Veteran artist Po Po on Buddhism, narcissism and the Myanmar art scene – interview

Myanmar artist Po Po speaks to Art Radar about his current retrospective, sharing insights about his artistic process and his personal hopes for Myanmar. 

Yavuz Gallery Singapore presents “Out of Myth, Onto_Logical, 1982-1997”, a retrospective featuring early career works by the influential artist. 

Artist shot of Po Po. Image courtesy Yavuz Gallery.

Artist shot of Po Po. Image courtesy Yavuz Gallery.

Po Po (b. 1957, Pathein, Myanmar) arrived in Yangon in 1980 when he was 23 years old. Initially an illustrator for magazines and book covers, he morphed into a self-taught installation and performance artist who went on to become one of the few internationally prominent artists from Myanmar.

Po Po is a visionary pioneer, widely regarded as the country’s first practitioner of performance art, who forged new ground in Myanmar’s latent art scene in the 1980s. Since then, his work has been shown at the Yokohama Triennale in Japan, the Gwangju Biennale, the Fukuoka Triennale in Japan and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.

For over three decades Po Po has worked across a diverse range of media, creating thoughtful conceptual works that combine profound insights on human nature with shrewd social criticism. As the exhibition press release for “Out of Myth, Onto_Logical” (PDF download) explains:

He has gone from painting to assemblage, from monotype to installation, and from design to architecture, often challenging audiences to see ideas through five senses, willing a concept out of shape.

Recently, five of Po Po’s paintings were collected by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo (on view at the museum from 25 July – 12 October 2015) and in addition to his current solo retrospective at Yavuz Gallery in Singapore, he will also be a participating artist in the Dhaka Art Summit 2016 and the Asia Pacific Triennial 8Art Radar speaks to the artist at this exciting juncture of his career.

Installation shot of "Out of Myth, Onto_Logical, 1982-1997" at Yavuz Gallery. Image courtesy Yavuz Gallery.

Installation shot of “Out of Myth, Onto_Logical, 1982-1997” at Yavuz Gallery. Image courtesy Yavuz Gallery.

Your artworks span a stunning array of media and forms, at times appealing to multiple senses at once. Which of the five senses speaks to you the most strongly? 

There are actually six senses in Myanmar. We count the state of mind – called mano a-joun – as one of the senses. All six senses are critical to me, as I am a healthy man with good physical and mental abilities. I try to communicate my ideas through the appropriate sense, and sometimes I like to combine two or three senses or media. I can’t really choose one that speaks to me the strongest – it is impossible for me to communicate all my ideas through a single media or form.

I wonder if you could speak about your artistic process or methodology. Do you go from concept to form, or vice versa? You also use a lot of found materials, how do they inspire you?

I usually start from a concept and then I think about the possible ways to present the idea. Usually, the concept, form and medium come to me one after another, almost at the same time. But at this stage they are still just ideas – I still don’t know whether they will work or not. I usually make sketches in my sketchbook, as I often get a better grasp of a concept once I see it on paper.

But this is still a very intermediate stage. I continue to think about all the possibilities for a long time, and eventually the concept matures and becomes ready for performance or presentation. In a way, my financial limitations are a blessing. I have to save money, sometimes for years, before commencing a project, so I cannot start working on something immediately after an idea comes to me. So that means I have enough time to think about the best or most effective way to do what I want to do.

The way in which I arrive at my ideas or concepts differs. I’m inspired by different things, sometimes by everyday experiences, books, or just mere intuitions and dreams. I got the idea for a work named Negative Space #1 just from a dream. I hardly ever find ideas from materials, though. I’m not interested in making a work simply by playing around with materials.

Po Po, 'Controlled Tejo', installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Po Po, ‘Controlled Tejo’, installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Let’s discuss your current show at Yavuz Gallery. What is it like to be revisiting works that you created at the beginning of your career?

This show has indeed prompted me to revisit works I made right at the beginning of my career. When choosing these 18 pieces to include in the show, I followed two guidelines. Firstly, I chose works that were created from 1982 to 1997. My country practiced a closed door policy until the late 1990s, and prior to 1999 I had never taken part in any international shows. So these works were created during a period when my country had never had any interaction with other countries. The second criterion was that all the chosen works must embody a strong idea or concept.

The earliest work from the selection was created 33 years ago, in 1982, and the latest one 18 years ago, in 1997. That’s a long time ago. Some of the works had to be remade, as the originals were destroyed over time, but I think that the concepts I developed are still very much alive. Controlled Vayo, Tejo, Pathavi and Apo were destroyed by termites, and I remade them and presented them according to the exact specifications as when they were first conceived.

