Modify Your Dissent: A Performance on the Streets of Yangon

Eschewing assumptions about the absence of artistic and political agency under so-called “undemocratic” circumstances, Simon Wu argues that Chaw Ei Thein and Htein Lin’s public performance Mobile Market / Mobile Gallery speaks to the prevalence—and symbiosis—of art and political action in Burma. As the country is roiled by post-coup protests and military crackdowns anew, we hope that revisiting this earlier moment in its political history can contribute to a fuller understanding of a long history of struggle for Burmese artists and activists. 

In his 2008 text “Performance Art Events in Yangon Streets,” Burmese1In English, the names Myanmar/Burma and Yangon/Rangoon straddle a political binary. The former of each pair connotes an allegiance with the military regime, while the latter carries a historical calculus of the country’s colonial past. In this thesis, the names in both pairs are used interchangeably. Usages in quotations and sources have not been altered. artist and writer Aung Min asks, “What would be the difference between street performance art in the public and [a] political riot?”2Aung Min, “Performance Art Events in Yangon Streets,” in Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival (Yangon: 2008), 30. The answer, Min suggests, is very little—particularly in the roiling context of the past several decades. He argues that the “belated development of contemporary art in Burma” caused both the ordinary public and the authorities to look upon “any art event on the street as a political demonstration.” For example, when Burmese performance artist Nyein Chan Su carried an image of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), it was considered an act of political protest and therefore grounds for arrest. This stands in stark contrast to the ways in which, say, Andy Warhol’s appropriation of President Kennedy’s image did not mean that Warhol was himself “doing Democratic Party politic [sic].”3Ibid., 31. Nyein Chan Su, interview by author, August 17, 2016. In a visual economy in which images and actions were not allowed the privilege of interpretive subtlety—or, for that matter, any interpretation at all—artistic uses of “political” content were often seen as direct political activity, a conflation that artists themselves began to leverage in their work. Thus, in Myanmar, under the military regime, the boundaries between artistic and political practices became imperceptibly fluid.

This particular imbrication of art and politics is what drew me to study a network of socially engaged, cross-disciplinary performance projects undertaken between 1996 and 2013 in Myanmar. In 2017, as an undergraduate at Princeton University, I was thinking a lot about questions of representation, activism, and institutional critique as protests arose against the art being shown at certain museums. In addition to having a personal connection to Burma (I was born in Yangon, and my family is Burmese-Chinese), I wondered whether the particular fluidity between aesthetic and political practice I found in Myanmar might teach me something about art and activism in American and transnational contexts.

I spent twenty days in Yangon in 2017. Prior to my visit, the only material I found on performance art in Myanmar was a master’s thesis from American curator Nathalie Johnston.4See Nathalie Johnston, “Intuitive Acts: The Evolution of Myanmar Contemporary Performance Art” (master’s thesis, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, 2010). Johnston runs a gallery in Yangon called Myanm/art, and she was able to offer me an initial list of contacts. Each of the artists on her list suggested two or three more artists, and in that way, I ultimately interviewed an intergenerational cohort of twenty-six painters, activists, and performance artists. Some allowed me to record our conversations (I used my iPhone), but others feared persecution, and so for those exchanges, I took notes in longhand. Many artists provided me with books, photographs, or flyers—often the only extant documentation of what had been ephemeral performance actions. The artists I met wore many hats, including those of curator, critic, and archivist. And the absence of an independent ecosystem of art institutions or criticism5In 2017, the state-sponsored National Museum of Myanmar in Yangon was the only official “art museum” in the country. had led them, ironically, to a wealth of self-organized activities in the form of guerrilla festivals, workshops, and residencies.

The development of contemporary art in Myanmar had been severely limited by the country’s isolation. From 1962 to 1988, under the strict military dictatorship of General Ne Win and the Burma Socialist Programme Party, postcolonial Burma was closed to the world. Under the pretext of securing its independence and stability during the Cold War, the military junta, known as the tatmadaw, restricted foreign travel, technological investment, and international exchange. Because of these conditions, Myanmar artists had to operate in an almost entirely isolated environment. Art-related publications and training from other parts of the world were scarce. Artist Aung Myint recounts that there were only three books about modern art available at the time.6[Aung Myint], “Short Introduction to Myanmar Performance Art,” Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2010, https://www.tfam.museum/File/files/05research/01modern%20art/緬甸行為藝術簡介.pdf. Moreover, state-regulated cultural education was aligned with nationalist aims, and so all other forms of “deviant” practices were condemned to strict censorship.

