AAA: During my research, I found that you were once in law school. Can you tell us what inspired you to study law in the first place?
Chaw Ei Thein (CET): Yes I was in law school: I graduated with an LL.B in 1994. When I finished high school I really wanted to study art in university. But, in Burma at that time there was not a lot of art and no art departments in universities. According to my high school grades, I could go to law school: so I studied law, but I wasn’t really interested in it. After graduating, I had to go to court to do an internship for several months to practice law and get a lawyer’s licence. I did this once, and saw the corruption and the reality of the situation that faced those working in the justice field. I didn’t like the system and found that there was no real justice in Burma. How could I survive knowing this? I really knew that this was not my place. Finally, I made the decision to be an artist, not a lawyer or a judge.
My father is a painter and he is my teacher too. For me, art has always come first. I received international art awards as a child, including two diplomas from Yugoslavia and one from Hungary and several awards from Japan, India (Shankar), and UNESCO, Korea from the age of four. I have continually practiced art throughout my life. Once I finished my graduate studies in 1994, I decided to open my own gallery and hold children’s art classes. I concentrated more and more on my art. I didn’t return to law. I was also singing and published my first album in 1995. I was doing both painting and singing, and running my gallery, teaching children up to 2007.
AAA: How did you end up in performance art?
CET: My very first interest in art was painting, as my father is a painter (and I am still painting!) However, I first became interested in performance art in 1997-98. Some Burmese artists, who are more senior than I am, started their performances in 1996. I saw their works several times. In those days artists used to do performances during the closings of art exhibitions. I was really curious about this new kind of art. I wanted to do it myself, but didn’t know how to start. I had less confidence in those days. Then, I learned from the works of senior Burmese performance artists such as Aung Myint, Aye Ko and Nyein Chan Su (NCS). Aye Ko encouraged me to start my own performance pieces.
In 2004, I did my very first performance in my friend’s photography studio; I just invited my very close friends as I was still too shy to do anything in front of a large audience. Later that year, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to participate in NIPAF after a recommendation from the artist Aye Ko. This was my first opportunity to join an international performance art festival in Japan. It was a good start for my performance art practice. I did my very first street performance in Tokyo - and I still thank Seiji Shimoda and Aye Ko for giving me this great opportunity.
It was the door through which I entered the international performance art community. Seiji Shimoda and NIPAF have played an important role in engaging Asian and international artists, to work together and create more networks. This was how I got the chance to network and make contacts with many Asian and western artists. Then I was given the chance to join some very important international performance art festivals in the following years, such as TIPALive in Taiwan (2005), which was curated by Ahlien Z.H. I met with Chumpon Apisuk in TIPALive, who invited me to join Asiatopia, which he organized in Thailand in 2005 and 2007. Then I met with Arai Shinichi, who invited me to Open in Beijing which he curated with Chen Jin in 2007. Through these festivals I got to meet with international artists and learn performance art from them.
AAA: After travelling and performing so many times in other countries, and now being based in the U.S., where would you say is the most supportive place for you as an artist in terms of cultural ecology? How did you feel as a Burmese artist performing and making installations both inside and outside of Myanmar?
CET: Actually I cannot say I am based in the U.S. yet! I am still trying to figure out where and how to settle there. Whenever I participate in Asian or Western countries, they are all very positive and supportive to me in different ways. They all try their best to support artists. I haven’t encountered many problems. But in Asian countries I do feel more comfortable than in Western countries. I have less experience participating in European and Western countries. I have only had the chance of joining 7a*11d in Toronto, Canada in 2008. Mostly I have participated in Asian countries, so I still need to see more Western artists to learn more about them. The other reason is the language we use for communication. English is our second language and we cannot speak it very fluently.
With Western artists, sometimes I feel that my language skills are a burden - to catch their concepts or ideas during their performances. I think this is because of culture, custom, history, and social and political systems. In Asia we are quite similar; it’s easy to understand each other. Asian performance artists talk more about social and political issues. If I had to name artists who have made a significant impact on me, they would be Seiji Shimoda and Arai Shinichi. One of Seiji’s performance pieces On the Table is my favourite ever. He uses only a table and his body – it’s simple but very powerful. I like that style. You can’t really reduce anything from his performance such as time or space or his body movements during the performance. His work is perfect, and always on my mind. Some performance artists use materials, more than using the body. I prefer using the body. Another artist is Arai. Most of his performances seem to begin with humour, than turn to pain and very powerful endings.
In regards to your second question, I feel “no freedom” at all as a Burmese artist performing and making installations both inside and outside Burma. I am saying this according to my own experience. At the very beginning of my travels outside of Burma, I thought I was free and I could create anything I wanted. But in reality, it’s not like that. I am always challenging my ideas, concepts and results after I do my work.
Firstly, I am a Burmese artist living under a military junta, I am used to being limited with what I can and cannot create inside Burma. We have a level of self-censorship before we show our work in public. If we want to say something, we have to consider the possibilities of censorship: is it safe if I show this in public? What problems may occur if I use this colour or that subject with this concept? Do they think there is too much information? And so on. Sometimes, however, I think that finding ways to express what I (we) want to say under this situation could make me (or us) become more creative. Inside or outside of Burma, if you do something that expresses what you think is right – you can never anticipate what will happen on you. If something happens, it happens. If not, you will not get trouble.
