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Visual Arts

Aung Ko

Recentering the village as the heart of community life


Published: 16 Oct 2019

I don't like Yangon life much so I go back to my village to make new art. Whereas in Yangon I don't feel I can influence life, in my village, I can hopefully change things for the better. Part of the reason for this is that in the countryside, news spreads easily so information about my projects is communicated widely. There are few distractions in rural Myanmar and villagers are curious so people quite naturally gravitate towards this new experience of the work I propose.

Title of artwork: Aung Ko’s Village
Co-curated by Iola Lenzi
Medium: Mixed Media
Date: 13 May – 3 July 2011
Location: Esplanade Concourse and Jendela (Visual Arts Space)

In Southeast Asia, and similarly in some other parts of the world, the confrontation between tradition and modernity is often embodied by the huge contrast played out between rural and urban life. Myanmar, or Burma as this large Southeast Asian nation was previously known, has experienced a traumatic transition from British colonial rule to the independence she declared over half a century ago. Since that period, ongoing political tensions have prevented modernisation in some places.

For the Burmese, many of whom hail from the countryside, perhaps the most significant difference between urban and rural life is the loss of community spirit. To Aung Ko, a multimedia artist who lives in Yangon but frequently chooses his home village, Thu Ye` Dan, to base his projects, the local community is a potent draw. He works this community into his performative pieces, not only as counter to urban alienation and big city individualism, but also as a means of recalling constant social anchors firmly rooted in village culture and tradition.

Thus Aung Ko’s Village, far more than a celebration of the village and its customs or an exercise in nostalgia, repositions the community as the centre of life and culture in Myanmar. In 2011, for Esplanade, the artist produced two distinct series of works that centered on the village. For the grandly monumental Concourse space, the artist presented a more literal version of rural life, recreating the village through representation of domestic animals such as dogs and cows, as well as bamboo and wooden structures that provide shelter. Real plants were also integrated into the piece with creepers and rice paddy sewn and watered over the duration of the exhibition that alluded to a landscape that changed according to the seasons.

Positioned at the bustling main entrance of the Concourse, the installation took on a naturalistic depiction of Burmese and Southeast Asian rural community that reintroduced estranged urbanites to the meaning of the village and its place at the heart of Southeast Asian culture.

A second installation was located in Jendela’s sweeping visual arts space. Weaving together several media including photography, video, and an interactive kinetic installation, this sequence of work was more conceptual and invited viewer participation: gallery-goers were invited to ride the three-seated bicycle that spoke simultaneously of the passage of time, and the cyclical, repetitive nature of rural existence. Through the metaphor of the bicycle as the motor of progress and change (but also witness to seasonal repetition) and the depiction of the rural cycle documented over the winter, dry and rainy seasons, Aung Ko conveyed the essence of the village in its contradiction of permanence and evolution.

Bicycles were rare when I was a child in the village. Those who owned or rode one were considered great! My father took me travelling on his bicycle and used his bike to explain life. I have fond memories of those rides even though now I don’t have a bicycle. So, I decided to build a bicycle with the villagers, from parts of bikes used by the villagers through time, the old trips taken by the villagers now part of this new work. This hybrid bike is ridden by three at once and references the past of the local people while also referencing the future in its forward movement. It is yellow like summer and in some ways represents Burma as well, since yellow is the colour of my country. Three people ride the bicycle, the three ages of man, three seasons of Burma, three components of Buddhism, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Unity of purpose of the three riders is essential for the machine to move forward. This balance is a distinguishing feature of my art.

Read Aung Ko's 2011 interview with Iola Lenzi
Visual Arts at Esplanade

Commissioned, curated and thematically developed by our Visual Arts team, Esplanade's quarterly exhibitions feature established and emerging artists whose contemporary Asian artistic expressions not only chronicle the issues and sentiments of the region, but also offer vital insight into the complexities of our changing cultural landscapes and identities. These shorts essays and interviews act as complementary material to the exhibitions, allowing for a richer and fuller perspective on the artists and their practice.

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