Artistic activity developed more rapidly following social and economic revolt. On August 8, 1988, years of political and economic frustration erupted in the largest attempt to overthrow the military regime in Myanmar’s history. Known as the 8888 Uprising, more than one million students and civilians stormed the streets of the capital city Yangon, which at that time, had a population of only about two million. The socialist government—and General Ne Win—“resigned,” but then was reestablished as the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC). In 1989, the SLORC declared martial law and undertook a brutal campaign against dissenters, in which thousands were sought out, jailed, or killed. Burma was renamed Myanmar; the capital, Rangoon, was renamed Yangon; and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.7“Myanmar profile–Timeline,” BBC News, September 3, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12992883. Despite continued military rule, market reforms in 1989 opened greater opportunities for travel and communication. Books on Pop art, Conceptual art, and performance art made their way into artistic circles through international ambassadors and embassies.8In a “Short Introduction to Myanmar Performance Art,” Aung Myint states that these books were smuggled in by ambassadors “Robert and Susan.” That the ambassadors are referred to by only their first names speaks to the tight-knit nature of the artistic community in Myanmar. 

Many artists remarked that I was the first Burmese-speaking American art historian they had ever encountered. My story—of a Western-educated member of the diaspora returning to study their “homeland”—is now more common. I was excited to bring this material to light, but understood that there would be limits due to my mostly Euro-American art education. Moreover, I knew that processing this work and bringing it into a much larger conversation would need to be done with sensitivity and acknowledgment of the potentially extractive nature of the endeavor.

Over the course of these conversations, my understanding of Aung Min’s provocation—of a historically specific porosity between aesthetic and political action in public space—began to crystallize. I focused on the work of three artists duos whose social goals and aesthetic forms coincide: Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein, Aung Ko and Nge Lay, and Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu.9Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011), 211. At a time when existing forms of political opposition had become increasingly disconnected from the daily concerns of average citizens, their work created “semiautonomous spaces” in which the relationship between art, politics, and everyday life was reestablished, and thus served as an alternative model of political opposition.

Semiautonomous Space

Semiautonomous space is a term I use to describe the temporary state of self-governance that these artists create through their artwork. In such a space, artists are able to dictate the economic, social, and aesthetic conditions of living within their own conceptual, physical, or temporal bounds. Of course, within an authoritarian regime, autonomy is always qualified, and the freedoms granted are always partial. But it is precisely this interchange, in which a space is both embedded within its physical site and at a conceptual remove, that allows artists and their publics access to an array of otherwise inaccessible interactions, conversations, and ideas. In engendering the plurality of thought and action, these spaces create fractures in the hegemonic power of the military junta.

The idea of a semiautonomous space also speaks to the reality of creating artwork under censorship. In Myanmar, artists have been responsible for the production not only of their artwork but also of the necessary conditions for that artwork to be received—in order to evade censorship. Under censorship, most modern or nontraditional art in Myanmar typically has had to occur in the semiprivate context of a gallery or the closed living rooms of artists. Thus, to some extent, these artists have always operated under the relative freedoms afforded them by semiautonomous spaces. However, what I hoped to trace was the ways in which these artists consider this space to be a structural feature of the artwork itself, with the end being both aesthetic and political.

To aid in my theorization, I adopted an interpretive stance drawn from the idea of “aesthetic heteronomy” presented by performance scholar Shannon Jackson in her book Social Works.10Ibid. Jackson argues that when performances are embedded in the social field, aesthetic forms are inextricable from their contingent circumstances, which then often become integral to the work. This complicates the age-old consideration of the aesthetic autonomy of the work of art, which is grounded in the belief in art’s ability to transcend its material support and surroundings. Redefining this concept in regard to socially engaged and participatory artistic practices, Jackson proposes that such performances are aesthetically “heteronomous” as opposed to aesthetically autonomous. She defines this state as an aesthetic-formal openness that invites social and political contingencies to become part of the work itself.11Ibid., 32. From an interpretative standpoint, this condition demands we give significant scrutiny to both the external conditions in which an artwork is presented and its internal aesthetic structure—as well as to the interactions between the two. I take this stance throughout my analysis.

