They have happy hour at sunset! One-for-one, free flow of sunset drinks (whisky and papaya and orange juice!). I had a virgin. Everyone else got drunk. KS made us all take a group photo in silhouette.
KS: I love the way Min Thein and May Phue Thet have worked with this couple here to create something that is not so usual. And I think after that to see and to enjoy the work of Shanaanthan and Takamaine… this search to ask what is art, what is a museum in different cities, in Colombo, in Tokyo… it’s very powerful to see these links.
After that we had lunch and broke up to go sightseeing and shopping.
Last three shots explained: there's a multi-staired pagoda where you can climb up the bamboo scaffolding of the stupa; Mriganka has ship piloting experience due to his work on Periferry, and apparently some Burmese kids like to wear empty-framed glasses. Either they're hipsters or Harry Potter fans: I'm not sure.
Given the pressures of time, Tadasu decided he’d speak about just one work he’s done. Still, it’s a biggie. It’s his first solo show in Art Tower Mito, Japan’s very first museum devoted to contemporary art (it devoted itself back in 1991, before some of our volunteers were even BORN).
The exhibition’s called Cool Japan, and it's currently showing from 22 December to 17 Feb. Tadasu says it’s inspired by the notion that one is not born but one becomes Japanese (tip of the hat to Simone de Beauvoir); that creation of national identity by a larger collective.
Tadasu: There are many things that have never really entered our consciousness because they have been too manipulated or doctored in a way that hinders our imagination. Now we find ourselves in a situation where for the first time we are actually confronted with these things.
The “Now” in question is, of course, post-Fukushima Japan. Mito is pretty damn close to Fukushima, so the issue of nuclear power is burning in everyone’s minds right now. Tadasu’s explored it through a series of eight chambers, most populated by human statues, patterned on the desperation of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais:
1. The Cool Japan Room: a mural celebrating Japan as a post-war consumerist paradise.
2. The Lost Lawsuit Room: an installation revealing that of the many civil movements and lawsuits against nuclear power companies in Japan, 99% have been ruled in favour of the companies.
(Tadasu at this point mentioned the thick, hairlike curtains between rooms.)
3. The Shojo Room: a shojo is a motto, usually exhorting people towards courteous, civic-minded behavior, written in 5/7/5 haiku form and found in every schoolbus and train.
4. The Ganam Room: ganam is endurance, perseverance, self-reliance, stoicism: the supposed core of Japanese character, which won them so much admiration from international community after the quake. Here the statues stand amidst continuous piercing noise and pre-recorded commandments to endure.
5. The Room of Free Expression: reflecting on the Japanese stereotype of reticence.
Tadasu: I wanted to make a cemetery for words, self-centred, self-loving words.
6. Japan Syndrome: a three-video room showing re-enactments of interactions with vendors over goods with potential nuclear contamination: videos from Kansai, Yamaguchi, Mito.
Tadasu: Before, when I showed these videos in Tokyo, some people got angry. Mito because it’s so close to Fukushima, and many people there cannot leave. Now the exhibition is held in Mito and I’m a little bit scared about how people will react to this video, especially.
7. The Nuclear Family Room: A timeline of nuclear testing throughout the world, set against photos of a Japanese family who have been able to live lives of peace due to the nuclear deterrent – namely, Tadasu’s own family. (He has three kids.)
Tadasu: I didn’t know this fact, but there have been more than 2000 nuclear tests in history. The ‘60s and ‘70s were the peak, but they still keep doing. And after Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, America’s still doing it.
8. The Transit Room: The human sculptures from previous rooms have flung clothes on ground and disappeared. Where have they gone? In the background is a very bad rendition of We Are the World sung by Japanese children.
Just before he reached his final room, Tadasu showed us footage – not artistic footage, just personal stuff – of the latest 100,000-strong anti-nuclear protest in Tokyo. It’s rare for such numbers to gather over such an issue in Japan, and he really felt it meant it could change something.
