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Performing Photography: Documenting Art in Myanmar

Lwin Oo Maung, Movement Jumping, 2014, performance, Yangon, Myanmar. Courtesy of the artist
Photographycultural censorshiparchivePerformance

The Plastic Age was a performance art piece wherein the artist Htein Lin covered himself in plastic wrap while holding a paintbrush wrapped in barbed wire. He walked the streets of Yangon and a friend captured his image and printed it in Tharapu Journal, along with a short description detailing the reason for the action, alluding to the significance of the plastic constricting Htein Lin’s movement and the brush wrapped in wire. It was 1996 and Yangon was simultaneously experiencing a harsh period of military rule and an artistic renaissance.1

Without the photograph, the record of Htein Lin’s performance would be lost. At a time when the country was emerging from a dark age of isolation and financial ruin, Myanmar’s creative community was yearning for a cultural shift. Censorship was integrated into every aspect of life. Phone and Internet usage was heavily regulated and impossibly slow; books, paintings, music lyrics – all were subject to a formal censorship procedure before being released, performed or publicly displayed; landscape painting, portraiture, traditional music and dance were encouraged through a National agenda. It was high time for a meaningful change in formal expression.

Photography aided the process of dissemination, as well as capturing fleeting moments in which musicians and artists were performing their most heartfelt expressions. Photography encouraged the very act of performance, because the image became an art object in and of itself, a captured moment, a record in art history.

Without the document, did it really happen? There are ongoing debates in the art history of Myanmar regarding who’s who in the pioneer of performance art or punk music. Archival materials are difficult to locate and in some cases do not survive the tropical climate in Yangon, where air conditioning was an absolute luxury until 2014. Other parts of the country provide even less information, where access is denied or resources to preserve and protect are significantly less than those in Yangon, the cultural capital of the country.

In his first documented performance, titled Portrait of the Artist as Exhibitionist, Po Po lay on a white cloth in the middle of his own exhibition. He said of the performance, “a painting laid down (on the ground) becomes 3D, as a human being, it exists.” His body became the work of art, and the photograph of that performance is the proof that it took place. Other performances by Po Po are recorded in his memory and his sketchbook before 1995, but the photographs do not exist, and therefore, it is Htein Lin whose performance is considered the very first contemporary work of performance art in Myanmar’s art history.2

Thurein, Mrat Lunn Htwann, 2013, C-Print on board, 36 × 48 in. Courtesy of the artist

Beloved songwriters and musicians began to emerge as anthem-makers in the 1990s and 2000s, recording in private studios and releasing cassette tapes and cds to small constituencies. Their photographic portraits became symbols of freedom of expression, their lyrics were poetic codes to avoid inciting the wrath of the censorship board, who forbade any words referencing sex, suicide, drugs, alcohol, democracy, or Aung San Suu Kyi. The portrait of the artist and his or her performance became an act of defiance in and of itself, the artist embodying the values he or she professed through song.

Anegga, a founding member ACID, famed early hip-hop group in Myanmar, commented on the horrors of military rule and the obligation he felt as a musician to speak out against it, even at considerable risk to his own personal safety. “We are the voices of the voiceless. We have to say something,” he reasoned.3

Because large concert venues, bars and restaurants also risked the authorities’ attention, underground concerts or even seemingly innocuous public, ad hoc performances became the norm. Recorded by friends and audience members through pictures, these remain the only records of impromptu concerts in Yangon. In the mid-2000s, the punk, hip-hop and indie rock scene gained global attention when foreign visitors to the country with an interest in music snapped powerful portraits of some of Myanmar’s most promising rebellious young musicians.

As the music scene continued to grow and garner international attention, the artists pushed on experimenting with performance art, wherein the artist presents a work with his or her own body as the art object, expressing through actions and objects their ultimate concepts. Performance art presented a total departure from painting, where many of the country’s artists began through schooling. Traditional painting was also heavily censored, with the color red being forbidden and subject matter like nudes or politics also off limits. Performance art was a confusing presentation and managed to avoid the mental grasp of censorship boards or police. It could be performed anywhere, and with little to no objects, making it low-cost and accessible for all.

Artists took to the streets. Nyein Chan Su walked the main roads with a barbed wire globe around his head. Jeuko San combined his violin skills with his desire to experiment and was one of the country’s first experimental musicians, combining performance and music. Aung Myint, famed abstract painter, hosted performance art workshops at his Inya Art Gallery, encouraging younger generations to experiment with the free form medium.

Most, if not all of these moments were captured by a camera. The photographs wrote the history of these artists’ experimental phases. They brought more people to the attention of Myanmar’s art scene, and connected artists from all over the country. Performance art helped artists freely express their pain, their personal triumphs, and their questions. The photograph helped as interpreter and translator for years to come.