Over the course of my research, I drew from a variety of conceptual models and theoretical resources that, like Jackson’s, were not produced explicitly in or about Southeast Asia. Under the guidance of my advisor Irene Small, who specializes in Latin America/Brazil, I drew from thinkers with varied regional and theoretical affinities, including Robin S. Greeley (Latin America), Claire Bishop (Eastern Europe), and Shannon Jackson (North America), as well as from theorist Hannah Arendt and performance theorist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. On the one hand, I felt I wasn’t engaging enough regional knowledge; on the other, I wondered if that regional agnosticism could reflect the openness of a field like “Southeast Asian Art History,” and point to discourses that could be nimbler and less restricted than traditional regional denominations. In this essay, I’ve expanded my initial thinking and writing on one work by Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein to try to better understand how they mobilized a particular hybrid of activist and artistic practice, the interpretation of which would not simply fall in line with regionalism or a global universalism.

Mobile Market / Mobile Gallery (2005)

On May 6, 2005, on 33rd Street near the popular artist cafe Le Thine Ghone in downtown Yangon, Chaw Ei Thein and Htein Lin enacted their performance project Mobile Market / Mobile Gallery (MM/MG). Lin had just been released from jail (for political activism) a few months ago. The structure of the work mimicked that of street vendors and other marketplaces dotting the corners of downtown Yangon. Htein Lin’s Mobile Gallery (fig. 1) featured his own unstretched drawings on canvas, which were hung on a bamboo structure that he balanced across his shoulders, while Chaw Ei Thein’s Mobile Market (fig. 2) consisted of a basket about two feet in diameter that held small convenience store items arranged along the bottom. A pedestrian encountering Lin and Thein would find that the pair operated in the same way as other street vendors: every object they had on display was for sale, and the artists wore simple canvas clothes reminiscent of farmers and salespeople. Even though Lin’s “gallery” might have been unfamiliar as a concept to the general Burmese public, it would have registered as part of the informal economy of local souvenir shops.

Fig. 1. Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein. Mobile Market / Mobile Gallery. 2005. Performance. Still from “Mobile Market and Mobile Art Gallery by Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein,” uploaded by Htein Lin on January 2, 2017, YouTube video, 6:06, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHj4xPrwYRE
Fig. 2. Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein. Mobile Market / Mobile Gallery. 2005. Performance. Still from “Mobile Market and Mobile Art Gallery by Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein,” uploaded by Htein Lin on January 2, 2017, YouTube video, 0:06, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHj4xPrwYRE

Upon closer inspection, however, a participant would find that key features of these commonplace experiences had been altered. First, while baskets such as the one Thein used in her Mobile Market were a common fixture in coffee shops at the time, they were also infamously used to hide bribes. According to Thein, government operatives would tuck car keys, wads of money, and other enticements for potential informants between the tea and snacks along the bottom. Instead of concealing bribes among the goods of her basket, Chaw Ei Thein placed pictures of herself with her mouth blacked out by permanent marker.12Chaw Ei Thein, interview with author, August 23, 2016.

Second, MM/MG was extremely nomadic, often intrusively interrupting the flow of quotidian life. Thein and Lin changed locations approximately every thirty to forty minutes. Although they resembled the other vendors on the busy streets of Yangon, Lin and Thein chose sites that were not in fact occupied by other sellers. For example, one of their first stops was the tiny space between a parked car and the sidewalk (fig. 3).13Lin and Thein’s emphasis on mobility could also be seen in light of then-recent political events. Just a few months earlier, General Than Shwe decided without warning to move the government operations of the centuries-old capital of Yangon 320 miles north to the rocky terrain of Pyinmana, all within a span of 48 hours—presumably after an unfavorable reading from an astrologer. See Alan Sipress, “As Scrutiny Grows, Burma Moves Its Capital,” Washington Post, December 28, 2005, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/27/AR2005122701248_3.html. To their left was a busy rotary intersection, and to their right, a large water tower. The artists sat with their backs to the car, presenting their goods to passersby on the sidewalk as traffic sped by just a few feet away. There were no other markets in this precarious location; however, the sidewalk was filled with pedestrians waiting to cross the street. Later, the duo set up shop right in the middle of a cafe, to the stares and confusion of its clientele. Although MM/MG mimicked the form of everyday market structures, the artists positioned themselves adjacent to the traditional spaces of economic interaction rather than within them.

Fig. 3. Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein. Mobile Market / Mobile Gallery. 2005. Performance. Still from “Mobile Market and Mobile Art Gallery by Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein,” uploaded by Htein Lin on January 2, 2017, YouTube video, 0:22, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHj4xPrwYRE
Fig. 4. Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein. Mobile Market / Mobile Gallery. 2005. Performance. Still from “Mobile Market and Mobile Art Gallery by Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein,” uploaded by Htein Lin on January 2, 2017, YouTube video, 2.11, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHj4xPrwYRE

Third, and perhaps most significantly, all of the objects on sale were priced at less than 0.1 percent of what they normally would have been. For example, a comb that would usually sell for 1000 kyats was available for 1 to 2 kyats. Lin called this “pre-1988″ prices,” and sold paintings that he made in prison for about 3 kyats.14Htein Lin, interview with author, August 16, 2016. This repricing accomplished two goals: 1) it necessitated the use of old currency bearing the image of General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, and 2) it satirized recent reckless demonetizations by the military state. Within the semiautonomous space of MM/MG, Lin and Thein created a deflated economic bubble inside the inflated one of the time.

