Concept, Context, Contestation—Art That Asks You to Look Inside Yourself
By Marie Starr 23 January 2019
YANGON—A wide-ranging set of political issues, societal injustices and human rights abuses of both the past and present from across Southeast Asia have been brought to life through art in the latest exhibition to be held at Yangon’s Secretariat. This is the Yangon leg of a traveling exhibition commissioned by Thailand’s Bangkok Art & Culture Centre and organized in conjunction with Goethe Institut Myanmar.
“Viewers should consider two main things when looking at this exhibition: that Southeast Asia has its own unique journey in art, politics and history, and that art and society are deeply and intimately connected. For artists showing in this work, there is no separation,” said Nathalie Johnston, founder of Yangon modern art gallery Myanm/art and curator of the exhibition.
Spanning the entire southern wing of the historic Secretariat building, the artists have used photographs, glass, paintings, video, models, sculpture, projections and performances to introduce their ideas to the viewer. Many of the art pieces awaken a sleeping inner citizen in us, dealing with topics like the distortion of cultural traditions, globalization, consumerism, citizenship, genocide and displacement. They ask the viewer, “Where do you stand?”
In the collection of works by Thai, Cambodian, Indonesian, Philippine, Vietnamese and Myanmar artists, the voyeur is shaken into the urge to take action; the cell phone addict is forced to look up and be present in reality; the materialistic youth is face to face with atrocities suffered by the last generation.
In Cambodian artist Vandy Rattana’s piece—16 documentary-style photographs—viewers are seen casually watching the Khmer Rouge trials on a television. Subjects are distracted by newspapers, dozing in chairs and sipping coffee, raising critical ideas about “a generation of Cambodians who may have been forgotten.”
During the opening ceremony, veteran Myanmar artist Aung Myint’s performance involved creating an outline of the map of Myanmar with rice and adding cheap plastic China-made toys to depict the loss of Myanmar’s natural and cultural heritage to globalization. In the remaining installation, traditional toys and lengths of wood are seen moving en masse across the border to China.
Thai artist Manit Sriwanichpoom’s piece “Horror in Pink” is a provocative set of photographs from three events of violent social repression in Thailand’s past, which have been infused with the image of a cheerful character watching the scene with impartiality, raising questions about our civic responsibility in a crisis today.
Myanmar artist and ex-political prisoner Htein Lin uses the charred remains of a mighty old tree felled in downtown Yangon by the city authorities in his piece “Recently Departed.” A number of pieces depict family life, loss and displacement, which are too often connected for members Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups. The artist recounts visiting villages in northern Myanmar in previous decades where the people had recently fled for their lives, with only the scorched skeletons of their homes and belongings left behind.
“A strong dichotomy between Htein Lin’s work—showing what we can say—and Sawangwongse’s work, showing what we cannot, I think best reflects the complicated situation Myanmar finds itself in at this time,” said Johnston, referring to the almost-blank board that is Myanmar artist Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s exhibit titled “Myanmar Peace Industrial Complex No. 1 (censored version).”
The exhibition continues to run daily from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. until Feb. 10. Admission is free.