According to art critic Aung Min, modernism has had a profound influence on contemporary artists in Myanmar since the 1970s, even though towards the end of the millennium, its influence has been largely eroded by the rise of post-modernism. In 1990, a group of artists banded together to found Modern Art 90, the predecessor of New Zero Art Group. The change of name was effected in 2000.
As its leader Aye Ko puts it, ‘zero’ is both empty and meaningful at the same time.
For the last three years, members of New Zero have been meeting in Burmese teashops working out a way to create the first artist-run contemporary art space in Myanmar. No permission from the government is needed to start an art space in Myanmar, so long as they can find the money to do so. The rent of the space that they wanted, including water and electricity, would cost them about US$6,000 annually – a hefty sum in a country where the average income per capita is below US$200.
Undeterred, the group inaugurated the New Zero Art Space on March 2008, funded initially by donations from supporters around the world. In the opening show, all the participating artists donated their works and priced them at US$100 each. They managed to sell 30 items, thereby securing the working capital for its first year of existence.
Currently, there are 32 members in the New Zero Art Group, six of whom serving as directors. The main goal of founding the art space is to promote and nurture Burmese contemporary art. Located at the Thamada quarter across the railway tracks from the ever-popular Bogyoke Aung San Market, New Zero features a small library stocked with festival catalogues, magazines and art books donated by its members and overseas contacts. The space is also one of the few places in Myanmar where children and adults can attend free art classes. Members volunteer their time as teachers. Usage of the exhibiting space is free and the art group aims to organize monthly exhibitions at the venue.
Even though the country is run by the military, it seems that for a long time, the government didn’t feel threatened by the contemporary artists or what they had to say in their art practices. In fact, before the demonstrations on September 2007, an artist would not need censorship approval to organize an exhibition in an art venue. As press freedom is severely curtailed in Myanmar, it is inevitable that contemporary art started serving as a vehicle for artists and concerned citizens of the country to react to her social and economic realities.
Contemporary art in Myanmar resembles less of a luxury item and feels more like a covert act of defiance. The plain-coat intelligence officers who roam the country often view the harmless act of taking photographs by Burmese citizens with suspicion. On more than a few occasions, local photographers were stopped from taking pictures in the countryside or near a bridge. Contemporary artists in Myanmar generally work within these restrictions.
However, since the Saffron Revolution, the government has started censoring art shows. The only two venues left in Yangon where it is possible to bypass censorship are the American Cultural Center and the Alliance Francaise – both of which are essentially diplomatic zones. Of the two, the latter is more popular with local artists, as most of them don’t want to be seen by the Burmese intelligence as having a working relationship with American agencies.
The recent Festival of Contemporary Theatre and Performance Art was held at Alliance Française on February 2008. While New Zero is not allowed to host performance art shows, explains Aye Ko, it is allowed to showcase works of all other artforms, so long as they are not about politics and sex.
In short, New Zero Art Space is a long overdue addition to the nascent contemporary art scene in Myanmar. Its members seem genuine in their attempts to develop Burmese contemporary art with the founding of its art space. Bickering amongst artists, which is fairly common in Bangkok or Singapore, is refreshingly absent in Yangon. Despite recent demands on censorship, New Zero will continue to be a valid venue of human expression in Myanmar.
[ Untitled / From the “Light Shade” series (2007 – ) / Used with permission from artist Thu Rein ]