Art Radar learns more about the challenges and progress of contemporary art in Myanmar.

Contemporary Dialogues, an international festival of culture and arts in Yangon, opened on 25 September 2014 at PEN Myanmar, an organisation promoting literature and freedom of expression. Art Radar spoke to the event organisers, FluxKit, for a deeper insight.

Vasan Sitthiket creates a performance piece after the Artist-Curator talk at Pansodan Scene in Downtown Yangon. Image courtesy Contemporary Dialogues.

Vasan Sitthiket creates a performance piece after the Artist-Curator talk at Pansodan Scene in Downtown Yangon. Image courtesy Contemporary Dialogues.

Organised by FluxKit, an independent producer of cultural events, Contemporary Dialogues offered one of the most comprehensive and innovative approaches to art that Yangon has seen in years. The event sought to address an expanding contemporary art world in Myanmar.

Panel discussions, festivals, exhibitions and happenings occur frequently in Yangon, and they are invaluable to the development of Myanmar’s rich cultural environment. Not more than a year in Yangon, however, and FluxKit has brought a fresh perspective and new approach in order to demonstrate what is possible through dialogue, in Burmese and English, with artists and audiences.

Five days of events included:

  • a panel discussion at PEN Myanmar entitled “Translation and Manipulation”, featuring a discussion between Ma Thida (writer/activist), Zeyar Lynn (poet, translator), Aung Thura (Myanmar Knowledge Society) and Lucas Stewart (Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds)
  • an exhibition entitled “The Mirror” at TS1 Gallery, curated by Moe Satt and including artists Myat Kyat, Zun Ei Phyu, Thurein and Wahlone
  • Curator and artist talk between Iola Lenzi (Curator, Singapore), Vasan Sitthiket (artist, Thailand), and Htein Lin (artist, Myanmar), ending with a performance by Sitthiket
  • Artist talk at TS1 Gallery with artists from “The Mirror”
  • Roundtable entitled “What a Rising Art World Needs” with special guests Philip Tinari (UCCA, Beijing) and Mami Kataoka (Mori Art Museum, Tokyo) with a performance by Lwin Oo Maung on the Yangon River
  • a display of 101 books donated by Charta of Italy
  • a presentation by the Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive (MARCA) and their upcoming Mobile Library project
  • an all-Burmese discussion on the role of Myanmar’s national cultural environment, led by Aung Min (screenwriter), San Minn (artist), Thu Thu Shein (Watthan Film Festival) and May Thet Zaw (New Yangon Theatre).
Panel discussion "On Curating", featuring panelists (from left) Moe Satt (Myanmar), Mami Kataoka (Japan), Iola Lenzi (Singapore), Phil Tinari (China), and Mrat Lunn Htwann (Myanmar). Image courtesy Contemporary Dialogues.

Panel discussion “On Curating”, featuring panelists (from left) Moe Satt (Myanmar), Mami Kataoka (Japan), Iola Lenzi (Singapore), Phil Tinari (China) and Mrat Lunn Htwann (Myanmar). Image courtesy Contemporary Dialogues.

After attending every event and being thoroughly impressed by the participants, conversation and process, Art Radar sat down with the organisers from FluxKit – Ilaria Benini and Thomas Nadal Poletto – to hear more about their assessment of the festival.

You two have been working on projects for a few years now with FluxKit. Could you talk a bit about what inspired you to begin FluxKit in the first place? And explain why you wanted to produce projects in Myanmar?

FluxKit was founded in 2009 in Italy, but not until 2013 did we start working on projects in Myanmar. We moved to Myanmar to work on sociological research about the impact of the internet (and information) on the shape of the cultural scene. While meeting with people from the art community, we realised that it could be important to create local and international cultural encounters – the basic reasons being curiosity and understanding. We believe in dialogue. The stages of change that Myanmar is currently experiencing offer the chance to create new exchanges for local and international actors.

The fact that in Myanmar there’s no structured art system offers a chance to deconstruct and discuss the internationally established system. This is an important process of awareness for Myanmar’s cultural actors to define what they want for their future, and it provides great input for international actors to rethink the system they consider standard.

There were participants from diverse corners of the art and cultural spheres at Contemporary Dialogues. How did you choose your participants? Or in some ways, did they choose you?

We developed the programme over one year. We chose people from different fields and disciplines in order to create an interdisciplinary dialogue which, by sharing experiences and strategies, could reinforce each single field. One of our priorities was to give space to a younger generation of art practitioners, and we combined their presence with experienced figures who are open to inter-generational collaboration.

In the Translation event, Zeyar Lynn and Ma Thida asked writers to “rise to the occasion” and begin translating on their own terms. Do you agree with this statement? What was your favourite part of this panel discussion?

