Htein Lin: Singapore Biennale, The Value of Art And The Past

Teo Dawn

With his artistic practice influenced by his time as a political prisoner for seven years, Htein Lin‘s works never fail to impact his viewers with perspectives and insights.

He works in a variety of mediums, such as painting to installations and performances. Due to accusation of opposition activity, he had to serve time from 1998 to 2004. It was then that he started to use readily available materials to keep his artistic practice alive. From lighters to fabric scraps to bowls, it was an exploration that he never stopped since.

His work for Singapore Biennale, Soap Blocked (2016) is the map of Myanmar made up of sculpted Shwe Wah soap. The medium revisits the single bar of soap that was smuggled out by a Red Cross representative in 1999 as a statement about the unacceptable state of Myanmar prisons.

Capturing attention of the heart and the mind, Htein Lin is having his debt solo exhibition at Yavuz Gallery in Singapore, in conjunction with Singapore Art Week 2017.

Popspoken has the privilege of speaking to the Myanmar artist about his work for the Singapore Biennale, his current solo exhibition right here in Singapore as well as what the value of Art is, in the future.

Popspoken: Your work for Singapore Biennale 2016, Soap Blocked, revisited an element you first did during 1999. What new meaning does this work hold for you now?

Htein Lin: At the time, I was thinking more about to describe my personal situation in jail to the ICRC prison visitor, and this sculpture was a way to overcome my poor English by making it visual. However, Soap Blocked is a recognition of the situation of all political prisoners in Myanmar. It is also a remembrance of socialist and military times past, including through the smell of the carbolic soap bringing back memories which I hope will not be repeated.

PS: Share with us some insight of Insein. What about it will you always remember?

HL: Actually my time in Insein Jail was brief at the beginning of my detention in 1998. The two main prisons I lived in were Mandalay and Myaungmya around 3 years in each. I remember the daily morning squatting rituals and the sounds of the iron gates clanging shut while I was in solitary confinement in Myaungmya having been shifted there from Mandalay Jail because we mounted a protest. And I remember the camaraderie with my cellmates, all of whom are now free and doing well. One of them is the Yangon Chief Minister, and a regular visitor to Singapore!

Htein Lin, Monument To My Mother, 2015, textile installation, dimensions variable

Htein Lin, Monument To My Mother, 2015, textile installation, dimensions variable

PS: What value, do you think, art holds in the world of politics and the struggle for power?

HL: Art is a very effective way to reflect society, and also your view of it. But I do not like art when it is used as propaganda or ‘policy art’. It come from the heart of the artist, not the desk of the government.

PS: Do you believe that to understand the future, we should always revisit the past?

HL: For my daily life, as a meditator, we are taught not to focus on either the past or the future, but only on the present. When I return to past experiences and events through my art, including in my Recovering the Past exhibition, my aim is more to recognise their value. Sometimes we don’t know the value of what we have until it is gone, like the mangroves, or parents, or handmade in a world of mass production.

PS: What’s your opinion about the global plight of refugees today?

HL: Because we continue to have so many problems of internally displaced in Myanmar, my concerns are inevitably more local than global. In Northern and in Western Myanmar, we have many IDPs. Given that these problems have not diminished in Myanmar over the years, sadly I believe that the same will be true globally.

Htein Lin, Unholy Bugs, 2008-2015, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 317 cm.

PS: Looking at where you are now, what would you have told your past self?

HL: That democracy cannot be achieved through armed struggle which inevitably goes sour. I discovered that when I was in the jungle between 1988-1992 and almost lost my life at the hands of my own student rebel comrades.

PS: With technology and commercialism on the rise, do you think art will always be relevant?

HL: Of course! Singapore, the temple of commercialism, seems to be more and more interested in art, with more venues and events every year. As technology creates, promotes and supports new art forms, I welcome new ways of seeing, working and expressing the Zeitgeist.

Htein Lin, Culm-Nation, 2016, bamboo culms and paint, dimensions variable

Htein Lin, Culm-Nation, 2016, bamboo culms and paint, dimensions variable

Htein Lin: Recovering The Past

Date: 14th January – 5th March 2017
Venue: Yavuz Gallery
Time: Check out admission times here

Photo credits in the body of text go to the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Featured image credit goes to Cristina Maria Chirorean.

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