A Troubled Numismatic History

When customers asked to make a purchase, many of them were dismayed that they did not have adequately small denominations of cash. Lin or Thein would then take out his/her pocketbook of small bills and slowly count out the massive amounts of change necessary to complete the transaction. At one point, Lin individually counted out ninety-nine single bills in change—all from her childhood savings.15Chaw Ei Thein, interview with author, August 23, 2016.

The particular banknotes Thein used were initially commissioned in the 1980s but no longer in circulation under the most recent military regime. As mentioned before, these bills depict General Aung San (fig. 5), who occupies a mythical status in the memory of most Burmese as a symbol of their country’s brief instance of democracy. Aung San was the leader of the independence movement against the British in 1948. When later that same year, he was assassinated in a military coup, he became a political martyr and a figure of historic importance across partisan lines.16Htein Lin, interview with author, August 16, 2016. In the currency issued after his death, however, his face is replaced with animals and cultural images. Lin and Thein’s gesture of reinstating this defunct paper money was a means of bringing the obliterated memory of a democratic Burma back into public consciousness. It also brought Aung San’s image to light at a time when the current regime was holding his daughter under house arrest. The impact of this action was made even more explicit when Lin and Thein counted out hundreds of individual bills and placed them into the hands of their customers.

Fig. 5. Burmese 1 Kyat, issued October 31, 1972. Banknote, 2 3/8 x 4 7/8 in. (6 x 4 7/8 cm).

The political significance of this aesthetic maneuver is further strengthened by the troubled numismatic history of Myanmar, which is riddled with sweeping and arbitrary economic changes. In 1964, General Ne Win declared that K.10017This is standard notation for currency denominations in Burmese kyats. and K.50 bills were no longer legal tender, ostensibly to bear down on the black market. In 1972, as the official bank of Myanmar came under new management, K.100 and K.50 bills were reintroduced. But on November 3, 1985, those same bills were suddenly demonetized without warning and replaced with K.75, K.15, and K.35 bills. While the black market was again cited as the reason for the change, public opinion held that it was an arbitrary celebration of General Ne Win’s 75th birthday by the military state. These changes had drastically negative effects on the isolated economy of the country. Only two years later, on September 5, 1987, the state announced without warning the demonetization of all the K.25, K.35, and K.75 bills, rendering some 60 percent of the country’s currency worthless. It then introduced new K.45 and K.90 bills. Ne Win again cited the black market as the impetus; however, the change was widely rumored to be rooted instead in the abstruse numerological calculations of General Ne Win’s astrological future. Nine was said to be a lucky number for him and would ensure he lived to be ninety.18David I. Steinberg, Burma, the State of Myanmar (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2001), 5. This was the third and most drastic instance of demonetization since military rule began in 1962 and arguably one of the most drastic in contemporary global history. It had disastrous effects on the economy, destroying what little public confidence remained in the military-led state. It was also a key catalyst for the 8888 Uprising, as this arbitrary economic policy wiped out most students’ entire life savings.19“History of Bank Notes,” Central Bank of Myanmar website, http://www.cbm.gov.mm/?q=content/history-bank-notes. Economic demonetization was of such serious political and economic concern for the country that a prominent clause to outlaw it was included in the establishment of the SLORC.20Steinberg, Burma, the State of Myanmar, 6. When people encountered MM/MG, they might have been reminded of how it felt to experience such total and personal economic collapse. The artwork created a semiautonomous space in which the recent economic and historic past could be evoked in public.

“Politics of the daily”

About two hours into their performance, Thein and Lin were stopped by authorities on the grounds of unlawful gathering, as their actions had created crowds in places where people did not normally congregate. The aesthetic form of the work (the street vendor, the people who come to buy things) had been misread as a political form (the gathering of bodies for a strike or a protest)—but not the one the artists intended. What kind of politics did this performance embody? What was intended, and what was perceived—and how might the effort have operated in the gap between the two? I believe this becomes clearer within the greater context of political activity in Yangon at the time.

