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Voices of Transition: Contemporary Art from Myanmar

Htein Lin with a plaster cast of a forearm from ‘Show of Hands’ (2013-ongoing)

As both the first Papal visit to Myanmar and the debut show of the Lunn + Sgarbossa collaboration, ‘Voices of Transition: Contemporary Art from Myanmar’, draw to a close this weekend, political unrest continues to ripple through the country and as viewers we are left feeling unresolved and ineffectual. The works displayed in what was a showcase of contemporary art from Myanmar on a scale previously unseen in Europe, confronted the tendency towards vague categorisation of Asian art, all too commonly exercised within the art world. Instead ‘Voices of Transition’ wrestled with the position of the individual native in a country amidst unrelenting societal transition, Myanmar’s road to democracy potted and incomplete since the dissolution of the military junta in November 2010. At Gallery 46 the breadth of the work on view was eclectic to say the least. Set over three floors and ten rooms the contributing artists tackled a huge array of subject matter via a multiplicity of media; including the traditional art forms, performance art and calligraphy. In Whitechapel Myanmaris artists were celebrated whilst in their country of origin contention was mounting over whether Pope Francis would even acknowledge the existence of an ethnic group officially unrecognised, a somewhat one million Rohingyas living in Myanmar prior to an exodus of refugees to neighbouring Bangladesh since August 25th this summer, some 620,000.

The political fragility with which the very name of this ethnic minority is handled exemplifies the mercurial environment from which these artists have emerged and continue to work within. However, the interesting curatorial decision to omit accompanying contextual information from the walls of the gallery forced the artwork to speak alone. Arguably this increased the pressure on exhibiting artists in their navigation of such delicate context, yet ultimately it reasserted our focus upon the work itself and refrained the viewer from hasty speculative interpretation. Moreover the absence of overt biography reminded us that, as indicated by the exhibition title, these works are in ‘transition’ and meaning is therefore unfixed. The title here evokes a documentary aspect to the works on show, each piece a testimony to its artist’s experience of Myanmar’s constant political transition and strife since gaining independence in 1948. Show of Hands (2013 - ) by Htein Lin exemplifies this idea of continued political repercussion. Lin creates plaster casts of the hands and forearms of political prisoners jailed between 1988 and 2012 with the aim to reach 1000 casts of what were likely more than 3000 detainees. During the casting Lin would discuss the effect of the model’s time is prison, recording their conversation. In this way as the plaster casts accumulate so do the oral histories of the surviving prisoners, allowing the work to be considered both visually and perfomatively. Lin uses plaster of Paris, usually used to cast broken bones, the material is suggestive of healing and we are reminded of the human subject who although detached, disembodied and abstracted, is at the core of the work.

Performance artist Zoncy also serves to reiterate the reality from which her work is rooted in. Born to a Buddhist father and Muslim mother Zoncy has first hand experience of the religious tensions in Burma. Performing live at the Gallery’s opening, ‘Finding the Cat’ during which Zoncy lay facing upwards flat on the ground and axially rotated reaching out and clasping the feet of the audience as she did so, addresses the vulnerability of women as the victims of violence during times of armed conflict. In a country where the army has been internationally accused of instances of gang rape, governmentally dismissed as ‘exaggeration,’ gender issues and sexism remain prominent themes. In East London on the Wednesday evening in November the poignancy of Zoncy’s performance was resolute. Starring down on Zoncy from our standing viewing position we are localised with a sense of power over her vulnerable on the ground. Once on her feet the repeated ‘calling of the cat’, or rather meowing, Zoncy omitted was incredibly raw yet seemingly futile because whether she was crying out in pain or to an assumed other person, at the end of the performance she remained alone.

As the first of their collaborative ventures Lunn + Sgarbossa articulate an aim to curate broad ‘projects,’ usurping the traditional expectation and format of a traditional gallery structure to instead emphasize the individuality and strength of the artists’ voice. This innovation in approach was most certainly felt throughout ‘Voices of Transition,’ the work on show combined with the attendance of the exhibiting artists situated the exhibition as a channel through which to consider the crisis in Myanmar. Yet as we look forward to the next installment of Lunn + Sgarbossa with excitement of what’s to come, ‘Voices of Transition’ leaves us with a disconnect and ambivalence that endures following the closure of the show as the political tumult in Burma persists.

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