Tadasu: They’re still thinking. I don’t have an answer. Giving an answer is not art’s function. We’re asking the question, always the question. It’s what we do.
He didn’t seem entirely convinced.
Tadasu: But I think I’m lucky enough to do this kind of project with the museum. Artists always have to be critical, that’s my opinion. But it’s always a collaboration with the museum, the curator. It’s always important to have colleagues. Museums belong to a system. I always try to be an individual, an observer of society. But to work with a curator, you can do this. I’m happy.
Seems everyone’s speaking about activism now. The only difference is, the Burmese still believe it can move mountains. Us in the rich world bite our lips.
We’ve already heard from two Sri Lankan artists: Anomaa and Venuri. Both spoke about the oppression of the Tamil minority from a Sinhalese majority perspective.
Now, we’re hearing from the Tamil perspective. Shanaathanan (also spelt Sanathanan, but he likes the “sh” form better) is an art history professor in the city of Jaffna, the biggest city of northern Sri Lanka. He’s been busy with the first classes of the teaching year, which was why he couldn’t join us earlier: he’s actually skipping a class or two so he can stay with us all the way till Singapore.
Lots of Burmese painters were in attendance at this talk, so it was a good thing he ran through the basic background of the Sri Lankan civil war and the gruesome final solution the government executed: 40,000 people dead, 500,000 people displaced, and a rhetoric of victory that’s only serving to further divide the population into winners and losers.
Then he turned to his own practice: drawings working with maps and human anatomy (a skill he picked up due to his parents’ early ambitions for him to become a doctor), the connection between the body and geography in terms of building identity, checkpoints.
He wandered into installation art almost by accident: when covering 1970s American art in a history lecture, his students proposed that they initiate some idea art of their own – “Why can’t we do an art project without skill?”
Thus History of Histories (2004), an installation of everyday objects representing the memory of a home, randomly collected from 500 people from all corners of the Jaffna peninsula. This was installed in the Jaffna Library, newly restored after its destruction in the war. This is an institution that exhibits rare materials from all over South Asia, but nothing from the recent, traumatic, people’s past – so Shanaathanan and his students co-opted the empty shelf space to show their harvest.
Nothing prepared them for the reaction they got. Donors arrived, searching for their work – but Shanaathanan had done this amateur-style, with no labels, no registry, no explanations. And the donors would realize they couldn’t tell the piece of barbed wire or broken doll they’d contributed apart from another’s submission: how shared their trauma was, and they broke down weeping.
Cf. a Jataka tale, which Shanaathanan described, wherein a woman pleaded the Buddha to restore the life of her dead son. He told her to knock on the door of every house in her district. And there was death in every house.
The success of this work led to an invitiation by the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology – seems they were drawn to the “archaeological” tone of his work. Shanaathanan would’ve just shipped over the whole of History of Histories, but the war had begun again: he couldn’t get an exit permit for his objects, and possession of some (passports, bullets) was actually criminal.
Hence Imag(in)ing Home (2009), a new work drawn from 300 individual stories of home among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Vancouver. These emigres also contributed objects – often tiny items smuggled in when they entered illegally through checkpoints. These were encased in empty Pepsi bottles – vessels which had proven very useful for storing the original collection.
Shannaathanan told us the community wasn’t actually very tight-knit – it actually grew closer because of his methodology for finding participants: ask each donor to seek out other donors, so that we get a rhizomatic network of voices involved – a measure that circumvents the limitations imposed by the artist’s social class.
Also the sense of affirmation the Tamil community received from this work. Once again, the museum’s only Tamil artefacts were ancient masks. Nothing about the contemporary, modern, Canadian community.
Shanaathanan: If you don’t have objects in a museum, you don’t have a history. If you don’t have a history, you don’t have a sense of identity in the nation.
Ultimately, he wasn’t able to attend the exhibition – it really belonged to the donors in the end.