With time, all these limitations have become my second nature. There is a problem now whenever I want to create something: I have controlled myself already, automatically. This is always following me and controlling my creativity. Even when I get a chance to create my art outside of Burma, it still affects me. At the same time, I do worry about my family in Burma; if I do this or if I do that, what will happen to them? These “fears” and “worries” control me even when I am creating art outside of Burma. It is real and affects me all the time.
AAA: Some of your installation works make a poetic and subtle commentary about the politics of your home country. Can you share with us why you took such an approach with installation, with some examples of your work?
CET: First of all, I want to admit that whenever I try to create something, it just appears in my mind as relating to my country’s current situation - my friends who are still in prison, and the people in Burma and how they survive in their daily lives. I cannot get away from this issue, even today. I don’t know how to change the subject to create something else. That is my own problem, and the conflict within me. Then I have to think about how I can express my ideas or what I want to say as an artwork. All of us artists in Burma have to know the limitations of freedom of expression under this regime. So I need to find a way to let the viewer know more about my artwork, in an indirect way.
September Sweetness is an example to prove this. Richard Streitmatter-Tran and I wanted to talk about the erosion of our hope in Burma. We saw thousands of monks peacefully demonstrating in the streets in 2007, a protest that was violently ended by the ruling military junta. Finally, the junta even put the monks in prison. We never forgot this. In the beginning we all hoped it would bring some “hope” for us, but by the end it didn’t turn out that way. Our hope was as hopeless as it was before. After that, I really doubted that there would be a way to keep any hope for the future. That is why we used “sugar” as a material to show our hope. The structure itself eroded throughout the duration of the exhibition because of many reasons, such as the rain and insects, signifying the same erosion of our optimism for an improvement in the lives of the people of Myanmar.
AAA: Sometimes you are referred to as an activist? Would you consider yourself one?
CET: I really don’t want to say that I am an activist. I have conflicts within myself in making decisions when creating my art - to be safe. Most of my inspiration comes from what I feel and see around me. As a Burmese living and growing up under this regime, in a country where there is no freedom of expression, no justice, and no equal rights; whenever I do my art, all of my ideas come from these things. Many of my friends are still in prison, and have been for many years without doing anything wrong - for their beliefs and helping people, speaking about what is right. Some are 20 years old, some are 56, and some are 102. How can I ignore these people who sacrificed so much for their people, by spending their lives in prison? I always feel guilty and wonder what I can do for them. How can I help do something for the people who cannot speak out about what is happening in my country? All my considerations and thoughts are mostly all about this; our hopes, expectations, and dreams in such a situation. I cannot escape these thoughts - that is why all of my paintings and performances are mostly about this.
But as a result, some artists criticize me like I am using politics to be popular: “She is not a real artist. She is not a pure artist.” And I ask myself many times: “What I am creating? For what? For whom? What is pure art? What is a pure artist? What is real art? What is a real artist? I cannot define these meanings by myself. I am sure that what I am doing is what I believe and what I see and feel. That is all I know and what can I say? I even gave an answer for this in one interview: “I am fine if they don’t think I am an artist. Let’s say: “messenger!” Yes I am a messenger. Now I put “Nontist” instead of “Artist”. Actually I am not a very serious artist. I am just doing what I like, what I feel and what I want to do. It’s very simple.
AAA: Do you think art is a constructive means to confront the socio-political realm? Or the more fundamental question is: Why art?
CET: Of course it is. I don’t even need to prove this. We can see clearly how art can be a constructive means to confronting the socio-political realm. We can see in history how art has always been a very powerful medium. More than words! More than what we think. It always shows the reality and history of this world.
AAA: You are an “exiled artist” as some may say. Can you tell us what happened? How would you address yourself? An American-Burmese artist? A Burmese artist based in the U.S.?
CET: Even I am asking myself this at the moment - where am I going to? My luggage and some paintings are in Japan, my luggage and some paintings are in Thailand, and my luggage and some paintings are in Saigon. Now I am here in the U.S. for my fellowship with the Asian Cultural Council. Then where should I head to? I am moving around and around, and I really don’t know where my next step is. I haven’t made a decision about where to settle down. I am neither an American-Burmese artist nor a Burmese artist based in the US...
AAA: If you could improve one thing for the art scene in Myanmar, what would it be?
CET: I want to create a space, or a studio, for young artists with an art library. We need more spaces in which to practice contemporary art. One thing I really want to do is a mobile art space, and have exhibitions in cities and villages where there are not many local artists. Most people think about having art activities in cities like Rangoon (Yangon). I am more interested in doing it in other regions and places. It could be anywhere in a village, we don’t need a proper building or space (although if we had one, it would be good!) Maybe on the ground or under the big trees or maybe in the farm or maybe in the garden. I would bring some artists to the cities and villages, and would also invite local artists or those who are interested in art to collaborate with us. We could talk and create some art together. Then we could do art exhibitions. Maybe we could build some sculptures or installations in the village, something like that.
AAA: Can you share with us your current project?
CET: Currently I am painting a lot and making sketches for an installation that I want to do when I next have the chance to have a show. I will have one performance show at NARS (New York Art Residency and studios) in May and an exhibition with my friend, the artist Htein Lin, for Thavibu Gallery in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2010. I am going to show paintings, installations, video work and performance. I will also be curating some Burmese artists both inside and outside of Burma in a group show this summer in a gallery located in western Massachusetts. So, I am collecting all the materials to use in my performances and preparing for all these shows.
On the other hand, I plan to start writing my second children’s art book, in Burmese, and have it printed in Burma if possible. I published the first one in 2007. In Burma, art education is so weak. We don’t have many books about art and art education for children. I want to fill in the blanks as much as I can.