For years, Shwebonthar Road was known for its signboard makers, cutting sheets of plastic into signs for stores, hairdressers and banks lining the streets of downtown Yangon. At the day’s end, whatever plastic remained often went straight into the garbage. That is, until Htein Lin walked by.
Arguably one of Myanmar’s most prolific and well-known contemporary artists, Htein Lin has spent his life finding beauty and meaning in discarded objects. Throughout his life – a sequence of interruptions that includes a stint in prison from 1998 to 2004 (for suspected siding with rebels) and another stint in the UK from 2006 to 2012 – Htein Lin has been a careful collector of history.
His third and most recent solo exhibit at The River Gallery, Signs of the Times, opens tomorrow, 6-8pm. The showcase highlights his evocative reflections on a changing Myanmar.
Using objects now seen as superfluous in this increasingly technological age – left-over plastic sheets, farmer’s wagon wheels now replaced by motorcycles, and even pieces of his repertoire chewed up by a termite infestation – Htein Lin restores these castaway things, giving them a new home in an archive of Myanmar’s recent past.
“For me, this is a really interesting trace – from these sheets of plastic – of what people need,” Htein Lin said, referring to the change in signboards from shops and street signs to advertisements for smartphones, language schools and new medical clinics. “These signs have a very strong connection to the recent economy and social needs.”
In addition to this series in the show of the same name, Signs of the Times also includes “The Bug Series”, “Wheels”, and “Clockwork”, a series of collages of Htein Lin’s own nude, somersaulting body alongside a plethora of clocks.
“Clockwork” is very much a haunting reminiscence of both Marcel Duchamp’s ”Nude Descending a Staircase” and Yue Min Jun’s eerie “Symbolic smile” portraits.
The River Gallery has represented and supported Htein Lin’s work since 2006 when Htein Lin still lived abroad.
River Gallery director Gill Pattison has been struck throughout the years by the way in which Htein Lin has coped – using art and often humor in his work – and made sense of the various challenges he has faced.
“Htein Lin does not dwell on his prison experience,” Pattison said. “It has certainly influenced him as a man and an artist, but he is not defined by it. I sometimes say that Htein Lin inhabits the silver lining – even through his worst experiences, he finds something to learn, or something that inspires him.”
She explains that Htein Lin’s “Bug Series” is a prime example of how he reacts in the face of adversity. No matter if the opponent is as large as a dictatorial government or as small as an annoying insect, Htein Lin always chooses a “different approach, embracing his ‘enemies’, and using them to his advantage”.
Perhaps it is from his face-to-face experiences with the cruelty of military regime, or the spell cast over his village long before his birth by slain student leader Bo Aung Kyaw, who protested against colonial rule in the late 1930s, that Htein Lin’s work is both politically engaged and emphasises the voices and strength of a community.
Even though he has a studio is in North Okkalapa on the city’s outskirts, Htein Lin considers Yangon, and particularly its downtown, his studio.
“My community and city give me inspiration to create new ideas. Early on, I admired the old masters like Khin One and international artists like Jackson Pollack and de Kooning … but during my time in prison, things changed a lot,” he said.
Signs of the Times is just one facet of an ongoing exploration and delineation of Myanmar’s economic and societal tensions. And though Htein Lin hopes Myanmar art collectors will populate the opening alongside international collectors and art enthusiasts, he also wishes that ordinary people, like signboard makers who helped him establish his work, come along for a look.