Category Archives: Art

Chaw Ei Thein: Expression and Exile in Burma

Back when I was finding my bearings while writing on contemporory art in Saigon, an artist and RMIT faculty member named Richard Streitmatter-Tran was one of my most informative and generous contacts. During my last interview with Rich, he touched on an aspect of his life we hadn’t spoken about in our previous conversations: his wife, the Burmese artist and political asylee, Chaw Ei Thein.

So when I received an email notification from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop that Chaw Ei would be performing and speaking at their 27th Street space, I marked my calendar.

I arrived to find the chairs arranged around a curious performance space comrpised of a toy motorcycle, a model airplane, a bed of stones, a bowl of rice, and a bucket of water. As the evening began,  Chaw Ei emerged from a back office, her face obscured by a black detention hood, ambling in a rigged, pained march that recalled butoh. At the motorcycle, she raised her arms in front of her and squatted, as if riding an imaginary bike. Then, at the airplane, she stood on one leg with arms stretched out to her side, again seemingly simulating transport. Next, she kneeled on the stones and ate from the bowl of rice, her arms behind her back. As she crawled forward to the bucket, I thought she might drink from it. Instead, she submerged her face, as if being drowned by a phantom assailant.

Performance photos courtesy of Jonathan Hulland

Afterwards, during a discussion led by Todd Lester, founder of event co-sponsor freeDimensional, Chaw Ei spoke about her belief that all Burmese have a responsibility to do what they can to fight for freedom. As a political asylee unable to contribute directly, performance has become Chaw Ei’s contribution.

The performance, in fact, is a quite literal expression of torture in Burmese prions: the motorbike and airplane simulations mirror stress positions prisoners are made to endure, while eating from the rice bowl expresses the humiliation tied to even the most basic human necessity of sustence. The drowning requires no explanation. Through this visceral and disturbing art piece, Chaw Ei raises awareness of the more than 2,000 political prisoners currently being detained and tortured in Burma. In the photos above, you can see representations of them meticulously scrawled on her face, arms, and legs.

Chaw Ei herself has spent time in a Burmese prison. She described a performance in which she and collaborator Htein Lin sold items on the street pegged to the old currency, a means of calling out the rapid inflation caused by the Burmese junta’s devastating monetary policy. The authorities were not amused; they locked up Chaw Ei and Htein for a brief period.

September Sweetness, Chaw Ei Thein & Richard Streitmatter Tran, via http://chaweithein.blogspot.com/

September Sweetness, Chaw Ei Thein & Richard Streitmatter Tran, via http://chaweithein.blogspot.com/

She also touched on September Sweetness, a collaborative project from the 2008 Singapore Biennale that I’d seen in materials Rich had given me. The project encompassed a 5.5-tonnes sculpture of a Buddhist temple, inspired by a photograph of a decaying temple in Burma’s Bagan region. Once completed, the impressive piece, which was completed with the help of more than a dozen volunteers, was left in the humid open air to melt. Chaw Ei mentioned that the project reflected the Buddhist concept of impermanence, but it is also open to interpretation. Among many things, one can read into it the state of decay Burma has long suffered, reflected by the actual decay of its architectural heritage.

In as far as it sought to raise awareness, the event was a success. After Chaw Ei’s performance and Todd Lester’s interview, many in the audience were eager to hear Chaw Ei’s feelings on the current political situation in Burma and find out how they could better inform themselves. I would strongly urge anyone interested in these issues to support the work of freeDimensional and event co-sponsor, the World Policy Institute. Through freeDimensional, Chaw Ei and other artists have been able to secure positions in New York Foundation for the Arts’ Immigrant Artists Program.

More about the artist:

CHAW EI THEIN (b. 1969, Yangon, Myanmar) is a painter and performance artist currently based in New York. Chaw ei was selected for the New York Foundation for the Arts Mentoring Program for Immigrants Artists through a partnership with freeDimensional. Her work has been widely covered in the international arts press including Asian Art Now, Asian Art Achieve, Artforum, Art Asia Pacific, Yishu, C-Arts, The Strait Times and The New York Times. In addition to her work as an artist, she is also co-founder and Director of the Sunflower Art Gallery in Yangon. In this capacity she has developed several initiatives including the organizing of art exhibitions and fairs including special exhibitions for children’s art in Myanmar and Cambodia, and for psychiatric patients. She has been teaching art to children for more than 15 years and served as Editor for a youth magazine in Yangon. As an advocate for art, education, and creative expression, she has been a vocal critic of the restrictive curricula in Burma. Currently living in New York, she has exhibited new works at the Point B Gallery, Da Gallery, Fardom Gallery, Puffin Room, SoapBox Gallery, United Nations Plaza and the International Studio and Curatorial Programme (ISCP) Open Studios, Grace Exhibition Art Space in United States. Her website is www.chaweithein.blogspot.com.

