In the first in a short series of examinations of artwork in Primo Marella Gallery’s “DEEP S.E.A.” exhibition, curator Iola Lenzi talks with Art Radar about Myanmar artist Aung Ko’s works and practice.
Opening in Milan in November 2012, “DEEP S.E.A.” showcases work by eleven Southeast Asian artists. The exhibition provides one of the first opportunities for Italian audiences to view the work of, among other artists from the region, 33-year-old Burmese conceptual artist, Aung Ko.
In an unusual move reminiscent of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale‘s curatorial structure, “Deep S.E.A.” is curated by numerous invited “Contributors”. In addition to Myanmar-based Iola Lenzi, whom we interviewed for this article, Jim Amberson (Singapore), Zoe Butt (Vietnam), Catherine Choron-Baix (France), Patrick D. Flores (Philippines), Erin Gleeson (Cambodia), Tony Godfrey (Singapore), June Yap (Singapore) and Jim Supangkat (Indonesia) each selected artists and works for the show.
Exhibiting alongside Aung Ko are ten other artists from the Southeast Asian region: Donna Ong (Singapore), Sopheap Pich (Cambodia), Natee Utarit (Thailand), Nithakhong Somsanith (Laos), Khvay Samnang (Cambodia), Aditya Novali (Indonesia), La Huy (Vietnam), Ruben Pang (Singapore), Nguyễn Thái Tuấn (Vietnam) and Isabel & Alfredo Aquilizan (Philippines).
Concept first in Aung Ko’s practice
Aung Ko’s versatility as an artist – he works with painting, pottery, film, performance and installation – was highlighted in “DEEP S.E.A”, which showcased a pair of photorealistic paintings entitled We are Moving (2012) and the documentation of a conceptual performance work called H.u.m.m.m…. (2012), the presentation of which included video, photography and an installation made of charred wooden ladders.
In an email interview, curator Iola Lenzi explains her choice of artworks,
Both works comment on Aung Ko’s response to current socio-political reality. As the curator, I deliberately opted to select two very different pieces to show Aung Ko’s expressive range and to illustrate how the artist very astutely selects a specific medium and visual language to express different ideas.
Like all Southeast Asian practitioners of integrity, Aung Ko is never a slave to medium or technique, but rather carefully identifies the optimum form, medium and expressive genre to support and further his concept. Concept comes first. Southeast Asia is deeply syncretic and as such, populations are intellectually agile, seldom literal and quite used to juggling a variety of abstract approaches, even in the most ordinary situations. Conceptualism, a sense of metaphor and a feel for irony and the absurd are cultural givens in Southeast Asia, whatever a person’s level of education. In Southeast Asia, no one needs Duchamp to either make or understand conceptual art.
Transcending hardship, injustice through ritual performance
H.u.m.m.m…. first took place by the river Irrawaddy in Thuye’dan, Aung’s native village in northwest Burma, in 2007 and involved the participation of the village community. During the performance, the artist carried thirteen wooden ladders into the river’s sandy bed and, after planting them there, set them ablaze. The action lasted several hours and was accompanied by the artist’s humming chant.
Inspired by an unhappy event in Aung’s life, the performance was meant to simultaneously serve as a personal rite of purification and catharsis, and a political metaphor for escape and elevation over political oppression.
‘H.u.m.m.m….’ is about the way in which a single, powerless human being can imagine transcending system-imposed hardship, injustice and abuse of power. The ritual form of the performance is a means of implying Aung Ko’s will to communicate directly with powers greater than the earthly abusers. In this sense, the piece has a political, social dimension, and considering the period when it was made, fits the then-Burmese context perfectly. The piece speaks beyond Burma, however, and to me is a classic Southeast Asian work of art in its universal reach and visual drama.
Painting as social critique
We are Moving #1 and #2 (2012), chronicle a real event. In April 2010, a series of bomb blasts during the Burmese Thingyan (Water Festival) celebrations killed nine people and injured 170 in Yangon. Several photographers taking pictures of the scene were arrested for illegally documenting the event.
Defying censorship, Aung Ko records on canvas the aftermath of the explosion and the tussle and stampede that followed the attack. Lenzi interprets the cold, photorealistic rendering of the pressing mob as a political metaphor that questions Burma’s contemporary political scenario.
The two paintings are emblematic of ‘New Burma’ in their medium, execution and subject. Again, they begin with Aung Ko’s personal experience, his witnessing of crowd panic. They narrate the tragic but simultaneously, they are distant and unemotional, the antithesis of ‘H.u.m.m.m….’ which is so passionate. In their photorealistic style, detachment and self-contained atmosphere they perfectly mirror ambitious, fast-paced 2012 Burma where greed and unscrupulousness rule.
More on Aung Ko
Aung Ko was born in Pyay, Myanmar in 1980 and studied Fine Art Painting at the University of Culture, Yangon. Since 2002, he has worked as a full time artist and has exhibited throughout Asia, including at the Singapore Biennale in 2008, the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in 2009 and a number of local and international group exhibitions.
From 13 May to 3 July 2011, Aung had a solo exhibition in Esplanade – Jendela (Visual Arts Space) and Concourse Singapore. In 2007, he started an ongoing art project in his village called “Thuye`dan Village Art Project” in Pray, Myanmar, that celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2012. His work was also included in the Goethe Institut’s “RiverScapes IN FLUX” exhibition which toured Hanoi, Saigon, Bangkok and Phnom Penh in 2012 and will travel to Jakarta and Manila in 2013.
- Outside influences seep into Myanmar art scene – New York Times – November 2011 – Ceil Miller Bouchet introduces us to the budding art scene in Yangon
- Myanmar artists access international art community, Art Radar speaks to Aye Ko about +ROAD – August 2010 – find out why Aye Ko was keen for Myanmar artists to learn from those in Indonesia
- Nindityo Adipurnomo talks with Art Radar on “+Road” collaboration with Myanmar artists, “gambling spirit” of Indonesian collectors – July 2010 – how cultural conflicts and artistic disappointments were eventually resolved
- Unapologetically political Burmese artist Chaw Ei Thein discusses her country and her art: Asia Art Archive interview – June 2010 – on the connection between her art and local politics and her hopes for the future of Burmese art
- Myanmar artists explore new media, produce courageous art – April 2009 – how some Burmese artists are bravely stepping outside the restrictions of censors and pressures of the tourist market
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