Installation view of PO PO’s “Out of Myth, Onto_Logical” at Yavuz Gallery, Singapore, 2015. Courtesy Yavuz Gallery. 

Out of Myth, Onto_Logical

Po Po

Yavuz Gallery
Singapore Myanmar

PO PONarcissus, 1987–94, silk, kapok, mirror and rope, dimensions variable. Courtesy Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. 

PO PO, Something Sex, Nothing Sex, 1988–96, silk, kapok and artificial jewelries, dimensions variable. Courtesy Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. 

Considered one of Myanmar’s pioneering contemporary artists, who was among the first to exhibit overseas in the 1990s, Po Po’s conceptual practice captivates audiences both at home and abroad. Seamlessly weaving between painting, photography, installation and performance, Po Po frames and challenges his country’s sociopolitical landscape through an idiosyncratic interpretation of his environment.

Born in 1957—just a few years prior to the 1962 coup d’etat led by General Ne Win, who went on to become the longtime ruler of Myanmar—Po Po grew up under the oppressive dictatorship of the military junta that forced the country into a 50-year isolation from the rest of the world, and restricted artists, like himself, from experimenting beyond the conventional Socialist style of art and classical Burmese art that glorified Buddha. However, despite such limitations, Po Po held his first solo exhibition of paintings and installations at Yangon’s Myanmar Artist Association in 1987 (one year before the 8888  Uprising, in which the Burmese public staged massive protests against the military regime). Inspired by the Buddhist philosophy of Abhidharma—a teaching that looks into mind and matter, which are deemed the two basic principles of man and the universe—the minimal works that Po Po presented in the 1987 show, which included vibrant paintings of geometric forms (that reflected the four elements of the universe) and erotic soft sculptures, were surprisingly approved by the state’s censor board. It is believed that the concepts underlying the abstracted nature of Po Po’s works were incomprehensible to government officials at the time.

It wouldn’t be until ten years later, in 1997, that Po Po held his second solo show, “Solid Concepts,” at Yangon’s Judson Hall, across the street from Rangoon University. Developing a sensitivity toward materials, Po Po presented installations that were made from easily sourced items, such as cardboard boxes and mirrors, as well as ones that continued his exploration of soft sculptures that took on organic shapes. During this exhibition, the artist also presented his seminal performance Portrait of an Artist as an Exhibitionist, where his instinctual movements and interactions with art objects brought into focus the interconnectivity between the concepts of primal energy and creativity.

Taking cue from these formative years of Po Po’s aesthetic exploration—a time when the artist found inspiration from reading texts on philosophy, spirituality and Greek mythology by authors such as Plato and Hermann Hesse—Nathalie Johnston, Yangon-based researcher and director of Transit Shed No.1 art space, recently organized “Out of Myth, Onto_Logical” at Singapore’s Yavuz Gallery. The exhibition presented Po Po’s early works made between 1982 to 1997, most of which were part of his first two exhibitions in Yangon. In an online interview with Art Radar Journal, Po Po also stated that his decision to focus on this period for the Yavuz exhibition was to reflect on his production process from a time when Myanmar had no contact with other countries.

In his early career as an artist, under harsh political circumstances and guided by his own curiosity with Western philosophy and mythology, Po Po found ways to speak of taboo topics, such as sexuality, politics and history, through soft sculptures made from silk bolsters. Four such works were displayed on the floor of Yavuz as the centerpiece of “Out of Myth, Onto_Logical.” In Narcissus (1987–94), the innate selfishness that the artist sees as existing in people is personified through a gold, narrow cushion bound and constrained by rope. Placed on a mirror, this evocation of narcissism reflects back on the work itself and onto the broader environment—as if to suggest that such attitude permeates and influences all facets of life. Reference to greek mythology is also seen in Three Graces (1986–96)—a work whose title alludes to the iconic 19th-century marble sculpture by Italian Antonio Canova (1757–1822) depicting Zeus’s daughters embracing one another—and is made from three light-blue bolsters vertically propped on a beige pillow base. In contrast to Canova’s marble sculptures, Po Po’s rendition of Three Graces appears light and almost fragile, as though subverting the glorification of universally accepted narratives in history.