A final work: The Incomplete Thombu, an artist’s book consisting of testimonies of lands and properties lost. (“Thombu” is a Tamil/Sinhalese word denoting land deeds or public registers of land – originally from Greek, arriving in the language via Portuguese and Dutch traders.)
The book features the stories of 80 people who’ve lost their homes, plus architectural plans of their vanished spaces, plus Shanaathanan’s subjective sketches of these locales.
It’s inspired by the tale of a woman in London who received the dowry of a house in Jaffna, and had to tell her husband about it in detail, and he made a replica of it for their living room, and they would tell every poor sucker they’d meet about its dimensions and where the tables and bedrooms were/would be…
Emotional architecture; the architecture of emotion. Intriguing how he once again speaks for the community almost from the outside: little sign of his own personal traumas in these works. Once again, letting communities speak.
But a jaw-dropping fact emerged during Q&As. Because History of Histories wasn’t created with a register, the objects couldn’t be returned. Nor could they be thrown away: after all, they belong to people, and the emotional weight attached to each of these objects is as heavy as lead.
So they’re buried in the ground, in polythene bags for protection. Waiting maybe not for their owners, but for the archaeologists who’ll reclaim them as history.
Boat ride in the morning!
We paid two boats to take us from the jetty to Mingon, the site where King Bodawpaya commissioned the world’s biggest pagoda. Construction began in 1790 but halted in 1819, leaving only the massive base and the haunches of a couple of colossal chinthes, both now cracked by: a monument to antecolonial hubris, a Burmese Ozymandias.
Plenty of tourism here, pretty low rents, and a legacy of two important national painters who set up shop here. (Forgot their names.) Result is that a whole community of artists has set up shop in the village: watercolours of monks and puppets and tribesmen and Aung San Suu Kyi; also local interpretations of cubism, pop art, baroque.
And among them, a couple of contemporary artists: Ming Thein Sung and May Phue Thet. We popped in on their shows.
Ming Thein’s Another Realm is a gigantic rifle, made of hollow white cloth, suspended from the ceiling. Due to the constraints of the space, however, the rifle has to be divided between three rooms: one for the muzzle, one for the shaft and trigger, one for the loading chamber and butt. (Me and Venuri mistook the middle section for an elephant.)
May Phu Thet’s Be Happy Be Happy is a series of photos of Burmese baby puppets: garish white creatures with protruding, retractable red tongues, all stitched up in sequined gimp suits. One of the original puppets sits in the corner; another freshly made suit hangs from a rack on the wall.
Both these projects are part of the Museum Project #5: Mingon Museum of Contemporary Art – not your usual bricks-and-stone museum, but a pop-up affair produced by Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu (with a little help from FCP). They’ve been testing the relationship between contemporary art and community for some time now: exhibitions of found and discarded objects in neighbourhoods, etc. Thus they’ve been dreaming of this temporary museum for the past two-three years: most villagers are confused by it, but the kids love running among the cloth chambers of Ming Thein’s fabric gun.
The exhibition runs from 4 to 13 Jan, after which they’ll be trying to stage something by digital-interactive artist Phyoe Kyi in Taunji, the capital of Shan state. (He’s the owner of the studios in Mingon where the stuff’s on show!) Also stuff by another of their colleagues, Zar Min Htike.
(From L to R: Tun Win Aung, Wah Nu, May Phu Thet, Ming Thein Sun, Phyoe Kyi, Zar Min Htike.
After all these preambles, we launched into presentations by two new FCP artists who’ve just joined us from abroad: T. Shanaathanan from Sri Lanka and Tadasu Takamine from Japan. Reports coming up.
My name's Ng Yi-Sheng, I'm a writer from Singapore, and I've been a Creative-in-Residence with TheatreWorks since 2006. I've served as blogger-documenter for two previous Flying Circus Projects: Singapore/Vietnam in 2007 and Singapore/Cambodia in 2009/2010.