Postcard from Yangon

Building Histories
Goethe-Institut, Yangon
1-15 March 2015

The opening up of Myanmar in 2011, after five decades of military rule, has naturally ushered in sweeping transformations along with opportunities to strengthen international cultural ties and foster inter-regional artistic exchanges. As Myanmar heralds in an ostensibly new era for freedom of expression, the recent exhibition ‘Building Histories’ at the Goethe Villa in Yangon, tested the limit of this freedom. 

A cultural agreement was signed by Myanmar and Germany that led to the reopening of Myanmar’s Goethe-Institut, which had closed after the 1962 military coup. In 2013, during the negotiations on this agreement, Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture offered the stunning villa at No 8, Ko Min Ko Chin Road as the premises of the Goethe-Institut, the German cultural centre in Yangon. 

The building itself is an astounding mirror of Myanmar’s history of the past hundred years. Built in the 1920s 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, after the war the splendid building became the headquarters of the Burmese independence movement, Aung San’s and U Nu’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). Since then the building has witnessed the vicissitudes of Myanmar politics pre and post independence. For many years the villa housed Yangon State School of the Arts, where generations of Burmese artists received their training until the University of Culture moved to its new campus in South Dagon. 

Now standing as the Goethe Villa, Director Franz Xaver Augustin hosted their first thematic group exhibition in early 2015, before the building underwent extensive renovations. For ‘Building Histories’ curator Iola Lenzi invited nine artists from Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia to decode and interpret the historical meaning of this iconic edifice. Lenzi devised this exhibition as a medium for the artistic community to consider the complexities of Myanmar’s past. 

Considering that freedom of expression in Myanmar is somewhat elusive, I wondered if an art exhibition, even if curated by Lenzi, at a newly reinstated German cultural centre, was going to be mild, if at all political. Just prior to the show, in December 2014, the owner of Yangon’s V Gastro Bar, a New Zealand national, was arrested along with his two local managers after they posted a promotional advertisement picturing the Buddha wearing headphones against a psychedelic background. As of mid-March they have been sentenced to two and a half years in prison with hard labour. With the recent violence in Myanmar against the Rohingya (muslim minorities), not to mention the history of mob violence against Muslims and Indians there, was now the right time to test the nation’s tolerance through artistic means? 

‘The point of departure for this exhibition’, explained Lenzi, ‘was history and the site. History in Southeast Asia is often a contentious question, but even though the theme invited work that functioned critically, it did not exclude more purely formalist responses. My selection of artists, of course, reflected my penchant for works with a committed voice, but in any case, the most powerful pieces on serious social subjects are seldom aesthetically blunt, and operate as interrogation rather than statement.’ 

Lenzi has been unwavering in her support of Southeast Asian contemporary art as a forceful voice and a non-violent means for confronting ugly socio-political realities. The Goethe itself has an interesting history within the region. According to Franz Xaver Augustin, during the Suharto Regime the Goethe branch in Jakarta became a neutral place for intellectuals to meet. By the early 2000s, its branch in Hanoi was among the first local institutions to artistically test political tolerance through several exhibitions.

Perhaps in continuation of such legacy, ‘Building Histories’ included Thai artist-activist Vasan Sitthiket, artists Dinh Q. Lê and Bùi Công Khánh from Vietnam, both of whom are known to explore political issues throughout history. Also included are Cambodia’s Srey Bandaul, and Myanmar artists Wai Mar Nyunt, Yadanar Win, Chaw Ei Thein, and the duo Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung. And as with any exhibition, some artists took risks while others played it safe.

Seven out of eight works were new commissions encompassing a range of media. One such was the first work encountered on entering the exhibition, Chaw Ei Thein’s Building Histories (2015), a participative installation of a number of used slippers lined helter-skelter. The slippers, gathered from the people of Yangon, evoked, in my mind, the imagery of protests and the aftermath of riots where all that is left is detritus, amongst it footwear left behind in people’s haste to flee to safety. Lined in the direction of the Goethe Villa, it seemed as though the invisible owners of these slippers have sought sanctuary in this historic abode. 

Never Abandoned, Srey Bandaul’s lengthy installation composed of Burmese Longyi, monks’ robes, chicken wire and mosquito net, mimicking a grand digestive tract, teasing viewers further into the villa. The duo Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung, who of the nine participating artists were the only ones to not produce new work for this space, opted for a safe approach. Contributing a set of videos and soundless clips about historic Burmese figures and events, they relied on grandiose installation, large screens and the Villa’s well proportioned rooms to convey their artistic vision.