Meanwhile, the series Incomplete Mirrors also suffered from the ravages of time, with the silver layer ageing and partially wearing off. It created a unique pattern. I see the works as living, and decided to show them as they are, with the change. All of my works present concepts and their being old or new does not matter. What is important is the successful and complete communication of the idea. And in presenting that concept, it is not necessary to completely replace the old with the new. This is what my works have taught me, to accept the effects of time.

Po Po, 'Narcissus', 1987-94, archival shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Po Po, ‘Narcissus’, 1987-94, archival shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Po Po, 'Narcissus', 1987-94, installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Po Po, ‘Narcissus’, 1987-94, installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Could you speak about Narcissus, which involved a seven-year creative journey? I understand that the work was first installed in a field, instead of in a gallery. The juxtaposition is astounding – as a 1998 review in The Arts Magazine observes, the silk pillow transforms from a pleasure-filled, nature-loving sensual creature to one consumed by morbid self-obsession when installed indoors. How did the work come about?

I heard about the myth of Narcissus a long time ago, but at the time I wasn’t interested in it. After some time, reading about it again in an article, I was inspired to create something about narcissism. I didn’t want to simply illustrate Narcissus – I wanted to explore the universal role that narcissism plays at all times, in politics, business, nationalism, racism, individualism and also within each of us. We are all trapped by narcissism, I think.

It took seven years because, like I said, I had constraints and difficulties that prevented me from creating the work at once. I had various problems to solve, and it took a long time. What I really wanted to do was simply to create the work on a grass lawn, just for a day or two, and to enjoy it alone. But it took time to find an appropriate lawn that was also wide enough. Carrying the work to the site and setting it up was also difficult. I also wanted to take some photos for a record but I didn’t even have a camera at the time – I had to ask one of my friends, a cameraman, for help. That was my situation back in 1994… Looking back, it’s really quite funny.

The first time I placed the work on the grass, the first things I saw in the mirror were some clouds with silver linings. They were like clouds from another world. I also saw myself, but I did not see ‘me’, but Narcissus instead. After a while I had to take the work away because of the weather – in some of the photos you can see rain clouds approaching in the distance. A month later I set it up again, and this time there was a small audience – just me, my photographer and my son, who was helping me carry the things.

Po Po, 'Controlled Apo', installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Po Po, ‘Controlled Apo’, installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Could you also tell us about Controlled Apo, which features a block of ice in a crate that melts slowly over time? I’ve read that the work was influenced by Buddhist teachings on the four elements of the universe. Can you briefly speak about this?

According to Abhiddhamma, the higher teaching of the Buddha, the Four Ultimate Elements of Buddhism are Pathavi (the element of solidity), Tejo (the element of kinetic energy), Apo (the element of fluidity, cohesion) and Vayo (the element of motion). Aside from these Four Elements, Akasa is the fifth, that of space. Rupa (matter) cannot exist in single units – they generally exist as an aggregate of eight or nine units called a kalapa. Although our bodies are filled with tiny kalapas, there is space between them, and this space is known as Akasa Dhatu. It is not discernible matter.

Now, although there are detailed definitions of these five elements in the Doctrine of Theravada Buddhism, there are no represented figures. But even with conceptualisation, Buddhism is not yet complete, because what is required is practice and integration with the way of life.

These four works were made via meditation and observation of Abhiddhamma; in other words I tried to make art through utilising both theoretical knowledge and practical inner experience. The works are abstract in the most primordial sense: they come to being, exist and then disappear in every single moment. The whole process is continuous – it cannot be stopped. I created Controlled Apo to illustrate such an impermanence.

Your influences and inspirations are multifaceted, encompassing Buddhism, love, history, politics, sex, the solar system… What is your current preoccupation or point of interest?

My current interest is to create works of art that are inherently intertwined with nature. However, I often end up questioning myself when I make works in rural areas or the countryside. I live in the city, so I have to intentionally travel to the countryside to create art. So I ask myself: Am I running away from the city? Can the same works be made in urban environments? What does urbanism mean to me? I do not want to make art as an escape, so such questions drive me to create works that go well with the city’s surroundings and that express my thoughts on the political and social environments that I experience, in addition to nature.

Po Po, 'Incomplete Mirror', archival shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Po Po, ‘Incomplete Mirror’, archival shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Being a self-taught artist, who or what have been your greatest teachers over the course of your career?

