A Quick Guide to Viewing Contemporary Art: An Introduction to Abstraction of Breathing


Diana Htwe / Art Critic and Art Historian

  • The Documentation Project of Contemporary Art 2020 Vol.3 / Abstraction of Breathing

Breathing is a human action we perform ceaselessly throughout our lifetime-- a process we often do not think much about as it is so natural. 
Breathing is a moment-- a measure of time itself. As we draw breath, many things are made within our body. As we release breath, many things die. Likewise, outside our bodies--within the world we live in--within our one breathing moment many things happen and die simultaneously. 
Breathing is a cyclical continuation-- a line, a wave and perhaps an ever-revolving story. As we breathe out we most naturally breathe-in again. This cyclical concept of birth-death-rebirth or construction-deconstruction-reconstruction or in Burmese meditation practices: “Phyit Chin- Pyat Chin” [ ဖြစ်ခြင်း- ပျက်ခြင်း ; trans: Happening-Destruction] is splendidly contained in the seemingly simple process of breathing.
In this 3rd edition of Exploring the Multidisciplinary Art of Myanmar--Abstraction of Breathing, nine contemporary artists from Myanmar are featured. The project, curated by Aung Myat Htay in collaboration with Yuto Yabumoto (AURA Contemporary Art Foundation, Japan), will explore the artists and their respective projects through the overarching concept of breathing-- an act/a moment of continuous reconstruction and deconstruction within our own bodies and the world around us. 
Since this is a documentation project and not an online nor a physical exhibition, the presentation format of the artworks will be in the form of digital documentations of the actual work; such as photos and videos of the works, artist interviews, curators’ and art writers’ notes, etc. Hence, the viewer’s experience will be different from being in the same physical or virtual space with the works. 

Short teaser video of Abstraction of Breathing: Exploring Multidisciplinary Art in Myanmar Vol:3 Facebook

The purpose of documentation projects is to promote critical analysis of the artworks and facilitate constructive discussions between artists, curators, art writers, and art enthusiasts. Through this project, we will explore how different artists’ works through different mediums relate to the social and environmental circumstances of our lives. To understand better the artists’ medium and intentions behind the artworks, here are some helpful guides on how to approach contemporary art:

1) Basic Information 
First, we shall look for the basic information about the work. The basic information of an artwork is the information that is readily given to you by the artist/curator about the artwork. It is usually written beside the presented artwork. 
●Artist Name, Work Title, Date Created, Medium, Size, Duration, Exhibition History, etc. 
2) Formal Qualities
Then, we move on to the formal qualities of the work. The formal qualities of an artwork are what you notice about the work at first glance. 
●Colors, lines, perspective, texture, sound, etc.
●What are you simply seeing/hearing? Construct a simple descriptive sentence about the work. Example: “The work is a series of black and white photographs of everyday objects.”
●At this point, remain completely objective and general as possible. You do not need to assign time, place, mood or any social and political context to the artwork yet. Even if someone as easily recognizable as Aung San Suu Kyi was in the work, she should first and foremost be recognized as a person and a woman before placing her in any socio-political environment.
●Most importantly, avoid using subjective and judgemental words such as “beautiful”, “ugly”, “good”, “bad”, and words that express feelings to describe the work at this point.
3) Context
After we have taken note of the artwork’s formal qualities, it’s time to think about the connection between these visual qualities and the context of the artwork. There is no right way to do this and it depends on each individual artwork and artist. Some context questions might be relevant for some artworks but won’t be relevant for others. Hence, what is the “context” of an artwork? Some context questions include:
●Artist’s intention. (Why did the artist make this work?)
●How is the artwork displayed?
●Is the work addressing any social issues? 
●Does knowing the artist’s personal background help understand the work better?
●What is your reaction towards the artwork? (How does the work make you feel? What does it remind you of?) 
●If the visual work also includes elements of sound and time-limitations (as in video and performance works), how do these additional elements reinforce the work as a whole?
●How does the formal qualities of the artwork relate to the intended context of the work?
●How is the overarching theme of this project, Abstraction of Breathing (the cyclical construction and deconstruction) reflected in the artwork?
●How can this artwork be compared and contrasted with the other artworks/artists in the project?

The important thing is to back up your interpretations of the work with the formal elements that you have recognized in the work itself. Example: “I think the work is about the stillness of an urban city during the Covid-19 pandemic because of the absence of human figures in the photographs. The stillness of the photographs makes me think about the stillness and silence of a breathing meditation.” 

The abstracted message, imagery, and unconventional mediums of contemporary art can oftentimes make it seem as if art is no longer as approachable as the figurative drawing. To many people, conceptual contemporary art may seem enigmatic and alien. The above steps are a simplified guide to help the fascinated but intimidated viewer approach and enjoy contemporary works and to aid the already-familiar audience further develop proper critique language. With proper viewing practice, it will become quite obvious that contemporary art does not always have to be addressing heavy socio-political issues but sometimes simple reflections of the world we live in and things we do to survive; like breathing.

  • SoCA Documentation-project Vol3 Essay

Written and Translated by Diana Htwe