In 2006–7, the year after MM/MG, the activist group 88GS (88 Generation Students), comprised of about forty former political prisoners including Htein Lin21Htein Lin, interview by author, August 16, 2016. staged a series of street-based political campaigns across Yangon that aimed to activate public political consciousness. 88GS, whose name refers to the aforementioned 8888 Uprising, conducted four street campaigns: Signature, White, Prayer, and Open Heart. These campaigns were the basis for political theorist Elliott Prasse-Freeman’s concept of a “politics of the daily.” Grounded in everyday concerns, this alternative method of political opposition sought to demonstrate how a movement can be built by coaxing ordinary people to become involved, sustaining their involvement, and then motivating them to act.

During this time, many traditional political movements like the NLD and other underground networks of exiles were pushed out of city centers through rigorous state surveillance. As activists fled Yangon and began to look internationally for material and political support, the agenda of political opposition and the rhetoric of human rights and universal laws employed by the NLD became more distanced from the everyday concerns of villagers and urban citizens alike—particularly in regards to inflation and arbitrary demonization.22Elliott Prasse-Freeman, “Power, Civil Society, and an Inchoate Politics of the Daily in Burma/Myanmar,” Journal of Asian Studies 71, no. 2 (May 2012): 384.

Knowing it would be too much to ask citizens to engage directly in explicit political protest, 88GS began with small actions that were anonymous and nonthreatening, building on each movement’s “non-failure” to build progressively bolder campaigns. In Signature, Prayer, and Open Heart, 88GS collected anonymous signatures, then prayers, and eventually letters to be mailed to the military state. A member of 88GS describes the campaigns in her own words: “First we tried the Signature campaign. . . . People could do it because there was no risk to them: there was no document with their personal information or their signature.23There are no family names in Myanmar, and so providing a signature absent of other identifying information is risk free. Next was the White campaign, which allowed people to be involved with little risk—they could tell the authorities, ‘We are just wearing a shirt, [it happens to be white].’ But people were still afraid, because they were in public. But when they did not get arrested, this built their confidence.”24Interview with three 88GS members by Mae Sot, January 2010; quoted in Prasse-Freeman, “Power, Civil Society, and an Inchoate Politics of the Daily in Burma/Myanmar,” 388.

These campaigns operated on a strategy of plausible deniability. Those participating could feign ignorance if questioned by the authorities: the color of a shirt or an act of prayer are not explicitly political actions and thus could be painted as coincidences. Rather than giving the authorities the pretense to destroy the movement at the outset, 88GS gradually built momentum by keeping its actions “legal.” 88GS collected more than two hundred thousand names for the Signature campaign and more than 2,689 letters for the Open Heart campaign, whose participants wrote letters discussing the socioeconomic worries that they were experiencing on a daily basis. In some ways, these numbers illustrate the willingness of people to engage in politics when the political idioms are grounded in everyday gestures and experiences. Not able to contest power locally (as the government had driven out many of the NLD’s ground offices), people saw these campaigns as a less confrontational politics, one based on generating empathy within the central state that would then cascade back down into their reality.25Ibid., 389.

It is within this legacy of action that we might see the type of politics that MM/MG espouses. Prasse-Freeman, in his formulation of the “politics of the daily,” emphasizes the importance of civil society (local community groups that are nongovernmental in nature) as a potential site for democratization. He notes that within an oppressive military regime, those working on behalf of civil society are not able to achieve extensive autonomy of action and often have to maintain functional ties with members of the ruling establishment in order to sustain their existence. Civil society in authoritarian contexts is thus most usefully defined as that sector of society engaged in a specific type of action or interaction characterized by self-organization and self-reliance, operation within the public sphere, use of discourse as a means of resolving conflicts, tolerance of heterogeneity and pluralism, opposition to violence and war, and a pursuit of the collective good.26Jasmin Lorch, “Stopgap or Change Agent? The Role of Burma’s Civil Society after the Crackdown,” Internationales Asienforum 39, nos. 1–2 (2008): 26. I think that MM/MG, as a performative and participatory work of art akin to the work of 88GS, can also be understood as a form of civil society action in that it produced a platform to enact a “politics of the daily” in public space.27Prasse-Freeman, “Power, Civil Society, and an Inchoate Politics of the Daily in Burma/Myanmar,” 392. MM/MG, through calculated numismatic intervention, created the space for the circulation of images and histories that had otherwise been publicly repressed. MM/MG, therefore, suggests that political action can be the material “support” for an aesthetic intervention and, at the same time, that artistic practice can be an avenue for political opposition, underscoring their possible symbiosis.

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