The medium of the soft sculpture is also a means by which Po Po explores the human body. In one work entitled Erotic (1982–86), two pink pillows intertwined on a black kapok mat suggest lovers in the heat of passion, while in Something Sex, Nothing Sex (1988–96),  two black cushions, one in the form of a circular ring and the other penetrating through the former, rest on a mound of glittering beads. Erotic is a work that was made during, and is an expression of, early years of the artist’s marriage, while the orientation of the latter derives from symbolic motifs that are used to portray sexuality in ancient Eastern religions. Overtly sexual, yet sensual, both works reflect his spiritual belief that sees significance in outwardly expressing the consciousness of one’s being.

PO PO, Erotic, 1982–86, silk, cotton and kapok, 34 × 106 × 131 cm. Courtesy Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. 

PO PO, Painting for the Blind #3, 1986/2015, enamel, oil on canvas and nails, 78 × 78.5 cm. Courtesy Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. 

PO PO, Painting for the Blind #1, 1986, enamel, oil on canvas and nails, 73 × 73 cm. Courtesy Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. 

In a similar vein of bodily awareness, Po Po looks at intimacy from a broader perspective—with emphasis on the sense of touch. Subtly hanging on the walls of the gallery were three square canvases, Painting for the Blind 1and (all 1986). For each piece, the artist used nails to create dents on the canvas surface, which appear similar to the ridges of braille. While the invitation of touch is implied, given the works’ titles, it is the sense of sight that is mostly featured in this work. So minimal are the variation in the dents that visitors need to take the time to look closely at each of the “paintings.” For example, in one composition, the surface of the work is pushed out by the nails, which were inserted from behind the canvas; while in another piece, the nail marks alternate between ones that were hammered in from the front and ones from the back.

On the adjacent and opposite walls from these “paintings” were four pieces from Po Po’s “Incomplete Mirror” series (1991–96). Using fragmented pieces of mirror that are now, in its presentation in 2015, tarnished and rusted after nearly a decade of natural weathering, each work not only marks the passing of time, but also shows that one’s perception of something is never representative of the full picture. It is a concept that, according to Johnston, traces back to Po Po’s engagement with Plato and how the artist particularly identifies with the philosopher’s objection against the idea of art imitating nature. From this perspective, according to the curator, Po Po uses mirrors in this series of work to provide an abstracted reflection of reality—to show how we, as humans, are captivated by the “unfinished or unexamined.”

PO PO, Incomplete Mirror #3, 1991–96, mirror, dimensions variable. Courtesy Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. 

PO PO, Controlled Vayo, Controlled Tejo, Controlled Pathavi and Controlled Apo, 1991–97/2015, wood, paint, aired rubber tube, fluorescent light, bricks and ice block, dimensions variable. Courtesy Yavuz Gallery, Singapore. 

Po Po’s ontological and philosophical investigations circle back to his early projects, Controlled Vayo,Controlled TejoControlled Pathavi and Controlled Apo (all 1991–97), which, at Yavuz, were placed on the floor behind a wall toward the back of the gallery. Each work comprises a wooden crate that contains items representing the classical elements of the universe, as well as human beings, according to the Buddhist theory of Abhidharma: an inflated rubber tube signifies vayo (air): fluorescent light is used for tejo (fire); a stack of bricks forpathavi (earth); and a melting ice block for apo (water)According to independent curator Isabel Ching’s catalogue essay that is soon to be published in Yangon, “Escaping the Frame: Pathavi, Vayo, Tejo and Apo” (2015), these four sculptures can be regarded as a continuation of the geometric paintings that Po Po created for his first exhibition in 1987, and denotes a shift in his formal explorations. Ching writes: “The series of four works, Controlled Pathavi, Controlled Vayo, Controlled Tejo and Controlled Apo, frees the elements from visualizations on two-dimensional surface; the square ‘picture frame’ has been extended into a two-feet cubed wooden crate.”

Po Po’s conceptualism, as was presented in the Yavuz exhibition, is potentially challenging to grasp given the limited amount of information that is currently available concerning his early years of work. However, this exhibition brought to light the fact that, despite Myanmar’s dark years under a closed-door policy, contemporary concepts had been brewing within the country through the radical thinking of figures like Po Po, who managed to circumvent governmental restrictions and conventional artistic production. Though his works did not outwardly address political issues, Po Po challenged authority with his creativity, curiosity and vision. Understanding his origins will add to the appreciation of his current trajectory, which will next be featured in the upcoming Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane this November.

Po Po’s “Out of Myth, Onto_Logical” was on view at Yavuz Gallery, Singapore, from August 2 through September 13, 2015. 

Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.