to survive and free his country. He is a very controversial person and the general public does not know much about him except that he is the founder of modern Burma. 

Bharti Lalwani: So what does the Museum tell the public?

Dinh Q. Lê: Nothing much. They just point out ‘this is where he lived’, ‘this is where he ate’, ‘here’s where he slept’. That’s pretty much it. I don’t think they allow or are willing to open up.

Bharti Lalwani: The twelve people you invited to this dinner are professionally diverse: You have a politician, a comedian, an actress, a gallery director among artists, journalists and writers. How did you approach them? Did some of them need convincing?

Dinh Q. Lê: Thanks to Zarganar, Aung Soe Min, and Goethe-Institut Director, Franz Xaver Augustin. They really put their name and reputation out there because most of these people don’t know who I am, and why would they? This dinner could be problematic for them. I got recommendations from many people on who to invite but after discussing it with Xaver, Zarganar and Aung Soe Min we put together a diverse list of people who would represent all nine states. We wanted to include many women for instance. We tried to include youngsters, but hit a cultural barrier. As I found out, young people are respectful of elders, they feel they cannot directly converse or contradict elders at the same table. In the end, our dinner guests were forty years of age and above. It would have been great to have had speakers in their twenties or thirties.

Bharti Lalwani: Yes, these individuals have their own personal histories and struggles. Apart from someone as bold as Zarganar, another guest is Soe Myint, the Chief Editor of Mizzima magazine who started the journal while in exile. Considering that Burma’s political climate is still repressive, did you have specific issues or apprehensions in putting together this dinner which potentially recreates a scenario from the past? 

Dinh Q. Lê: The goal was to get these activists, people who were active in one way or other. Some have stepped back as they are much older now. Collectively, among our guests at that table,a we had sixty to seventy years of incarceration! They have all been in prison at one time or another after the military regime took over. 

Soe Myint is in Chiang Mai I believe, they have an office there. The funny thing is that they were not so much worried about the government authorities or self-censorship. We were more worried about the fact that General Aung San is such an admired figure that the Dinner would end up being a love-fest rather than a critical discussion about who he was, and about the policy that he was hoping to implement after he became Prime Minister. That was more of a concern than falling into trouble with the authorities. 

Having said that, I had many who initially agreed to participate opt out. Something happened, we don’t know what and I don’t want to guess, but strangely, after everything was scheduled, they later said they were busy. So we got a sense of how sensitive this conversation would be. Also, on the day of the performance, I was told that one of our guests could not attend as her back was acting up. 

Bharti Lalwani: You had confirmed a number of dinner guests and scheduled everything but at the last minute they said they were busy?

Dinh Q. Lê: Well, yes. There were people whom we met, they marked the dates on their calendars and confirmed, but a week before the performance, we were told they could not participate as they had other engagements. There must be legitimate reasons of course but we had quite a few of these cancellations, so I think there could have been a nervousness on the subject. Four or five dinner guests bowed out so we had to look for last minute participants, many of whom are famous activists in Burma.

Bharti Lalwani: Were there any obvious or intangible constraints in putting this performance together? Was there a preconceived script or guideline to follow? 

Dinh Q. Lê: No. Actually no guidelines except that guests focus on two issues: Firstly, who was Aung San, what did he do, what’s the full story; and secondly, what was his vision for modern Burma. What would have happened if he had not been assassinated. After all, Aung San was the one who travelled to all nine states to meet each state leader and sign an agreement on what role they would play in an independent and unified Burma, so a conversation on that. 

Most of these Burmese people are savvy in the political arena. They have survived the military regime so I certainly didn’t feel the need to warn them of anything. They know their limitations. Some of our guests were even theatre-experts, so there was no need to discuss what limits we would impose on this conversation.

Bharti Lalwani: The conversations among your dinner guests was in Burmese, could you understand what they were saying? 

Dinh Q. Lê: I was very clear that this conversation was not for me but for the younger generation of Burma who do not know Aung San or the history of Burma well enough. History has been revised or rewritten under the military regime, which is why I decided that my guests should be from Burma and that this performance is for their public, therefore it should be in Burmese.2 

Bharti Lalwani: Were you wary of the public viewing this performance taking place? Could you gauge audience reaction as the dinner unfolded?

Dinh Q. Lê: Many people stayed for a while, the performance went on for two and a half hours, whereas it had been intended only for an hour! But when we gave the signal to Zarganar, he just ignored us! So I guess the conversation was very interesting and he was able to keep it going. Sadly not many Burmese people came to the opening. Barely three hundred people came, of which less than half were foreigners. I was expecting a more local audience … this is an important event as the Goethe will be a major cultural player in Myanmar. I was a bit disappointed that not many from the local artist community showed up.

Dinh Q. Lê, Aung San's Dinner, 2015. Table setting, No 8, Ko Min Ko Chin Road, Yangon. Currently occupied by the Goethe-Institut. Courtesy the artist.

Dinh Q. Lê, Aung San's Dinner, 2015. Performance. Zarganar leading Burmese activists in discussion. Courtesy the artist.

Dinh Q. Lê, Aung San's Dinner, 2015. Performance. Zarganar leading Burmese activists in discussion. Courtesy the artist.

Dinh Q. Lê, Setting for Aung San's Dinner, 2015. Exterior of No 8, Ko Min Ko Chin Road, Yangon. Previously headquarters of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). Currently occupied by the Goethe-Institut. Courtesy the artist.

notes: 

1. For many years, this museum, the last residence of Aung San before he was assassinated, was open to the public only once a year on Martyr’s Day for just three hours.

2. This performance has been documented in film and supplemented with English subtitles.

Bharti Lalwani is an art writer based in Singapore.