Fiction as Real: A Spiritual Narrations of Lost and Things

Co-written by Aung Myat Htay, Yuto Yabumoto


Note: This Article is a Curatorial Note of The Documentation Project of Myanmar Contemporary Art, Vol: 4, “The PHENOMENA: Exploring Art in the Time of Instabilities Myanmar, 2021-2023”

Electric Ruby, 2021, by Pyae Phyo Thant Nyo, Mixed media Installation, at the Ground Bangkok space, Photo courtesy by artist.

PHENOMENA[1] is a curated documentation of the recent contemporary art in Myanmar based on the intrinsic existence and spiritual nature from artists’ imaginary world, consisting in three main parts such as Degree of Resistance, Power & Strengthen and Futuristic Thinkings as referring to the term, Animism.
Myanmar (Burmese) art had its roots in religious beliefs of Buddhism, Hinduism and also diverse ethnic traditions. Animism in Myanmar still exists today by the concept that all objects and phenomena have souls. Among the ethnic groups, the majority of the Burmese are Buddhists, but there is a mixture of religions based on the Animism concept and also within minority groups [2]. In the ethnic traditions, the worship of ancestors and other material spirits are widespread in the country as other Southeast Asian countries. Most Buddhists believed in worship Nat (spirits of tragically dead people in folk-history) [3] and trees and rivers have souls by guardians (spirit) to pray for Karma.

Animism is the idea of life revived. The concept we call animism is nothing more than an attitude of respecting, defending, exchanging and nurturing our own and all other spirits. Animism is the idea of intelligence and life in constant flux, constantly running between organisms. In the past, animism was considered to be a kind of perverse obsession that believed life to reside in objects that existed throughout the world. However, recent anthropology tells us the exact opposite. According to Tim Ingold,[4] for example, animism is not the idea that there is life in things, but that there are things in life. It is not a refracted illusion that finds life in lifeless things, but an idea that takes life as the background of all things, and is linked to a thorough practice that goes beyond even the difference between organic and non-organic matter.
Animism transcends the differences between individual objects and, on the basis of these differences, connect all things indiscriminately. Animism is an ethical attitude that seeks to re-position all things within the open system of life, rather than depicting the phenomenon of life against a background full of things. This program has documented works of seven artists who focus on the imaginary things surrounding them based on the concept of “things in life”. They strive to achieve their works as not only in “fictional” but also the “fiction as real”, that is separated from the subjective realm of nature and things that simultaneously constitutes the self-possessing subjects, liberated from the chains of superstition, phantasy, and ignorance.

[1] Title of the Program is fully in; “PHENOMENA: Exploring Art in the time of Instabilities Myanmar 2021-2023”, a project organized by the SoCA contemporary Art Project Myanmar.
[2] Shan, Kachin, Karen, Kayah(Karani), Chin, Rakhine and Mon are indigenous ethnic groups, with their mixed religious beliefs in Myanmar.
[3]  James Scott has stated, “Burmese Theravada Buddhists’ Nat beliefs and Siamese Theravada Buddhists’ Peeth beliefs penetrate deep into society and the general public seldom builds on the tension between popular animism and normative Buddhism” [Scott 2013:298-299]
[4] Tim Ingold(1948-), British anthropologist, and Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, from the article “Animism in Zomia: Possibility of ‘Anarcho-Animism’ by Yuto Yabumoto.

  • Sheol, a place of still darkness which lies after death, by Gabriel Htoo, 2022, Still from video, Photo courtesy by artist.

Evidences of Life and Souls:
Nowadays, new technology-based media have become much closer with everyone. Photographs and videos are conceptually similar to human memory. They bring about not only real images but also the scenes of hidden stories. That’s why, making videos and photos is one of the best mediums to transport time. In fact, there is a space like a dark realm where the spirits exist timelessly surrounding us. In this program, the video work of “Sheol, a place of still darkness which lies after death” by Gabriel Htoo is revealing this dark space, and the other photo series “I Do Miss Hospital Visit’’ by Shwe Wutt Hmon also shown the mental therapy or personal curing with the images of dead things deeply exist her environs. Art is usually intertwined with the surrounding atmosphere as nature is deeply related to human existing. Based on that concept, artists created a narrative on things, events, times and their living environs.
“Sheol, a place of still darkness which lies after death” shows that our world is full of hunting souls which we cannot be forgotten. Gabriel’s “Sheol” will show these apparitions in a performative narration of haunted memory. The backdrop is a rice field that looks like a dreamy field of fire. The story began in that rice field and happened consequently in a small town of artist’s surrounding. It looked like a scene beyond reality. In the artist’s narration, the scenes of people and things under the pain of war and epidemics, helplessness and destruction were stimulations to create this work.
The video shows people dragging a body into the haunted field where a family photo appeared of three ghost-like figures in that field. In the video collage technique, scenes go with many apparitions of humans and animals. This work is a kind of mental cure, by revealing the unexplained stresses which lie subconsciously in the artist’s mind. The title “Sheol,” is from the Hebrew bible, meaning a dark world that exists after death.

