Min Zaw: Into the stillness, simplicity and beyond

Min Zaw

Written by Myint Myat Thu

Min Zaw at his studio in Yankin, Yangon

What could be more poetic than a magnificent magenta mountain raggedly, yet delicately contoured against the pinkish evening? Demure and tranquil, it is gracefully attending to its own solitude, in which everything is negated except the placid spirit of an artist who is conjuring up a magnificent magenta mountain. Even the frame the mountain is assembled into does not look like a limitation here, but only fortifies its vastness. This kind of grand simplicity married with splendid sensations could only be Min Zaw’s creation. 

  • MOUNTAIN IN THE EVENING: Paper Collage, 50cmx73 cm, 2017

Min Zaw observes the world like a traveler. The 47-years-old artist, highly acclaimed today for his lyrical works on crumpled canvas and paper collage, is always on the lookout for the uncharted destination where he can reinvent himself (that is his art). “I never like to be someone else,” he said. That someone else can be himself also. If Min Zaw went on painting his characterful sceneries that reimagine Myanmar in a few subtle hues in stunning architectonic style or his boldly-lined woman figures series, they are highly exceptional to elevate him to his today’s stature. But what could be more lifeless for an artist than to be content with his imagination? “It is really a good thing when an artist gets bored with their own work. I believe this can awaken their curiosity in a way unlike anything” Min Zaw said.  

  • EARLY MORNING: Water colour, 50 X 60 cm, 2007

  • ENTRANCE OF THE PAGODA: Acrylic on canvas, 92 X 92 cm, 2017

  • OLD MONASTERY: Acrylic on canvas, 92 X 92 cm, 2006

On the day he lighted upon the aesthetic of distorted surface, Min Zaw was rummaging through the dustbin for a scrap of his sketch he crumpled and did away with. Then while studying the sketch once more, now put back on his desk, he unintentionally colored the paper with acrylic spray. The whole wrinkled surface sprang to life, like a patch of river, animated with elegantly dancing waves in multiple shades of black. The epoch-making discovery in which a canvas (or a sheet of paper) evolves into an art itself with its own aesthetic energy, not merely a medium secondary to representations it has to bear. And Min Zaw’s artistic life took wing at the instant.  

But at the deeper level, the phenomenon cannot be claimed to be wholly accidental; probably more of us crush and throw away paper than Min Zaw. It is just that whatever he does, wherever he is, Min Zaw’s mind is always engaged, trying to distill whatever he sees into art. This strong consciousness over his senses greatly helps him have the epiphany from an ordinary thing that has been in front of our eyes all along.  “The thing that actually takes time in the various stages of creating an artwork is looking for new ideas. Transforming a particular concept into a real physical object (art work) is, for me, just a matter of a few hours or days sometimes,” Min Zaw said. “As I am a stay-at-home type naturally, I usually look for inspirations in my inner world. There will be only me and my imagination roaming in the wilderness of my mind,” Min Zaw said. 

“Here the only frustration is I want to see my ideas come to life at the speed of my mind. I can feel a vivid image has crystalized in my mind, but to bring it to full physical form, I need to do such things as creasing the canvas here and there, re-flattening some areas, preparing other things. All of these might take four or five hours at most. But I find it just frustrating,” he said. 

  • OLD CITY GATE: Paper Collage, 66x76cm, 2018

Also the overpowering simplicity permanent in Min Zaw’s works seems to be motivated by the desire of a traveler to absorb a view immediately – rather than a deliberate attempt to become minimalism. His Old City Gate depicts two hunched tiny figures (of a monk in red robe and a nun in pink robe) in front of an imposing golden city gate in Bagan. The formidable spirit of its ancient builders is best juxtaposed here with the crumpled effect of the paper the monument is constructed of. Sometimes there is only a minuscule pagoda or a faraway hut faintly defined against the backdrop of towering mountain ranges. Their massive, jagged edges will make you feel that the more you walk toward them, the greater the distance between you and them becomes. Even when his collages are human figures, usually women with large frame sharply outlined like a sketch with a few color papers, their simplicity never looks stark, but complete as they are. “This is the way I see beauty,” Min Zaw said.

  • GREEN FIELD: Acrylic and Paper Collage, 53cmx68cm, 2018

  • TWO MYANMAR LADIES: Acrylic on canvas, 3x3ft, 2015

In the end, Min Zaw seems to create only the indelible impression a particular thing left on his mind – in other words, his works are his mindscape, clear of surfeit of thoughts. This is another characteristic of an avid traveler who carries very few things both in the mind and on the body on his journey. “Just like meditating, I need absolute mindfulness at my desk, to recall the stillness of a particular thing I am going to work on. It is just simply impossible to create something when my mind is clouded. At such time, I read books, especially travelogues, and only after that I would feel settled to get started,” Min Zaw said. 

In Ordinary Peoples series, he deformed human bodies with paper to expose the dull side of frail society. Even so, the damaged torso and limbs usually layered on a contrasting color plane – which is also crumpled – still retain their sublime form. “There is one perfect creation in my imagination, and when I am in a dull mood, the work I put down becomes different from that. The more I try to reconcile them, the worse it becomes,” Min Zaw said. 

Not only that Min Zaw does not indulge into emotions, the artist would even destroy his own works when he deems to fail his artistic standards, no matter how badly a collector wanted it. “You might like my work which I dislike. But if I sold it to you, it would feel like I am not faithful to myself. So I just shred them into pieces to protect the possibility of someone finding and selling them in the future. There is a time when a collector wanted my work which was still under process. Since I was not finished yet, I could not tell whether I like it or not. In this case, I just refused to sell it,” Min Zaw said. 

Try to put his works into a particular style, however, you will find yourself utterly perplexed. Under their surface simplicity, his works are infused with multiple styles: the rigidity of a sculpture, the thickness of oil painting even when they are paper collage and acrylic on canvas, the grandness of architecture, the supremacy of color fields of suprematism, the geometric playfulness of constructivism, or simply an avant-garde abstractionism. 

But when the artist simplifies all of these for us, he said: “While I am creating a mountain, it feels like I am trekking up a mountain.” 

ー Myint Myat Thu

Myint Myat Thu is a culture researcher, art critic and freelance journalist rolled into one. Her works regularly appears on Frontier Myanmar, the country’s prestigious magazine in English, in addition to Myanmar Times (English Edition), The Irrawaddy (English Edition) and ASEF Culture 360 (of Asia-Europe Foundation) as her former working partners. 

Editor: Aura Contemporary Art Foundation