By 2013, the country began to open up to the world of global commerce and exchange. Several artists who practiced performance art were invited abroad for major exhibitions from Tokyo to Singapore to Berlin. Punk and Indie rockers and hip hop artists began to openly perform in and around Yangon, as well as travel to other major cities in the country. MTV came to Myanmar to cover their progress, and with more investment and interest in the scene, the artistic world moved from photography to digital video, in order to properly capture not only the performances but the interviews, sounds, and vibrancy of the scene growing out of Yangon and Myanmar as a whole.

However, photography did not lose momentum among artists. The photograph was still an important document to track exhibitions, happenings and performances. The major change came when the photograph became a marketable art object. Performances were translated into highly-stylized images, printed on quality, large format materials and displayed in galleries and exhibitions around the world. The photograph became the sellable object or record, capable of fetching enough money for the artists to make a living out of their performance work.

Ma Ei, Strawberry Piece, 2016, Performance, Fargfabriken, Stockholm, Sweden. Courtesy of the artist
Ko Latt, Superiority Complex, 2016, Performance, Goethe Villa. Photo by Nathalie JOHNSTON

By 2015, official censorship was over, and musicians and artists were captured thousands of times playing and exhibiting all over the world, but especially in Yangon, where the art scene pulsed with new and exciting music and art forms. Young generation artists began to create their own opportunities, and creative life became more and more accessible. This was in large part due to the lifting of sanctions and the arrival of major telecommunications companies, who made SIM cards and smart phones affordable for everyone. With every smart phone came a camera. The presence of speedy internet and millions of social media users meant images were shared with immediacy, tracing the occurrence of artistic endeavors from every corner of the country.

The authoritarian gaze remained, however. Secret police, or Special Branch, arrived at locations with smart phones to photograph unregistered events and happenings and share with the respective government organizations. The Telecommunications Law, Section 66d, came into full effect, with photographs and status updates subject to the scrutiny of interested parties: “up to three years in prison for extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network.”4

Some artists have begun performative art projects using photography and social media, as a way to communicate their dissent. Emily Phyo, a former student at New Zero Art space and performance artist, decided to use Instagram as a platform for her performance photography. From 1 January 2015 to 1 January 2016 she photographed a different person everyday for 365 days, posting daily on her Instagram account @emily_phyo. Her goal was to speak to as many new people as possible, and get to know them in those moments when she photographed them. Emily runs a small tailor shop in a market in Yangon. She used the measuring tape and put it over the eyes of the subjects, giving them a kind of superficial anonymity. At the bridge of their nose, the measuring tape marked their age, and she in turn recorded their names with a hashtag. Marking a very important year for Myanmar, the year the country first voted in general elections that successfully transferred power, Emily Phyo was able to show the wide range of humanity from Myanmar, the convenience and connectivity of camera phones, and the transition of photographic document to digital communication tool in performance art.5

Photography will continue to evolve as useful, sometimes marketable, sometimes incriminating form of expression and documentation in Myanmar. The full effects have not yet been felt by those who have only just had access to camera en masse. Important spaces, educational workshops and centers are now open to the public in Yangon, and no doubt the ease of communication and sharing will help build a network among artists and musicians in the country. The world continues to look to Myanmar with fascination and horror as civil war, migrant crises and rampant discrimination plague the country. How will photography allow artists to become active members of a transitioning society? How will musicians use photo shoots to further their music and image around the country? Will the media embrace the artists and their work to the point where the power of the art photograph equals the power of the documentary photograph? Evolving circumstances and time will tell, and photography will play its part as actor and medium.

Photographycultural censorshiparchivePerformance
Johnston, Nathalie. “Intuitive Acts: The Evolution of Performance Art in Myanmar”, 2010.
Wong, Kenneth. “Rebel Poetry in Burmese Rap”. 2015.
Emily Phyo, "Being 365", Myanm/art, 2016.
Nathalie JOHNSTONActive in Myanmar since 2009, Nathalie Johnston (United States/Myanmar) is a curator and researcher currently living in Yangon where she has been involved in numerous independent projects and initiatives. In 2016, she founded Myanm/art, an exhibition space, gallery, and reading room dedicated to promoting contemporary art in Myanmar by developing collaborations and showcasing artists’ works to local and international audiences. In 2013, she co-founded Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive (MARCA), an archive and resource centre that aims to become the largest bilingual digital resource on the history and current state of the arts in Myanmar. Johnston is also the director of the art initiative TS1 Yangon and co-founder of Pyinsa Rasa art collective.
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