Vasan Sitthiket’s eight vibrant block prints compensated for the young artists’ cautious presentation. Created on site, Sitthiket deployed his signature exuberance through imagery and text. Aiding the public to read into his grotesque depictions of mutated bodies and animals were titles Dictators never die!; Three-Head General; Monsanto chicken; Can we choose our own future; Everything for us or…. Sitthiket prompted his Burmese public into questioning, and therefore challenging, the hand they have been dealt by authorities who promised reforms. But dictators never die, instead they are reborn, taking new forms as corporate or government bodies, devising oppressive laws and ensuring the suppression of the masses. That is, unless the masses feel empowered to mount a continuous struggle against such powerful forces. Perhaps this is where art as a voice for the voiceless comes into creative play.

As the strongest of Southeast Asian artists who probe history and memory to combat revisionism and mass amnesia, here Sitthiket’s artwork was joined in strength with masterful works by Dinh Q. Lê and Bùi Công Khánh. After extensive research, discussions with the Curator, Goethe and people in Yangon, Lê conceived of a performance that would take place on the premises on the night of the opening. Twelve activists, intellectuals, journalists and actors, came together to perform Aung San’s Dinner (2015), where they were served General Aung San’s favourite dishes over a discussion on the leader’s contentious history and legacy. The most prominent of those participating personalities was Zarganar, an activist, comedian and former political prisoner. The discussion took place in Burmese, to emphasise that this performance was for the people of Myanmar. As the clock ticked for well over two hours, the conversation wound to an odd halt as participants left the table without warning. The empty chairs, table, leftover dishes, cutlery and other elements, were left for the duration of the exhibition. Lê, in formally considering the Villa’s history, its witness to great events and conversations, tapped into ghosts of the past, to a time of imminent independence. This year marks the centenary of the birth of the General, a controversial figure whose loyalties wavered between the Japanese and the British in the course of seeking an independent ‘Modern’ Burma. The conversations here came to an abrupt end to mark the assassination of Aung San, and alluded to the turmoil unleashed upon the Burmese people. Aung San’s Dinner was recorded and put on view the following day as a documentary. But as the stench and rot of wilting flowers in forgotten vases, and leftover dishes with congealed gravy invited flies and a trail of ants, this post-performance installation enabled the Burmese public to experience visually, sensually and conceptually the disruption in their complicated history. Apart from this allegorical reference, Lê’s abandoned domestic utensils were a reminder that this was once the home of a Sino-Burmese family that was forced into leaving everything behind during World War II. As with much of Lê’s practice, the artist reminds us that political manoeuvring and war always leave a trail of collateral damage, havoc wreaking the lives of innocents who must uproot and personally bear the consequences of decisions they had no say in. I wondered about the risk that Lê and the participants took through such a performance. Lenzi responded that ‘It is risk-taking, for certain, but Lê’s double play on the documentary and the imagined lightly skirts subversion, so keeping it safe from the censors’.

Supplementing this historical narrative was Khánh’s new work, Prayer on the Wind (2015). A tent in semblance, but evocative of a temple pagoda, Prayer on the Wind is a patchwork composition of Buddhist monks’ robes and military camouflage material. The work conflates religious ideology, extremism and military suppression, and it is by far the best work the young artist has produced and without doubt the most powerful artwork in this exhibition. As audiences were encouraged to write down their thoughts, prayers or perhaps even strong expressions and opinions, and place them into pockets sewn onto the outer tent, the participative installation urged viewers to challenge the validity of political oppression. A pillow, also made from camouflage material with gold threads, was placed under the tent that hovered a foot above the ground, inviting individuals to rest and contemplate on the inner view of Prayer on the Wind. This piece encapsulated what, for me, are the defining traits of Southeast Asian art. It is interactive, requiring audience participation so as to activate its core concepts; visually seductive, drawing the eye in through its expressive beauty; touching on indigenous craft, material, religious and socio-political history, where its terse content confronts an ugly reality, creating palpable formal and conceptual tension. 

‘Building Histories’, somewhat uneven in its voice, was redeemed by Sitthiket, Lê and Khánh, who more than compensated with their intellectual and formal heft. In absorbing the atmosphere of the Villa and producing contextual new artwork, these artists articulated the critical place of history in the present and the future.

Bùi Công Khánh, Prayer on the Wind, 2015. Participative installation, Goethe-Institut, Yangon. Sewn used monks' robes and camouflage textile, handwritten notes. Photograph Bùi Công Khánh. Courtesy the artist. 

Vasan Sitthiket, 2015. Wood blocks and prints on handmade paper. Installation view, Goethe-Institut, Yangon. Photograph Bùi Công Khánh. Courtesy the artist. 

Vasan Sitthiket, 2015. Wood blocks and prints on handmade paper. Installation view, Goethe-Institut, Yangon. Photograph Bùi Công Khánh. Courtesy the artist.