Play – New Art from Myanmar

Po Po’s Terrace: Circumventing the Art World

Po Po, Terrace, 2010

I have recently began domesticating the rice plant, from a styrofoam takeaway box at my HDB flat door step.

This is the work of Myanmar artist, Po Po and a social experiment to circumvent the art world. The art world is big money to investors; it is possibly lonely to a solitary painter in his studio. This humble box holds many contradictions – a statement of yearning for an agricultural landscape that symbolises the artist’s home town against an urban circumstance we find styrofoam boxes; a box that holds cooked rice, is now used to grow rice; otherwise labour intensive neat rows of rice plants against the sporadic untamed growth you see above; the need to sell art, sustenance to live and make art that yet wants to rise above the value of money.

The work is more organic and procedural than other artworks. It consists of 4 phases, revealing the thought processes of the artist. The 1st phase involved the submission of a proposal, to create a site specific work within the gallery. The gallery steps, once audience seats to a humble sports hall immediately stood out. It was an unusual gallery space, with great challenges. We can imagine the idea germinating in the artist’s head, relating the social and political context of Junta-led Myanmar to experiments with growing rice in shallow soil, with the art scene it represents. To aid the struggle with the lack of nutrients and stunted growth, fertilizers will be added.

The 2nd phase involved preparing the vessels, containers despised by environmentalists yet taken by many to mean life’s essential conveniences. Volunteers were recruited through the gallery’s network, grain, soil and fertilizer obtained from our northern neighbour and the roof of the building used as the nursery. 1000 styrofoam boxes were used, each with an estimate of 100 grains tossed like wild rice.

The 3rd phase involved moving the vessels into the viewing gallery, and the steps lined with mud. The halogen lights will simulate daylight, and the plants watered carefully by hand. With careful observation, you will find mud drawings of frogs, birds, crustaceans on the side of the steps. Some boxes made their way to 4 or 5 locations that related to the project. These included plant nurseries, a flower shop, a Burmese restaurant at Peninsula Plaza, Singapore Cricket Club and a Malay food stall that sells Nasi Briyani (Briyani Rice).  These ‘works’ included a short writeup and information on the exhibition.  Back in the gallery, viewers are invited to view the works by paying 3 leaves from one’s garden or house plant. To take home a box of miniature paddy will cost the same. The audience will need to follow the simple instructions on the box and the plant will grow 1cm a day.

The 4th phase will conclude the social experiment with the documentation of the entire project including videos, texts and photographs. The experiment saw the artist infiltrating art into the everyday by using the ubiquitous white styrofoam box and placing them in inconspicuous locations. Its main objective was to generate a conversation (of rice or art) between strangers. The second objective was to see if an alternative exchange system could exist in the art world, where money’s exchange value is replaced or barter-traded with objects/actions valued by the artist.

As much as the work is about the challenges of art making in Myanmar, the rice terrace created by Po Po is as powerful a reference for growing arts in Singapore. Without deep soil, the plant cannot grow deep roots and grow taller to its full potential. While my neighbours might think I have gone mad growing grass, I am seriously considering repotting my rice plant to deeper troughs.

Play: New Art from Myanmar. Images taken with permission from Osage Gallery.

Po Po’s Terrace may be seen at Osage Gallery. It is part of a group show curated by Isabel Ching and Yin Ker, featuring many newly commissioned works from Myanmar. Exhibition spans 9 May – 20 June 2010, admission free.

Other Information:
[1] Rice.

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