  • I Do Miss Hospital Visits by Shwe Wutt Hmon, 2022, Scanner generated pictures, found object, Size variable. Photo courtesy by artist.

“I Do Miss Hospital Visit” is a scanner generated photo series of personal experiments as self-portrait using found objects. The work revealed the record of the artist’s medical history and her moments by the metaphors of objects from everyday life. Examining the way of CT scanning by clinical tests, she found a realistic picture of the self-portrait using the scanner and the objects which interconnected to the narrative more tangible. The main idea of this work is to create the portraits of time which are related with the artist’s pains and scars and objects, a metaphor of how to fade away from the confined situation. A person’s memory is frustrated by the things surrounding and time, thus in some ways the decaying of the things may identify the spirits that have ceased to exist and know the self. So, these pictures are realistic portraits of the object as a witness of darkness side.
Things as Characters as Fiction as Real:
Although youths tend to be imaginative, they would try to create actual things with those ideas. As a reflection of the current crisis, Kyaw Min Htet and Mixer J create out of practicality rather than a narration of stories. Humans tend to live in the rational or irrational in other words, they are irrational or fictional states. Their artworks are strongly comparative analysis of both sides as shown different methods of creation as well as different results. They try to create characters of the fantasy world to be seen actually in the outside world. They try to trespass the limited boundaries of social community such as artistic policy, and rules. Therefore, their artworks result in the obvious visual uniqueness and the new aesthetics.

  • Hostile object, by Kyaw Min Htet, 2021-2022, Sculpture, glass-shards and old shoes, size variable, Picture courtesy by artist.

Kyaw Min Htet’s art practices were mostly in Interdisciplinary ways by the emotional force turned to practical objects and installations. Using cross-media and fashion industry techniques to create customized products. He revealed his works are based on his queer experience.
His artistic concepts are beyond the boundaries of cultural limitations and social norms of gender differences such as he explained “I grew up in the idea of remanence with respect to the idea of relationship and in the heterosexual relationship”, so he found himself in contemporary art to break these boundaries. His installations are not as an artworks, but a physical manifestation of his personal experiences. There are some strange things like shoes made of glass shards, or water dripping garments clinging in algae. Those kinds of consumer goods made from the found objects as a multimedia sculpture or installation or mixed types of things in one method are what he did in improvisation. So, his work is mostly overwhelming in the entire area of exhibition.

  • Mixed series by Mixer J, 2021-2023, hand-drawn Pen Drawing, Size; 26x37 cm, Picture Courtesy by artist.

Mixed series by Mixer J (a) Saw Nyan Lin Htet,  is a making of hand-drawn characters which have no representations of forms. The work only shows the lines similarly but different with modern transfiguration by the Computer Algorithms such as Digital or AI technology created today with higher performance. Back to the 1920s, when modern art ideology started, artists focused on logical rather than emotional ways. Like Wesley Kandinsky, one of the pioneers of modern art, his spiritual ways of natural objects were scientifically based on geometric forms, like the rhythms of music with visually precise measurements. He creates a broader universalism like the Suprematism and Constructivism styles of prominent Russian avant-garde artists Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935), Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956), and Liubov Popova (1889–1924).[5]  Similarly in this MixerJ’s works, the ways of universal (Aesthetic) meaning are found. His characters have souls as an exotic and universal identity without any representation of race, sex or skin-color, any nationality or culture. So, his characters can be shared by all. The technique he used by hand-drawn pen drawings as the constructions of new forms which belong to the power of self-determination and animation.
Divination of Past, Present and Future:
This is a part of the futuristic imaginations using media and multidisciplinary such as video, 3D animation and film and site-specific installations using found objects. Their artworks that practically examine current socio-political themes relating to destruction of death and rebirth and foreseeing the life as animism explained. They have their different approach to their themes and they devise various forms and expertise in practical experiments. In this section, “SCRYERS” created with 3D animation by Zune(Thoughtform), the film titled “Portrait of the Wound” by Saw Chan Htoo Sang are the works of an extraordinary new media form. And the one unique and exotic work, Electric Ruby, a site-specific installation by Pyae Phyo Thant Nyo who has rebuilt things using interdisciplinary methods. 

