Kaung Su: The Imagineer of Renovatio Plan

Kaung Su

Written by Myint Myat Thu

Kaung Su during his artist residency in New York in 2012 

Frontiers of Astronaut, Urban Implosion, The Pursuit of Reason, The World of Delacroix, Dubliner, Stardust, The Last Judgement: yellowed and aged, these books and many others on an old bookshelf at Kaung Su’s home are like the unprotected – yet sturdy in themselves – bricks of a stricken fort which has been defending the nature against the murder by human. Just beyond the threshold of the artist’s bunker, ignorance, greed, selfishness, negligence, and all imaginable sins of human, are blossoming in every delicate vein of the earth. “The next six mass extinction will be our own,” Kaung Su reminds us of our volatile future, while he is conjuring up the Apocalypse on his canvases. 

Like an asteroid could fly into the earth out of nowhere, Kaung Su jumped into artist life purely on impulse. He did not have any formative influences, experience or hobby for art as a child, or he was not an art lover whom is rubbing shoulders with artists and can often be spotted in  galleries and exhibitions in Yangon. In fact, even to these days, Kaung Su hardly visits there – especially after his artist residency in the U.S. in 2012 changed much of his artistic concepts. His diversion to art is like executing his own command – as Kaung Su beautifully puts it, “the command of the unconscious” – so that one day, out of the blue, an ordinary young man in a book distribution business, whose hands were always behind the wheel, dropped everything to study in the State School of Fine Art (Yangon). 

  • Asteroid Mining: Acrylic, emulsion, gold plaster power and fake hair on canvas: w5 by h 4.5 feet

“My case like is pouring the water from a glass which has already been full with water. It’s not to fill the glass in the first place to pour the water down. Something in my unconscious is already there to morph into art,” Kaung Su said. 

What he took is neither a U-turn nor a junction. It seems that Kaung Su renamed the path he has already walked on so far in his life. The new one is named as “the intellectual path to art”, and at the entrance of it, Kaung Su announced: “The horizon of my art is a horizon of my aesthetic intellect.” That horizon can be boundless. Kaung Su’s works, universal in context and grand in subject, give voice to our collective destiny, in other word, the destiny of our planet earth. 

In his “Extinction Residues”, the greenish grey bones in their giant and ghoulish masses, are drifting out in the thick field of plaster. Some bones still seems to be covered with rotten-looking, disgusting flesh. The whole view resembles the cross-section of the tomb of a once dominant specie. By condensing this kind of entire history of mass extinction into bones – which he described as “the footprint of evolution and perishability” – Kaung Su is opening a straightforward dialogue to think about our own turn.

  • Copernicus (Colliding World Series): Acrylic, emulsion and hair on canvas

The disappearance of the human from the earth, in his opinion, can happen in two ways: the internal destruction by human themselves in the form of ecocide, and the external intervention of alien forces such as the extermination by asteroids, which can also be the god’s punishment. 

The massive logs, severely slaughtered and/or throttled by a wicked lock of human’s hair recur in several of Kaung Su’s paintings. Sometimes they are arranged like the mournful monuments on a set of son et lumière for the deceased earth, died from deforestation, over-pollution and over consumerism. One of them was titled: “Human Sucks”. There is also this ghostly “Standing Wood Among The Seeds” against the thin veil of fiery orange atmosphere hanging over a desolate land of unborn dead seeds. 

  • Celestial Intruder: Acrylic, emulsion, enamel, and human hair on canvas: w5 by h5 feet

The outside enemies are as terrifying. Black Twister In Red Lightning combines the elephantine whirlwind with an invincible lighting, animatedly stirring everything dwelling underneath with their ravenous hands.  The Genocide and Celestial Intruder both deal with the similar demise with twister. The Genocide appears to occur on the throne of Satan, its sizes swells greatly as it sucks the live of the riotous earth below; the Celestial Intruder, which is also under the attack of dark force, is bleeding at its center, its rubbles flying outward up into the sky. “The Arrival” (of ferocious foreign matter) was cloaked under the impeccable black fumes. 

It is hard to place this kind of overarching art out of political context, for it is politics that we usually understand to take charge of our fate.  But Kaung Su claim that he is “not working with political issues, but with intellectual substance.” With a scientist’s objective perspective, Kaung Su intellectual artworks explain that if there is a greater evil than the corrupted politics to be blamed for climate crisis, it is human’s killer instinct, which is the twin of selfishness and negligence. 

But he chooses to approach the universal subject at a distance from an intellectual standpoint does not mean that his artworks are mere dry stuffs, empty of emotions. Emotions, for him, is to conduct feeling only through which the communication between an artwork and view can fully occur. “Without any expression (of personal feelings), an artwork won’t be able to transfer itself to the viewer. In my case, I put the intelligence, knowledge first, then come the expression,” Kaung Su said. 

  • The Arrival series: Acrylic, emulsion on paper: w 22 by 22 inches

Even when he is dealing with the weighty subject of climate crisis, Kaung Su doesn’t regard himself as an activist. Artist, in his belief, does not necessarily has to be an activist. “In other countries, when an artwork bears social and political issues, it has a large core of artistic values – not a hollow representation merely coated with issues, like the way we can mostly find here now in political arts. When you have a strong artistic sense, all the other issues submerged below subliminally,” he said.

But until around 2008, he was a true abstract expressionist, who indulged in feelings. He even tried to find himself in a series of “Real Me” only to lose himself in the end this way. “You don’t need any foreknowledge to appreciate an abstract piece or a portrait. But it is the other way round in art inspired from science. For example, you can best understand my paintings of impact craters if you know even a little about them,” he said. 

  • Renovatio Series (Rebirth with wing): Acrylic, emulsion, enamel, and spray paint on canvas: w 4 by h 4.5 feet

There are always traces of Anslem Kiefer’s bleak visions in Kaung Su’s works. But what is particularly undistinguished about Kaung Su is that his works are releasing sound:  thud, blast, explosion, scream, roar, anything resounding – that you can only hear in your mind’s ear, personalized you. This feature – when reinforced by emotive brushes and style – lend perfectly itself to animation.  Another thing that attributes to this is the size of the subjects. No matter how small they are framed, Kaung Su’s works – such as impact craters, asteroids, stars, cosmos – always appear colossal to the viewer. 

He might hold the sepulchral view of the world. But Kaung Su gives us the “Renovatio Plan” – where Renovatio means rebirth in Latin – in which the human race rises and falls only through intellectual development – in the latter, they use it in the wrong way. The hope for a new form of human existence emerges here that will restart after the demise of the earth or the beginning of new circle. For now, we can live the cusp of both old and new worlds in Kaung Su works.

Editor: Aura Contemporary Art Foundation