Yangon (CNN Philippines Life) — The Secretariat Building in downtown Yangon has borne witness to so much history.
Built in 1905 and currently under renovation, the grand Victorian-era complex was the center of government for the colonial British Burma and eventually became the birthplace of independence in Myanmar. Later, it was the site of the assassination of Major General Aung San (father to the country’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi).
At the time of my visit, one of its wings serves as the art space hosting the final leg of Concept Context Contestation (CCC), a show presented here by the Goethe-Institut Myanmar, featuring socially engaged art from throughout the region. Curated by Iola Lenzi, an art historian and curator based in Singapore, it’s a testament to the through lines connecting artists in the region. “I felt like it's really important for people in the region to see that other people are using the same sort of methodologies to discuss the same sort of issues,” Lenzi says.
The show first opened at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre in 2013 and has since run through several cities in the region, each time adapting to its host city. Another stop the show made was in Hanoi in 2015 where, Lenzi shares, Vietnamese authorities did not allow many pieces to be shown. While it was a loss for both artists and the viewing public, she says it was proof of the potency of the work. “What this signifies is that these works work. In other words, they are still effective… which means that you can change the context — geographic and temporal — and yet the works are so well-constructed and so clever, so conceptual that even though they are starting their lives out borne from specific cities, the artists have somehow managed… to transcend that and speak to a new generation of people outside the original context.”
In her curatorial essay for the show, “Conceptual Strategies in Southeast Asia” Lenzi notes as well the power of common subversive methodologies in much of the region’s contemporary political art. “For many artists, audience involvement is closely related to shared social discourses, art’s content… derived from tumultuous social contexts. However, whatever their primary thematic sources, works are not boxed into a single, parochial frame, the most successful pieces offering numerous levels of reading, so speaking to wide audiences at home and abroad.”
Yangon serves as the final chapter to the show’s journey. The Secretariat Building lends the exhibit another layer of nuance or irony, even. In a country where dissent has been suppressed for decades and colonial-era laws on freedom of speech are still in place, an exhibit at the Secretariat focused on political art feels like the perfect subversive touch.
One key piece that’s been at every iteration of CCC is “Halimuyak ng Yangon” by New York-based Filipino artist Goldie Poblador, who works primarily with glass and scent. The piece is a perfume bar with bottles and foul scents Poblador crafted to describe the smell of Yangon. Like other pieces, it was adapted from older work previously presented at CCC. “It was originally my thesis. I started it in 2009,” Poblador says. “There was this big storm in 2009, Ondoy. And it was really terrible... and so I wanted to do something about, like, the loss of memories since scent is our sense that’s most connected to memories.”
“Halimuyak ng Yangon” has four scents: “Local Energizer” made to evoke chewed betel nut, “Yangon Lifeline,” made from river water, “Dead Dog” extracted from roadkill, and “Corruption.” She explains that the final scent was originally based on the smell of rotten egg, as commentary on the shamelessness of corruption under the Arroyo administration.
While updating the piece for Yangon, Poblador decided that because of the ubiquity of blatant corruption across the region, maybe “Corruption” ought to simply be an empty vial — a vessel carrying nothing but air from the environment it sits in. “The way it’s grown is that, ‘Oh, corruption is so accepted, it’s like air and it’s everywhere.’”
Lenzi coordinates closely with artists in the process of adapting the pieces, connecting them with local counterparts to execute the work. Another piece adapted for the Yangon show was Imelda Cajipe Endaya’s “The Wife is a DH.” Originally made in 1995, the piece is crafted from a miscellany of items that suggest the life of a struggling Filipino domestic helper working abroad — a suitcase, a broomstick and dustpan, a mortar and pestle. Lenzi felt it was necessary to remake the 24-year-old piece for the Yangon exhibit because of the parallels between OFWs and Burmese foreign workers.