Thomas: It is important to understand the complex role of a translator as a bridge between cultures and languages. One of the most interesting parts of the evening was the one in which Zeyar Lynn discussed his experience translating a poem by John Ashbery: he found that each word that Ashbery used in his poem had multiple meanings. For every single word, he wrote different translated words separated by slashes. So when the reader reads the translation of this poem, he is free to choose any word he likes. With this action, Zeyar Lynn focused on a different relationship between translator and reader.

Ilaria: I really appreciated the fact that Aung Thura from Myanmar Knowledge Society (MKS) considers translation a social practice and connects its impact to the society. I think MKS is challenging the status quo in a very intelligent way, by analysing the reality from different perspectives and mixing different intellectual tools to do so.

Opening of "The Mirror", an exhibition curated by Moe Satt at TS1 Gallery, featuring artists (from left) Wahlone, Zun Ei Phyi, Thurein, and Myat Kwayt. Image courtesy Contemporary Dialogues.

Opening of “The Mirror”, an exhibition curated by Moe Satt at TS1 Gallery, featuring artists (from left) Wahlone, Zun Ei Phyi, Thurein, and Myat Kwayt. Image courtesy Contemporary Dialogues.

How was “The Mirror” relevant to Contemporary Dialogues?

It was important for us to combine an exhibition with our programmes of roundtables and performances. We were very excited about the idea that Moe Satt curated an exhibition in Myanmar and that international curators could see his work and that of the selected artists on the field.

Three international guest speakers and curators were invited to Yangon to join a discussion on curating, with Moe Satt (artist/curator) and Mrat Lunn Htwann (artist/poet). What was achieved by this meeting of Myanmar artists and international curators? What kind of advice could the international curators offer the artists? And did the artists appreciate the visitors?

International galleries and institutions are extremely powerful when they intervene in a context where there is no knowledge about their rules and reasons. We do not believe that the international curators can offer advice; rather, we think that they can provide transparent insights by sharing information and experiences. Several artists appreciated the knowledge shared by the international curators: the historical facts, artists’ names, anecdotes, general and practical considerations gave variety to the art world. This stimulated a lot of positive curiosity.

It was also very important for the artists to present their work, their stories and see the reaction of the curators. I think this supports self-confidence in a country where unconventional and original practices are not at all appreciated or recognised.

You went through quite a lot trying to get the donation from CHARTA into Myanmar, from organising the donation itself to inspiring the Italian Embassy to sponsor the shipment. Why is it important to you that an organisation like MARCA have books like these in Yangon?

It is a question of quality and diversity. We believe it is important to bring books that were never allowed before to offer to the artists, so that they might see what is going on around the world and form an opinion. Books can tell stories, explain practices, show artworks, but they also embody the work of many people: the artist, the art space that supported him or her, collectors, curators, writers, editors, designers, typographers and distributors. We think it is positive to show that many people around the world believe that art can support ideas, create meanings and also promote professionalism.

Panel Discussion on Culture and Art in Myanmar, hosted by Lokanat Gallery in Downtown Yangon. Image courtesy Contemporary Dialogues.

Panel Discussion on Culture and Art in Myanmar, hosted by Lokanat Gallery in Downtown Yangon. Image courtesy Contemporary Dialogues.

The last event was almost exclusively conducted in Burmese. Why was it important to focus more on the Burmese-speaking audience? What do you think was achieved through this, not only with the audience, but the panel speakers themselves?

In your own language you are able to define the present and build the future. In your second language you struggle with vocabulary and grammar. In order to discuss about the state of contemporary culture in Myanmar, it was absolutely essential to use Burmese and of course the panelists had to be from Myanmar.

With this event especially, we feel that we achieved the basic goal of our project: to offer a free platform for open discussion among experts and non-experts. The energy of the speakers and the incredible participation of the audience confirmed the relevance of the topics discussed. I do not know if there were people from the censorship board present in the room, but regardless everyone felt safe and shared his/her opinion without fear. The main achievement is that many people after the event asked us to do it again. It means that discussing – and criticising – openly could finally become common practice in Myanmar.

We think that the credit for the positive and open atmosphere mainly belongs to Aung Min, who moderated the discussion with so much passion that the entire room understood the importance and value of the actual freedom present on this occasion.

These series of events seem to have been a great success, with varied audiences and locations, discussion topics and logistics. What was the most challenging aspect about putting something like this together? What was the greatest reward for all the hard work?

The longest process has been the building of trust between us and the local context. A challenging element in terms of time and energy is, for example, the need to respect some unspoken Myanmar rules, like preparing printed invitation cards, which have to be personally delivered to hundreds of people and organisations. Also the last minute cancellation from some participants and locations revealed the importance of being flexible and ready to accept unpredictable changes. We definitely experienced the consequences of a long dictatorship in many aspects of the organisation and personal relationships with people.

Nathalie Johnston

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Related Topics: Burmese artists, conferences, interviews, art and the community

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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