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Filed under Art, Causes, New York City

Tom Gets Scribd

I’ve just uploaded seven of my greatest hits from my tenure at AsiaLIFE HCMC. (Or at least my mom says they’re my greatest hits.) Check them out at my new Scribd account or click right to the articles below.

Scooter Madness: How American intervention, an underground economy and Cold War politics created the world’s last stockpile of classic Italian scooters. April 2009.

I Want My VNTV: Local audiences remain critical of Vietnamese television, but it’s hard to deny the demand for homegrown content. Industry insiders speak about delivering better programming in Vietnam. June 2010.

Primates on the Rebound: On a small island in Cat Tien National Park, a group of conservationists has big plans to counter the trade in endangered primates through rehabilitation, research and education. April 2010

Work in Progress: Over the past decade, the contemporary art scene in Ho Chi Minh City has quietly flourished. But limited infrastructure, lack of funding, and the enduring challenges of working within the confines of state oversight have presented obstacles to providing services to artists and attracting collectors. An overview of the scene and a look at some of the art being created in the thanh pho. April 2010.

Wildlife in Jeopardy: Vietnam is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, but it has also suffered from decades of deforestation and habitat loss and remains a hot spot for wildlife trade. Today, conservationists face an uphill battle to save Vietnam’s beleaguered wildlife. March 2010

The Next New Battleground: Local and international businesses have found an alternative to shrinking export markets in the last place anyone expected: rural Vietnam. November 2009

Solving Saigon’s Congestion Question: The way we drive now and a look at the plans and problems that lie ahead for Ho Chi Minh City. November 2009.

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Filed under Art, Conservation, Culture, History, Ho Chi Minh City, Pop Culture, Television, Transportation, Vietnam

Tiffany Chung Opening at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York

If you needed proof that there’s no escape from Saigon…

I’ll be returning to the States next week, with a stopover in New York at the beginning of November. Serendipitously, Tiffany Chung, a Saigon-based artist and co-founder of artist-operated space San Art, will be opening her new solo show, Scratching the Walls of Memory, at Tyler Rollins Fine Art in Chelsea (529 W 20th St.) on November 4 from 6 to 8:30 pm. It will be a two-week reunion of sorts, as another San Art founder, Dinh Q. Le, and a few other folks from the Saigon scene will be in the Big Apple. This will be a great opportunity to speak to some of the people on the forefront of developing contemporary arts infrastructure in Ho Chi Minh City.

For a bit of background, check out my cover story on the contemporary arts in Saigon (issue 25) and my Q&A with Dinh Q. Le (issue 27) in the AsiaLIFE archives. The Q&A is also available for faster viewing at San Art’s press section.

More information on the show from Tyler Rollins Fine Art:

For her second solo exhibition at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, taking place in November and December 2010, Tiffany Chung will present a new series of works inspired by maps of urban regions, featuring embroidery and appliqué works on canvas in addition to a number of drawings on paper. Chung has been fascinated with maps for many years, not only for their graphic possibilities but also for what they say about both our relation to the past and our visions of the future.

Her exhibition, entitled scratching the walls of memory, explores the topographic after-images of some of the past century’s most traumatic conflicts and includes maps of the Berlin Wall, the Korean DMZ, and the atomic bomb blast zones in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exhibition marks a turning point in her work, as it is the first time she interweaves important historical events with personal and family history.

Chung is considered to be Vietnam’s most prominent female contemporary artist. She is noted for her sculptures, videos, photographs, and performance work that use an exuberantly pop aesthetic to conjure hyperreal visions of contemporary Vietnam, which function as candy-colored counterparts to the more typical “traumatized” representations of Vietnam’s recent history…

Continue reading at Tyler Rollins Fine Art.

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Extended Dinh Q. Le Interview on AsiaLIFE Blog

Dinh Q. Le at San Art, May 2010. Photo by Richard Harper for AsiaLIFE

For this month’s AsiaLIFE, I interviewed contemporary artist Dinh Q. Le for our Q&A section. Dinh has been one of the most recognized Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) artists in the contemporary art world since the 90s. On June 30, his three-channel installation The Farmers and the Helicopters will be the subject of a six-month exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. You can read the full interview on the AsiaLIFE blog.

