Art Radar has a closer look at Nge Lay’s recent “Flying in the Fragmentary” at Yavuz Gallery, Singapore.
The Burmese artist’s first solo exhibition in Singapore was a continuation of her long-term artistic collaboration with the rural community of Thuye’dan village in Myanmar.
“Flying in the Fragmentary” was Burmese artist Nge Lay’s first solo exhibition in Singapore. The exhibition consisted of its titular artwork, mounted as a large-scale hanging installation spanning the entire gallery space at Yavuz Gallery. The multimedia installation Flying in the Fragmentary is a continuation of Nge Lay’s long-term artistic collaboration with the community in Thuye’dan village, a rural area ten hours north of Myanmar’s capital city Yangon.
The precariousness of life looms over one’s head both literally and metaphorically in Nge Lay’s Flying in the Fragmentary. Like angels looking down, the child-sized rattan mannequins dressed in real uniforms from school children in Thuye’dan village soar overhead, untethered to this earth. Yet within this element of transcendence and luminance there lingers another darker insinuation – that the children are flying above ground because this life on earth is not for them; that without much-needed educational resources to keep up with the rapid pace of global development and the rigors of urban pedagogy, they will have to fight that much harder for their place on earth as compared to their city-dwellingncounterparts. By highlighting the cherubic innocence of children through the imagery of flying angels, Nge Lay’s latest work is simultaneously a powerful critique of the unequal access to education experienced by rural and urban youth in Myanmar, and an arresting and affective work of artistic activism.
The gallery-goer is forced to acknowledge the deep disparity Nge Lay is concerned about when viewing her work, especially when watching the artist’s accompanying source materials and video documentation that features the village schoolchildren in their day-to-day lives. When asked about their dreams for the future, an overall pattern can be observed: the children, not unlike their urban counterparts, mostly want to be doctors and teachers, but in the way that all children do – naively and innocently, without much understanding of the intricacies of each profession. While the overall picture that the film presents is that of carefree, youthful joyousness and the kind of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed hope only children are capable of, it leaves a bittersweet note as the viewer contemplates that without equal access to educational resources, some of these children will inevitably find it harder than others to achieve those same dreams.
Flying in the Fragmentary is not the artist’s first work to do with the inequalities of education between rural and urban Myanmar. Five years ago, Nge Lay’s The Sick Classroom was part of the 2013 Singapore Biennale, “If the World Changed”, at Singapore Art Museum. The piece was yet another ambitious large-scale installation consisting of 27 life-sized wooden sculptures that the artist made according to scale with local craftsmen in Thuye’dan village. The sculptures were painted in the likeness of the village schoolchildren and similarly installed in the likeness of the village school itself, complete with a chalkboard and low tables one would be hard-pressed to find in any urban educational institution today.
The work looked almost like an ethnographic diorama, creating a sense of voyeuristic discomfort within a majority-urbane museum-going audience. Situated within the biennale’s curatorial agenda, which invited artists to reconsider the worlds in which we live and the worlds in which we want to live, and implanted into the hyper-urban context of a museum biennale, The Sick Classroom put into harsh juxtaposition the drastic differences between urban and rural pedagogical practices.
Yet, it is not only the global discourse of development and the disparities that it has brought about that Nge Lay is addressing in her work. It is important to note the particular artistic climate in which Nge Lay and her Burmese contemporaries are working in today. One cannot deny that as a country, Myanmar has suffered in recent history. After gaining independence from British rule in 1948, the country experienced a brief 14 years of independence during which ‘modern art’ was introduced to the local artistic scene through the painter Aung Soe, who had studied at the Rabindranath Tagore art ashram in India.
However, 1962 saw the country come under General Ne Win’s military dictatorship, which swiftly cracked down on all aspects of social life, including education and cultural production. Following General Ne Win’s coup d’état, all universities in the country were closed for more than two years, marking the beginning of heavy censorship in Burmese education. Despite the near-constant cultural repression in the country, however, the pulse of Burmese contemporary art continued to thrum under the radar, with 2008 being a breakout year that saw the unveiling of several independent art spaces and festivals, such as New Zero Art Space and the Beyond Pressure Performance Art Festival, which featured performances by Nge Lay’s husband and fellow artist Aung Ko, among others.
In fact, H.u.m.m.m. (2007), one of Aung Ko’s more memorable performances, could possibly be seen as the beginning of the couple’s long-term artistic and community involvement in Thuye’dan village. The performance involved Aung Ko and the villagers carrying 13 wooden staircases along the banks of the Irrawaddy river, planting the staircases deep in the riverbed and later, setting them on fire. The fire burned for hours, during which Aung Ko chanted throughout, evoking a ritualistic element in the piece, which served as both a personal act of catharsis for the artist and a conceptual metaphor for escape and the destruction of political oppression.
It is within this sociopolitical climate of political oppression that Burmese contemporary artists are working – although things have indeed been changing in recent years, particularly with liberationist icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and rise to State Counsellor in 2016. It is within this multidimensional framework that we must consider Nge Lay’s oeuvre.
Bearing this in mind, Flying in the Fragmentary reads not only as a nuanced critique of ‘global’ urbanisation and its pitfalls, but also as an act of artistic activism addressing the problem of censorship that still plagues Myanmar – and certainly other Southeast Asian countries – today. By moving the site of artistic production from the urban centre to the rural outskirts, Nge Lay accomplishes two things: uprooting the idea that contemporary art-making and exhibition-making can only exist in urban, ‘developed’ spaces, and cleverly evades state-sanctioned censorship by moving art-making outside of urban perimeters of control.
In the words of Nge Lay herself, talking to Art Radar:
Thuye’dan village is my husband Aung Ko’s (he is also an artist) native village and his family still lives there until now. For me I was born in small city in Myanmar but I grew up in the capital city Yangon. I did not know just how huge the differences between rural and urban were before my marriage with Aung Ko. In 2005, I went with him to Thuye’dan village after our wedding and I saw the real situation about rural area’s people and all of their situation. Especially differences in education between rural and urban. That made me open my eyes and alerted me to the need to do something with the relationship between me and the rural community. My husband and I especially wanted to help his village and wanted to create an art work, so we decided to do some of our art works together with the villagers in that place. In that time in the city, most of the artists also had to care about military censorship in every art creation, so Aung Ko and I tried to organise art events at Thuy’dan village. In 2007, we invited artists from Yangon and we organised to meet with villagers and artists to work together in some art creation.
We called it the Thuye’dan Village Art Project, and Aung Ko and I decided we will do that project with our own budget. So we couldn’t do it in some years, because it depended on our budget situation. We did 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013. The main purpose is that we would like to help and work together with the rural community and would like to create art works, so even if we cannot do Thuye’dan Village Art Project we often go back toThuye’dan village and we work with the villagers.
For me every time I talk together with the village school children I feel how much difference [there is] between rural and urban education in recent years. That has pushed me to create my art work based on our country’s education.
Soh Kay Min
“Flying in the Fragmentary” by Nge Lay was on view from 23 June to 15 July 2018 at Yavuz Gallery, Gillman Barracks, 9 Lock Road #02-23, Singapore 108937.
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