What Is There to Fear?
Contemporary Burmese performance art began in 1996, when the junta government opened its borders for the first time in decades as part of its Visit Myanmar Year. Since then, local Burmese artists have had greater opportunities to network with foreign artists and to learn about international contemporary art movements. Books related to art also became more widely available at this time, greatly expanding the resources of an art community that had previously published only two Burmese-language books on the subject of art. These changes gave rise to a new movement of performance art within the country.
Around 1997, Myanmar artists based in Yangon began to do performance pieces. Among these, I would like to draw attention to the work of several artists who chose the streets as a venue for their works, notably Musician by Htein Lin, and In the Street by Nyein Chan Su. These two performance pieces were recorded as the earliest works of street art in Myanmar. Moreover, the two artists successfully executed their works without suffering any repercussions from the authorities. Often such art works do indeed carry with them real dangers – e.g. government officials prohibiting artists from performing in the streets or confiscating cameras and video recorders used to document performances. These devices are unlikely to ever be returned. Artists have often had to explain their actions to police committees for hours. At times, artists have been detained for periods of up to five days. Performances that have attracted unwanted attention from the authorities include Aye Ko’s works at Chaung Thar beach in 1998 and in the Yangon streets in 2005, Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein’s Mobile Gallery/Mobile Market, Aung Ko’s work at Chaung Thar beach in 2007, and my own Face and Fingers piece staged at the Botahtaung jetty in 2008.
Myanmar’s decade and a half of street-based performance art raises the question of why more Burmese artists do not perform in public spaces today. An obvious answer would be fear, as groupings of over five people can be met with stiff jail sentences.
Upon closer examination of this history, I realize that no artist has ever actually been imprisoned for doing street performance. I wonder what it is exactly that we fear.
I have not performed in Yangon’s streets since I encountered problems with the local authorities more than three years ago. I founded and have directed Beyond Pressure and other related performance festivals for the past three years now, requesting permission from the proper authorities for each event. Yet I ask myself why did I not hold any of these events in the streets. Again, I wonder what it is that I fear. I became the artist “Moe Satt” in order to do art works in the public space of the streets. With this in mind, I resolved to perform in the streets one more time, returning to the same place where I encountered such difficulties with government officials three years ago. I chose to perform again without notifying the local authorities in advance, staging my work on 7 February, 2011. The new government had come into office the day before, so my piece effectively tested the system of the new government. Would the rules and regulations be the same as before? How would they have changed? Entitled Words, my performance consisted of simply conversing with the public, so that I could find a way to form a dialogue with this audience. The informal discussions about life, sex, politics, society and the economy that arose out of my work revealed the extent of the public’s discontent.
Before I arrived to the performance site, my friends called me twice. They had already arrived there, and wanted to know if I had chosen a specific location for my piece, because the Botahtaung jetty is so wide. Only about ten friends and onlookers attended the performance, coming one at a time over the course of an hour. Before I began, I gave an explanation of the work. I would start to write a word on the ground in chalk, and then audience members would follow, writing words vertically or horizontally appended to mine, like a game of Scrabble. All of the text was written in Burmese. After I wrote “Moe Satt”, a participant wrote “die Moe Satt”. A third changed the Burmese word “Satt” into “vagina”. The words continued to change, from “Are you finding police cases?” to “Have you ever been to mental hospital?”, “Odd job”, “Suck?”, “This life is so bad?”, and “Let’s go for a drink”. A street kid dropped in to write a dirty word and then depart. Over the course of the performance, pedestrians, kids, and vendors contributed text. At last, I asked the audience how I should end the piece. They gave me some suggestions, such as making a diagram with the words and urinating on the words. After some further thought, I decided to recite the accumulated writings, ending with “Let’s go for a drink”. Reading the text out loud, I announced that the performance had ended, and that we should all proceed to go and have a drink together.
Spectators criticized the performance for being ‘not high art but low art’. Even though it was indeed ‘low art’, I saw it as an entertainment in which all could participate. It was joyous to write. Everybody was happy, including participants, spectators, and volunteers. As I was thirsty, I was able to write, “Let’s go for a drink.” Others also wrote just as I did. Because the work was staged in the street, many pedestrians stopped to watch. In the middle of the event, something strange occurred. When a boy and girl passed through the performance area, the girl hesitated before walking across our text. I assured her that she could walk across the chalk markings without giving any offense. But an 8 year old street kid watching the event shouted to the two: ”you will seem illiterate if you walk on these words.” The girl calmly replied to her “I have already graduated, little sister.” The street kid appeared to be a bottle collector. That context for spontaneous dialog seemed so natural and sensible, the most sensible moment of the entire event.
Another criticism of the work was that it was too simplistic. Indeed, I would agree that everybody can do performances such as mine. There is no difference between the capabilities of performance artists and those of ordinary people. Anyone can pick up a piece of chalk and write. What I find most valuable is the participation of the audience. I still reflect on the words written by cold drink vendors, cigarette sellers, and the street kid who all joined me in creating the work. When the authorities finally came to ask what we were doing, I responded that I did not know. Feigning ignorance, I told them that they should ask whomever it was that had organized the event. They chose not to pursue that matter further, so it seems that not asking for official approval of performance works might be the best course for artists to take in Myanmar today.
In conclusion, I would like to ask my dear artists why they do not dare to make more art works in the streets of our country. Indeed, there is no doubt that Myanmar’s people live with fear, including me.
May many performances come to the streets of Yangon!
Moe Satt is the founder and organizer of Beyond Pressure international performance art festival in Yangon, Myanmar, where he lives and works. He began to present his works of art after graduating in 2005 with a Bachelor of Sciences (Zoology). He has participated in several performance art events around Asia. His work in performance involves hands as the main expression. He has also been artist-in-residence at Rimbun Dahan (Malaysia), Hooyong Performing Art Center (S-Korea) and Ground of Zenkoji Temple (Japan).
This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 31 March 2011.