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Meanwhile, at the AsiaLIFE blog…

I’ve been blogging less than usual over at the AsiaLIFE blog, largely because I wrote the last two cover stories for the March and April issues (issues 24 and 25) on top of my regular managerial and editing duties, leaving me little time to devote to the digital domain. However, I’m back in the swing of things. Here’s what you can find over on the AsiaLIFE blog:

Leslie from Smile Group, a fantastic local nonprofit that builds community among and provides support to HIV-affected families, sent us an update on what the group’s been up to. Read the post here.

Also check out AsiaLIFE contributing editor Thomas Maresca’s excellent story from Issue 20 in which he profiles three of the families and sheds light on HIV/AIDS in Vietnam.

Sugar-coated Karma by Tuan Andrew Nguyen @ San Art's "Syntax + Diction"

Although the artist talk took place this past Thursday, check out this post for a brief introduction to leading Vietnamese artists Dinh Q. Le and Tuan Andrew Nguyen. Other suggestions:

1) Head over to the Galerie Quynh website for more info on Tuan Andrew Nguyen.

2) If you’re visiting Saigon, check out San Art and Galerie Quynh.

3) If you’re in New York City or visiting there this year, go see Dinh Q. Le’s installation The Farmers and the Helicopters, opening June 30 at the MoMa and on until January 11, 2011.

4) Read my cover story on contemporary art in Ho Chi Minh City in Issue 25 of AsiaLIFE.

Nordic Week at the Equatorial Hotel Returns to Saigon

One of my favorite food events in Saigon, Nordic Week, returns to the Equatorial Hotel from April 24 to 30. Get the skinny here, or head over to VietNews Online, where you can read my article on New Nordic Cuisine first published in the June 2009 issue of AsiaLIFE.

David Macmillan and Keith Rotheram in Phnom Penh, photo by Fred Wissink, photo editor for AsiaLIFE

I also wrote a third blog post on the controversial media coverage of the Sean Flynn discovery. It seems that Tim King, the executive editor of Salem News, took note of my posts on the questionable reportage and what I view as clear bias against Macmillan. He picked up on the story and put the news media under the lens in two stories.

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Filed under Art, Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Media, Vietnam

Static Motion at Galerie Quynh

If you haven’t yet stopped by Galerie Quynh to see the current exhibit, Static Motion, you’ve got one more week to do so before the show closes.

And you certainly should. The pairing of these almost monochromatic series might seem like an odd choice, but once you step into the space, even before you engage with the individual pieces, the title of the exhibit makes immediate sense. By showing George Papadimas’ geometric sculptures and Nguyen  Thanh Truc’s collage-esque paintings together, gallery owner Quynh Pham has created a space that seems alive with an electronic buzz. At a certain depth of field, Nguyen’s paintings, anchored by Papadimas’ sculptures, seem to have the blizzard-like entropy of a dropped broadcast flickering on your television screen:

Individually, the artists’ works capture the relationship between stasis and movement, as well.

There is something irresistible about Papadimas’ sculpture. You can’t help but walk circles around them, attempting to divine meaning in their vertices, watching as they seem to morph as you move. Papadimas often employs algorithms in his construction, and here he focuses on “the oppositional nature of the numbers 0-9.”  In the exhibit literature, Pham writes that the sculptures “allude to an order that goes beyond societal and cultural appropriations.” Perhaps that’s why you feel like you could obsess over the objects for hours; they seem to reflect something essential and unknowable, the tantalizing gap between the potential of mathematics to reveal mysteries of the natural order and our ability to actually conceptualize the answers.

If Papadimas’ sculptures exist askew of society, Nguyen Thanh Truc’s paintings provide a sort of visual expression of its ability to consume us and our attempts to impose order on the flood of information that assails us today. Nguyen adheres strips of newspapers and magazines to canvas, clips of the information stream that shape our reality. Visualized this way, one of our meaning making systems–the media–seems almost like an assault on our senses. As a magazine writer and rabid consumer of media, I find Nguyen’s work extremely potent. It has the ability to simultaneously express the sense of duty news consumers feel to utilize all of the information available via print, broadcast and Internet, the futility of that project and the guilt associated with the project’s failure. I cannot speak to the engagement with Vietnamese society, politics and culture expressed in the headlines, but I think Nguyen’s paintings transcend Vietnam in some ways.

The show runs through Saturday, April 24. Head down to Galerie Quynh at 65 De Tham in District 1. Open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 6pm. For more info on the artists, go to www.galeriequynh.com.

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