The Mobility of Struggle: Myanmar’s Performance Art as Protest | NATHALIE JOHNSTON
More than ever before, the performance of protest is used to deem societies, governments and situations insufficient or unsatisfactory. While performative acts in the forms of poetry, theatre, paint and puppetry were employed for centuries to express the depth of historical significance and tragic circumstances, the contemporary answer to expressing such perceptions of universal human thought can be found in performance art as it is known today – a visual and physical engagement with both the audience of nature and humanity for the purpose of conceptually expressing social commentary and political protest. Performance art’s very nature is subversive. It follows no script, can be staged anywhere for any length of time, and its intentions are masked in the artists’ movements or non-movements, speech, objects – all equating to a visual practice which attempts to communicate with its audience.
This paper attempts to consolidate a very complex recent history in Myanmar as it is told through the performance art works of several artists living and working today; as representatives of their cultural past and a future of uncertainties. It will also ask whether performance art can be defined as a mobile art of struggle, the phenomenological implications of struggle as both mobile and performative, and the role of performance art in the future of political change and struggle in Myanmar. This piece presumes that protest inspires artistic practice in a way that fundamentally undermines regimes and censorship in order to reach an ideal social structure where every citizen has a voice. It also names artists propagators of protest and social commentary, by examining the phenomenological aspects of their practice. It does not, however, presume that all artists in Myanmar proclaim political intent. Here, a cultural perspective is employed to analyze protest.[i]
Art, Mobility and Protest
Protests have been used as a tool against corruption in Myanmar for centuries, and in the last 50 years, their effects has been particularly powerful. From students to religious clergy, the people in Myanmar united with one goal – to rid themselves of the yoke of military rule. Responding to the complex events and never-ending struggles: ethnic groups denied citizenship while citizens are made into refugees; children become soldiers; protestors become prisoners; villagers become slave labor and the people organize in solidarity of their struggle. Some might say that it was not until recently these protests resulted in any success. On the contrary, their presence inspired an entire generation of creative individuals whose imposed restrictions allowed them to discover performance art as a medium of protest. A painting can be symbolic, but a performance art piece takes an active stance.
Without a chance to communicate freely within or outside of the country, the artists in Myanmar were frustrated. Lacking information and funding but desiring to express and share, artists made performance art one of the most popular forms of protest in the last 10 years of Myanmar’s contemporary art dialectic. Phyu Mon, considered the first female performance artist in Myanmar, used balloons in her performance, initially accompanied by a birdcage. Blown up inside the cage, the balloon creates a sense of constriction and frustration. She often described being a woman as being locked in a cage, but the way in which her protest relates to her audience is through the greater metaphorical cage of political tyranny. She has consistently used balloons in her performance since, most recently wrapping them in the weekly journal papers of Yangon’s thriving press, then popping the balloon inside, referencing the so-called ‘end to censorship’ in Myanmar.
Artists Phyu Mon creates a quiet protest against censorship and the changes to come in Myanmar.
Htein Lin, an artist of the same generation as Phyu Mon, is one of the few artists who is open about the role of political activism in his work, and who has been imprisoned several times for his quiet acts of rebellion. He works closely with organizations like Index on Censorship to lend his Burmese voice to the ongoing conversation about art as protest worldwide.
Mobile Occasions of Political Strife and its Influence on Struggle and Art
In Myanmar’s first 10 years of performance art practice (1995-2005) there were several dramatic changes in Myanmar’s socio-political shift, which created a far more mobile population. Not mobile as in ‘free to move’ but mobile as in forced movement – moved to displacement camps, moved to protest and moved to create around complex censorship laws. Aung San Suu Kyi had been under house arrest for over a decade and hundreds if not thousands were imprisoned for protesting the government – including the aforementioned artist Htein Lin. The heavy burden carried by a previous generation was now in the process of being passed down to a new generation of artists, creating protest out of their mobile performances.
In 2007, a great mental shift occurred in Myanmar. The Saffron Revolution – where thousands of monks drew protestors from all over Myanmar – and Cyclone Nargis in 2008, a deadly storm which left hundreds of thousands homeless and thousands dead from disease and lack of local aid; these two events would change the future of the country. The military government in both scenarios proved itself an enemy of the people. Artists mobilized their creative facilities and built entire bodies of work around these events. Documentary films and photographs, installation and performances all centered on the disturbing view from the ground – not only had nothing changed, but things seemed to be getting worse.
In Myanmar’s case, performance art is a social action or movement created to build narratives with both cultural and activist focus. It was the sharing of performance art that made it so powerful. In the context of phenomenology, performance art is the way in which ‘one becomes aware of oneself by seeing oneself through the eyes of another.’ Hegel pointed to the “struggle for recognition” as a mode of self-consciousness. If an entire population holds the same consciousness of mobile struggle, then it rings true that the struggle and action to create performance art becomes that “ultimate truth not only as substance but also as subject.”[ii] In many ways the performance artist became the protestor and the protestor the performance artist, even if, due to various censorship boards, neither were allowed to participate in protest publically.
Maung San Oo (M.S.O.) went from writing novelettes to acting out his frustration through performance in public parks, soaking himself with a garden hose and trapping himself in a wooden box. Thadi Htar split the entire length of his left arm with safety pins, connecting with the understanding faces in the audience that had gathered to watch. Chaw Ei Thein was in New York, but still managed to stage a performance for her comrades back in Burmese prisons, reenacting the prison torture they suffered in the middle of a cafe floor. Back in the Myanmar countryside, Nge Lay and her husband Aung Ko created their work in his home village, where they engage with the local community whose lands along the Ayeyarwaddy River are quickly disappearing into the pockets of global investors. For decades the world was mobile around Myanmar and all the while the people were mobilized inside it. Now that Myanmar has joined the global conversation, toward what will art and protest mobilize?
Where will Performance Art go in a Changing Economy and a Written Map of Global Development?
There is no question that Myanmar’s recent appearance on the world stage will have a profound impact not only on performance art but also its mobile cousin of protest. The population is now free to gather in groups, criticize the government in print, and access points of interest via the international and growing local media. When finally given a choice, what will people choose to protest? What will protestors choose to create? How will performance art change?
Performance by Mrat Lunn Htwann captured in film in 2010
In conversation, artist Mrat Lunn Htwann recently discussed the concepts behind his yet unrealized performance pieces – the first disputes the influx of automobiles in Myanmar by creating a ‘natural vehicle,’ which does not move. Another recreates an image of Buddha – one that physically rots in the heat of the sun. The last a response to the recent arrival of the World Economic Forum – a symbol of the global businesses, looking to divide Myanmar up by natural resource before even making itself acquainted with the country and what is best for its people. Even without revealing the particularities of the projects, Mrat Lunn Htwann makes clear his protest and the eventual actions inspired by it.
Performance is an unpredictable art, just as a mass protest is an unpredictable crowd, but it will not stop artists from trying to stage their works publicly in the future. Just two years ago, living in the tight grip of censorship, their only outlets were local galleries and international organizations. Now, artists can bring their protest to the public park, the local media, or busy street. The future holds an active role for artists in the mobile protest of performance art in Myanmar.
Nathalie Johnston is a researcher, writer and archivist of contemporary Southeast Asian art at Myanmar Art Evolution, a platform for Myanmar art research. She is also the co-founder of 7000 Padauk, a temporary experimental art space in Myanmar. She is based between Yangon and Beijing.
[i] Hank Johnston – Protest Cultures: Performance, Artifacts, and Ideations.