[5] Article said; “The emphasis on geometric forms, promoted by artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Liubov Popova in an effort to establish a universal aesthetic language, inspired Kandinsky to expand his own pictorial vocabulary...”  Ref: www.guggenheim. org/ artwork/1924

  • SCRYERS by Zune(Thoughtform), 2022, 3D digital Animation, video Art, sound, 16:30 mins, 2022. Still from video, Picture courtesy by artist.

Firstly, let’s see the SCRYERS, an extraordinary futuristic fantasy world that is deeply related to life happening outside. A 3D computer-generated work could also be a concealed mystical realm inspired in the artist’s imagination. The world is the wickedness and cruelty that really exists outside in parallel with the cruelties, arbitrariness, political game, disasters and man-made wars. There is randomness with the symbols and characters which is pressured in the artist’s mind. 
One of the interesting things in SCRYERS is the artist’s interest in the divination tools of I-ching and Tarot as the symbolic meaning of cards metaphor for transcendent and predicting the future. These are becoming the figurative narration of the artist’s imaginary world. The time and space of this work could also be constructed of futuristic visual forms that cannot be logically conceived by formal thinking. What’s special is that every audience can imagine their own futuristic thoughts from these fictional and supernatural characters.

  • Portraits of the wound, by Saul Chan Htoo Sang, 2022, Experimental Film, 24:25 mins, Picture courtesy by artist.

Portrait of the wound is an experimental short film starring the artist himself. This film is about the physical and mental trauma of the time. In the midst of the immediate political unrest and the social collapse, which affected many people have been lost of hope and wounded by spiritual damages. Animism’s core thinking tends to focus more on the inherent capacity of objects existing beyond subjectivity. 
Animism is a concept of the spirit for those objects and subject, it brings escape beyond subjugation or misrecognition of capitalist power.[6]  Human and animal spirits are alternately connected to the surrounding nature, such as water, earth, plants and objects, and their phenomenology by decaying and death will be reincarnate in the dark side of shadow. Artist said, “I like them to feel like splinters after watching my movie. My approach is with the intention that viewers should not forget the movie”. This film is a dark-side of how we live in the time we pass and still present.

[6] Machinic Animism by Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato, from the book Animism Volume I Edited by Anselm Franke, page 97

  • Electric Ruby, 2021, by Pyae Phyo Thant Nyo, Mixed media Installation, at the Ground Bangkok space, Photo courtesy by artist.

Electric-Ruby is an experimental work to realize a physical reality of a parallel world that will continue between the influence of nature and technology. It is kind of realistically like a ruined earth or another fantastical space. But artist mentions on his work 
“… isn’t just an artwork, it’s an extension of my life, explores how our daily experiences – the tasks we do, the emotions we feel – shape the art we create”.[7]
The artwork itself developed in three parts as a computer gaming system: PROCESSOR, RAM, and ECLIPSE. The Processor refers to the landscape, where it transforms into vibrant crystals. Ram, the collective memory bank, stores these crystallized matters inside, and Eclipse is a dark-space where discarded materials – the remnants of colliding things and their phenomenological beings. Through the process like a computer system and using the materials such as stone, plants, earth crystals, cement, glass or fire and wood that easily see our surroundings. The result of action based by artist-self in a way of live-action, this work has a sense of dystopian future as the human-made disaster on our earth.
Animism is a primitive and realistic concept that elucidates indistinguishability between mind and matter, inside and outside, fiction and real and object and subject. It focuses on the relation of human ability to nature and things and it is about people’s original self-essences that are lost amid the colonialism, consumerism and power dynamics of Modernism. Also, the ability to liberate from oppression, the independent and living artistic inspiration and teaches us the sustainability, harmony and unbiased principles of nature. Moreover, in our world, humans, animals, insects and trees revolve with an inseparable relation in the cycle of birth and rebirth.

[7] report news “In conversation with Pyae Phyo Thant Nyo and Krone” by ZGRIPTOR, Independent Journal digitally.

27 Jan 2024 
Translated by San Lin Tun
Edited by Yuto Yabumoto and Aura Team 

Program Organized by 
The Schol of Contemporary Art Project Myanmar - SOCA
Supported by 
Aura Contemporary Art Foundation