“I remade that myself,” Lenzi says. “[Cajipe Endaya] was absolutely loose and flexible and not precious and I said, ‘Listen, I really want that work in the show because I think it's so relevant to the Burmese.’ I used some of the same types of components but then I ad-libbed some more and I thought it was so cool that she allowed that. But you see how the concept of the work was so strong and so well-translated by the way she did it originally that you could, as it were, remake it rather loosely in a completely new place.”
Of the process of adapting her work remotely, Poblador says, “It’s definitely strange at first, but then I’m happy because the curator was able to take it and make it mean something to other people — people I’ve never even interacted with, and my work’s been to more places than I have.”
While Poblador and Cajipe Endaya didn’t have to go to Yangon for their pieces, Filipino artist Alwin Reamillo had the opposite experience crafting his site-specific piece “Recuerdo on RockenRoll Piano,” which he built himself with the help of local artists over the course of two weeks in Yangon. The piece, built from an old upright piano he sourced in Myanmar, is fitted with wheels taller than the piano itself and carries bits and pieces from the artist’s memories of his family and the Philippines’ political history. “Recuerdo on RockenRoll Piano” can be rolled on its wheels, a reminder that time is a vehicle of memory, yet exists in constant forward motion. The piece serves as a marriage of materials and ideas between Manila and Yangon and is another proof of concept for Lenzi’s thesis of throughlines in the region’s political art.
Other potent pieces in the exhibit included the work of a number of Burmese artists. Aung Myint created “The Intruders,” a map of Myanmar from scattered rice on the ground. Plastic toys are scattered across the map to hint at the influences bordering countries such as China have on the country. Htein Lin’s “Recently Departed” depicts a burned down village in Northern Myanmar built from the charred remains of a giant Padauk tree that was chopped down in central Yangon.
In “The Texture of Memory,” Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Le presented embroidered portraits of young victims of Cambodian genocide victims on sheets of white cotton. The viewer is invited to touch the faces of the victims so the thread gradually darkens. One of the older pieces is “What would you do, if these crackers were real pistols?” by Indonesian artist FX Harsono. Originally a protest piece against the Suharto regime in 1977, Harsono crafted bright pink crackers shaped into gun molds. The viewer is then invited to answer the titular question in a notebook beside the crackers.
Thai artist Manit Sriwanichpoom’s “Horror in Pink” is a series of photographs juxtaposing Sriwanichpoom’s famous Pink Man with photos of human rights violations in Thailand. With humorous images of a man in a bright pink suit cleverly edited into photos of lynchings and murders, the piece interrogates the viewer and whether they’ve turned a blind eye to rights abuses. “What the work does, I think, is sort of give the victims immortality,” Lenzi says of Sriwanichpoom’s work. “They remain this incredibly salient scream for social justice and opposition to state violence.”
Experienced as a whole, the exhibit feels as rich and storied as the region itself. Common themes of state censorship, corruption, human rights abuses, persecution of indigenous people and the lingering effects of colonialism emerge throughout. “As a region, I think we’re extremely unique and I think that makes me feel solidarity,” Poblador says of the confluence among artworks from Southeast Asia that CCC brings together. “It shows people in my scene here [in the U.S.] that we have a big, big group of artists that are all concerned about the same things — that’s not a coincidence,” Poblador says.
Still, on the journey it’s taken over six years and four stops, CCC has made this case for the confluence of ideas and responses to social injustice in Southeast Asia. “It’s so rare and so precious that Iola found all the artists, that curators in each country had art in the same mind-space, how art can help reach out to people or awaken people or shout out to the government in a subtle way,” Poblador says.
Lenzi hopes that the impact translates to a greater focus on work in the region and the common threads that tie all these artists from different regions together. “[Many artists] think of the States and Europe as their reference for art but they shouldn't be doing that. They actually should be thinking about Asia first as their reference,” Lenzi says. “Surely in Manila you have more in common with someone in Bangkok in many ways than you do with someone in Madrid.”