Both an iconic feat of British colonial architecture and a decaying, mysterious presence in the city, Yangon’s storied Secretariat starts a new chapter.
For almost 365 days out of the year the Secretariat, which was once the centre of British administration in colonial Burma, is closed to the public. It once served as the setting where Myanmar’s first independent government drafted the country’s laws and later became notorious as the scene of Aung San’s assassination. During the junta years, military officials restricted public access and set up government offices, where they worked up until the founding of Nay Pyi Taw in 2005.
It’s been abandoned ever since, and only on Martyr’s Day do the rusted gates open to ordinary people curious about what lies inside.
But this weekend, its infamous halls will be open once more, as an internationally renowned artist known for his ritualistic, meditative work will interrupt one of the city’s most steadfast silences.
Wolfgang Laib, who has shown a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, has built his career on collecting, exhibiting, and spending time with the treasures of nature: bee pollen, milk, marble and lacquer.
Opening on January 14th, his exhibit, Where the Land and Water Ends, debuts Laib’s life’s work– which has been the growth and continuation of the same body of works he first created in the mid-1970s.
From a young age, Laib had always shown fascination with the arts and cultures of Asia. The son of two serious art lovers who treated artists like “semi-gods”, Laib grew up frequently travelling to South India where his family sponsored a village and marvelled at the arts of subcontinent. Later in life Laib decided to open a studio in South India, close to where his family had worked and expand his travels across Southeast Asia.
Now, decades after his formative experiences in Asia, Laib – who received the prestigious Japanese Praemium Imperiale in 2015 – has been given the opportunity to show his work in Yangon at the invitation of Goethe-Insitut director, Franz-Xaver Augustin, in a country he first visited in the 1990s.
“To bring an artist of this importance to Myanmar is something very very special,” said Augustin, noting not only Laib’s immersive and substantial body of work, but also the significance of having an exhibit like his at one of the country’s most (in)famous relics.
Pulling off such an event was truly an international affair with an expansive life of coordinators including the Goethe-Insitut Myanmar, the Institute for Foreign Relations, the Yangon Region Government, Myanmar Heritage Preservation Ltd. and Anawmar Art Group, which now own the leasing rights to the Secretariat.
Why here, why now?
Because Laib’s works require such large spaces and imbue a sense of timelessness, the Secretariat was chosen as the most viable option.
After decades of housing such tumultuous, violent, and influential history, the Secretariat’s opening to art, and to a foreign artist no less, signals a shift in the country’s attitudes about art, politics, and how to make use of previously isolated establishments.
Where once walked colonial administrators and early Myanmar lawmakers in the Secretariat’s southeast wing will now rest three of Laib’s most recognisable works.
Though the majority of the massive building bounded by Bo Aung Kyaw and Thein Phyu Road will be closed for restoration and construction, the southeast wing provides a hauntingly beautiful glimpse into the past.
Beneath a spiralling forest-green staircase will sit Laib’s bee pollen, displayed in various patterns on a rectangular stage. Part sculpture, part archive, the bee pollen is the same pollen that he has dutifully collected since the 1990s from different trees around one of his homes in southern Germany.
Due to the deteriorating conditions of the Secretariat and the propensity of pigeons to peck at anything that drops to the ground, the pollen exhibit will only be on view for the first two days of the exhibit.
In another room, visitors will find Laib’s milkstones – the piece that has distinguished him in the art world. Within the slight depressions that he has carved out of white marble blocks, Laib fills the cavities with milk. Once he has initiated the first filling and cleaning, he will leave the responsibility of visitors of the secretariat.
When this work has shown in museums it is up to the curators of the exhibit to fulfil this task. But without a curatorial team, the onus and the privilege will fall onto the visitors.
Thus, this exhibit is entirely new ground both for Laib and for the myriad of patrons that will come not just for the chance to view world class conceptual art but undoubtedly to explore the Secretariat grounds in mid January, a time that does not bear the weight of any commemoration or national duty.
“I think it is quite a responsibility to make an exhibition in this space,” said Laib, while walking through the Secretariat to the third room which will house a field of his brass ships. “I think this is the beginning of something totally different.”
“It’s not just a visual event,” he continued. “It is quite a statement I think about how our livese and our existence are not just what the politicians did.”
Despite colonial rule, despite the uprisings, the shootings, despite the forced labour that constructed this building in the first place, now the building shall be filled with pollen, milkstone – something other than politics will take place.
“You can do a big exhibition at MoMa, which is very beautiful,” Laib said. “But this has context.”
Where the Land and Water End finds its namesake in a Myanmar guide Laib first found over fifteen years ago. The area where the land and water end refers to small religious site in southwest Myanmar, at Cape Negrais in the Ayeyarwaddy Region. It is there where the mighty Ayeyarwaddy flows into the ocean and the land crumbles away into marsh. Where these terrains dissolve, something else begins.
For the Secretariat, which for almost three weeks will be filled with Laib’s natural elements, Where the Land and Water End is a both a new opening and a return to nature indifferent and resilient to history.
Where the Land and Water End will be on view at Yangon’s Secretariat / Minister’s Office from January 14th at 2:30pm through February 4th every day from 10am to 5pm. The exhibit will be free and open to the public.