There are no permanent teachers for self-taught artists, but I view every great artist before me as an exemplary role model. And there is a lot to learn from every single person we meet and everything we encounter in our everyday lives. I also consider the great philosophers of the world as teachers whom I look up to, with Buddha at the top of the list. Finally, the artists I appreciate the most are the ones who are serious in creating their works, rather than just trying to be famous or popular.

In an essay you wrote for the 2005 Fukuoka Triennale catalogue, you asked: “Is it easy to art?” Can you answer this question again, ten years later? Specifically in the context of Myanmar, what are the main challenges and threats to the development of contemporary art?

I wrote that essay in 2005 because I was upset with my country’s political, economic, social and artistic situations at the time. I still feel frustrated today. I often chat with taxi drivers, and to be frank, I think these drivers know more about the country than the politicians in parliament. They’re much more in touch with people from the middle and low classes. One time, a driver told me, “We can make a change to this country just by killing all the citizens over five, including me, and rebuilding again. This is not genocide nor radicalism, but reformation.”

Here’s a true story about how powerfully corruption reigns in our country: in an elementary school, a teacher chose three or four students to help monitor the class because there were too many students. Whenever she asked her helpers about the class’s progress, they replied, “Everything’s good!” But when the monthly exam results came out, the class scores were exceedingly low. The teacher soon found out that the helpers were being bribed with snacks by students who could not perform well.

Po Po, 'Something Sex, Nothing Sex', installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Po Po, ‘Something Sex, Nothing Sex’, installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

This is what’s happening in our country. From the age of five to 60, people are used to giving and taking bribes. A country like this can never change. And the field of art is no different. The art curricula used at the Yangon and Mandalay universities today are the same ones that were used over half a century ago. Most art graduates today go on to work at copy painting companies run by Koreans and Chinese, reproducing copies of works by famous international artists. Others create works based on market demand, painting scenes of villages, pagodas, traditional dancers, ladies playing harps, monks and nuns. They bring their works to foreign countries and sell them for hotel lobbies.

Mami Kataoka, Chief Curator at the Mori Art Museum, once remarked that “the waves of the art market reach Myanmar faster than the waves of education and art museum institutionalisation”. We have no art museums in Myanmar, apart from contemporary art. There are no curators, no critics and no coordinators. Although there are a few art galleries, dealers and collectors in Yangon, Mandalay and other tourist sites, only a few artists participate in international contemporary art exhibitions. Most artists do not even know what a biennale or triennale is. In such a situation, it is quite difficult to discuss Myanmar contemporary art.

In my opinion, the first thing that needs to change is the teaching methods and theoretical and practical approaches in the art universities. Then, workshops, talks and residency/exchange programmes should be established to give international experience and exposure to young artists. Next, institutions and non-profit organisations supporting art practices should be established as soon as possible, such as the Goethe Institut in Yangon. Art events and aesthetic understanding need to be promoted among the middle class and art lovers. Lastly, I believe that it’s also important that each individual artist interested in contemporary art work hard to share what they can offer.

Po Po, 'Incomplete Mirror', installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Po Po, ‘Incomplete Mirror’, installation shot. Image courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Having exhibited in many cities and countries in Asia and around the world, what are your thoughts on the future of the contemporary Asian art scene as compared to Europe and the United States?

This is a big question. Before 2000, I wrote an unpublished research paper titled “20th Century Modern Art: Analysis on Three-dimensional Works”. I think it can be said that from 1901 to 1940 it was the era of European art, from 1941 to 1970 the era of American art, and from 1971 to 2000 the era of international art. After 1970, with the development of communication technologies and media, we were able to see not only artworks from Euro-America but also from Africa and Asia.

For me, therefore, contemporary art is not Euro-American, African nor Asian. In the future there will be no place for works that are branded or labelled as coming from a certain region. If I were to say only one thing to today’s curators, critics, art historians, artists and everyone involved in the art field, that would be to ask them to free themselves from the four partialities: love, hate, fear and hope. For, as Thierry de Duve said, “History is a court, constantly in session, [and] cultural values are created even while others are destroyed”.

Finally, I would love to ask you what your greatest dream or ambition as an artist is. What do you ultimately hope to achieve?

I do not have big ambitions. I wish we could have a great contemporary art museum with contemporary architecture in Myanmar. I also hope to live in harmony with nature and to continue to create artworks untouched by main trends until the end of my days. Urban living with nice facilities and smart technology is good and comfortable, but it can also make people forget about human nature, and weaken the value and respect we have for one another.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Myanmar artists, installation, mixed media, found objects, interviews, gallery shows, events in Singapore

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