For Art's Sake
Myanmar musings at the Flying Circus Project
Indonesia may be the regional country of focus at Art Stage Singapore this week (apart from Singapore, of course), but over at TheatreWorks’ recently-concluded Flying Circus Project, all eyes and ears were turned towards Myanmar.
I’ve only been there once—way back in 2002 as a delegate for the Asean Youth Art Camp (or was it Art Youth Camp?). A pretty fun time shuttling between Yangon and Bagan, creating art, dancing, doing poetry readings, composing weird pan-Asean music. In-between, we’d check out temples and museums—with the occasional impromptu early morning drums-driven conga line ruckus at the then-capital’s domestic airport (to the shock and horror of sleepy Burmese passengers and embarrassment of our hosts).
Twice, a bunch of us tried to sneak out of our hotels to explore both Yangon and Bagan on our own. Twice, someone would come running (or cycling) after us with a sheepish-slash-panicky look to herd us back in.
So I never really got to see things beyond the state-guided tours. And the art we saw were all either museum artefacts or courtesy of our Burmese co-delegates—lovely folks who showed off their traditional dance and music chops, and watercolour paintings of the Shwedagon Pagoda. And compared to, say, a co-Filipino visual art delegate’s photorealist paintings of corners of windows and a Malaysian art student’s site-specific installation (er, comprised of randomly collected twigs “arranged” at our Yangon hotel lawn), it did seem rather, well, meh.
My perception of the country’s art has, of course, slowly changed as I began encountering works by its contemporary artists at the museums, festivals, galleries and other art events here and overseas: Po Po’s paddy field installation at the defunct Osage at the defunct Old School, Htein Lin’s excellent installations at two Singapore Fringe Fests, artist couple Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu’s photographs at the Asia Pacific Triennial, a couple of others at the Singapore Art Museum, etc.
My perception of the country, however, has pretty much been the same—many of which revolve around signposts like “Aung San Suu Kyi”, “human rights”, “military dictatorship”, and pretty much what was shown in the eye-opening docu Burma VJ.
While these two aspects occasionally overlap in my head, it’s another thing to hear things from artists and social activists. Particularly since there have obviously been some “updates” since my last visit—the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007, the destructive cyclone Nargis and the Constitutional Referendum in 2008, the elections and release of Suu Kyi in 2010 and, of course, The Lady’s political comeback last year. Oh, and don’t forget 2011’s Michelle Yeoh movie and Jason Mraz’s concert last year. Updates that, lest we forget, overlap with the ongoing internal unrest—most recently highlighted by the very recent issue surrounding the Rohingya refugees.
So yes, some of these surfaced over the talks and presentations I caught over FCP’s Superintense weekend.
Artist Nge Lay (who also presented some gripping works of a personal nature) talked of her and hubby Aung Ko’s project bringing artists to a village (in a restricted area near an ammunitions factory) to create works and do performance art. Doctor/educator/writer Ko Tar spoke of a “monastic education” project where monasteries become sites of critical thinking. Film-makers Thu Thu Shein and Thaiddhi presented a selection from their independent Wathann Film Festival, which is on its third edition in September.
Judging by these, it would seem there’s a kind of empowerment vibe going on over in Myanmar, right now—a decentralised, DIY thing, lots of which involve reaching out to, connecting with and educating people in the villages and townships.
But it is also one of cautious optimism. “We have opportunities now,” said Nge Lay, “but exhibiting is difficult—we need to pass through censors.” (Hence, the DIY alternative of doing it outside of the city centres).
For the monastery project, Ko Tar talked about creating “little democracies at the village level” but also of doing things “quietly”. “When we are quiet, we tend to be ignored,” he said.
And for the baby steps successes of the film festival (and from the selection of works ranging from docus to experimental, the serious and the quirky, a seemingly diverse scene), its founders pointed out that there’s still the so-called Electronic Act (where, apparently, you can get arrested for passing stuff around in thumbdrives). Meaning, yes, festivals like this are cool but, you know, authorities have a legal card they can still pull out—just in case.
Then, too, you’ve got the bit of news about one of FCP’s speakers, video journalist Aung San Thar, being recently turned away at the airport (no reason given just yet, but the folks at TW said they’ll be updating us once they find out).
Of course, it’d be far too easy to hypothesise about incidents like this. At least one prominent social commentator was present though — political cartoonist Aw Pi Kyeh (a pen name that means “loudspeaker” in Burmese).
In the 30 years he’s been active, 300 cartoon pieces have been censored, he shared. I somewhat gathered from his presentation that the fact that he’s still around (erm, I meant as in still creating stuff) is partly due from an amazing knack to sort of play the cat and mouse game with authorities just right — a critical jab here, a civil society-ish constructive project there (he made calendars for two consecutive years for disaster awareness following the Cyclone Nargis disaster, as wel as a poster for bird flu awareness).
Plus, he’s got the best ever analogy about dealing with censorship that I’ve heard. Sure, he would want to take “penalty kicks” and get one in easily. But he’d rather be subtle and take a “corner kick” that hits someone in the, ahem, head—and if all goes as planned, it’s a free header. Of course, sometimes the kick is too high and the football flies over everyone’s heads. Sometimes, it’s too low and the keeper easily collects it. YNWA, indeed.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has some kind of stereotype about the state of Myanmar these days. It’s something that I continue to grapple with—but I’m glad I checked out some of the talks this weekend simply to complicate things. Because how else do you approach a country — with its art and everything else — in such a state of flux?
For a more in-depth round-up of what happened during the Flying Circus Project’s Superintense sessions (which wasn’t just about Myanmar artists), visit their blog at http://flyingcircusproject.weebly.com.