An exhibition of contemporary South and Southeast Asian art at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York City avoids works that court controversy or make political statements, and therefore fails to capture the complexity of Myanmar and the region as a whole, argues art researcher Nathalie Johnston
This year marks a major landmark for Myanmar artists: two of their own are featured at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
The Guggenheim is one of world’s premier museums, with collections boasting some of the best European and American modern art in the world.
The prestigious institution now looks to expand its map with UBS Map Global Art Initiative, first covering contemporary arts of South and Southeast Asia, followed by the Middle East and North Africa.
For the past decade, art critics and curators have turned serious attention toward burgeoning art scenes in places like Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Yet Myanmar’s artists remain far in the background, no doubt due to years of political isolation and a general scepticism as to whether artists here are producing contemporary art up to international standards.
The exhibition’s title, “No Country: Contemporary Art from South and Southeast Asia”, references the 1928 W B Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium”. It is meant to offer an allegorical reference to the region’s complex journeys through empires and colonisation, socialist regimes and democratic reform.
From the selection of works by curator and Guggenheim fellow June Yap, it is clear that artists from Myanmar will soon be getting the international recognition they have been missing.
Artist couple Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu are no strangers to major exhibitions in Asia and Europe, but their combination installation-video-sculpture project displayed in New York was a first for the couple.
Four Pieces [of White] is an ode to their own childhood memories of General Aung San — memories passed down through video and radio clips, considering the general died long before the two were born.
A painting, a bookcase of white busts and a video all attempt to replicate the look and power of the general and the indelible mark he left on the psyche of Myanmar citizens.
The painted portrait mimics the T-shirts now sold on Yangon’s streets. The 50 busts of the general’s head face the wall, giving off an eerie, impersonal feeling. Best of all, an old video is on display of General Aung San’s last speech before his assassination (with English subtitles) lecturing a crowd on the importance of efficiency, economy and unity.
Refreshingly out of place in the exhibition is Aung Myint’s White Stupa Doesn’t Need Gold'. Aung Myint is a veteran of the art scene, often referred to as the father of modernism in Myanmar.
In this piece, the paint is roughly applied to the canvas and is perhaps the most successful of the exhibit for that very reason. It is not a museum-quality work like Four Pieces. The painting deftly describes Aung Myint’s disdain for Myanmar Buddhism’s extravagant obsession with gold leaf. The work can also be read as commenting on the decay of Myanmar’s ancient temples and the lack of care and consideration paid to them.
When asked why these two particular projects were chosen to represent Myanmar, curator June Yap described her previous encounters with the country and how they changed.