Burmese people are said to be natural performers, because they are accustomed to playing different roles in their fluid social circumstances in an authoritarian society. Performance art, however, is new to most Burmese.

As in the West, Burmese performance art came out of the frustration of avant-garde artists who found traditional media insufficient for their creative energy and imagination.

Htein Lin is widely acknowledged in art circles as a pioneer of performance art in Burma. He began exploring the possibility of using his own body, and its synergy with public space, as a medium of art in the 1990s on the streets of Rangoon.

By 2008, Hein Lin was a “former political prisoner,” a title that prefixes the names of many Burmese artists and dissidents who have been through the living hell of Burmese prisons because of their political convictions. He had also become a “London-based performance artist,” jetting around Europe and beyond in search of his own soul so that he could show it to others. In early June, Hein Lin staged a series of “happenings” spread over three evenings in Helsinki.

 

Htein Lin’s first performance, “Cyclone Nargis,” swept over Helsinki on the evening of June 7 at Rautatientori, a neoclassical public square in the heart of the Finnish capital.

As he stood on one of the red granite slabs on the square, unfurling a Burmese monk’s saffron robe, it became clear the performance was going to be a tribute to the Burmese monks of the “Saffron Revolution” and to their relief and recovery efforts in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

Htein Lin was possessed and completely removed from his surrounding as he executed a breathtakingly powerful performance over the next 30 minutes. In his hands, the monk’s robe was turned into many symbols that could be read as the repressive military state of Burma, the monks’ reaction to the repression, the wrath of nature, and near the end, a flurry of powerful saffron waves that built to the end of the performance. Htein Lin also employed miscellaneous props, including a harmonica and water-filled rubber gloves that eerily reminded one of the bloated hands and bodies of the cyclone victims. Perhaps his message was that the “Saffron Revolution” had been as devastating to the military regime as Cyclone Nargis was to the people of lower Burma.

“Yes or No” was performed the following evening at the same location and was the artist’s reaction to Burma’s May 10 constitutional referendum. His message this time was mundane and direct. Htein Lin, while being held back by air-filled black plastic bags bound to his body, struggled forward in slow motion against a powerful wind.

With each step forward, he asked a question, such as: “Do you agree to the murder of monks in Burma?”; “Do you agree to the persecution of Aung San Suu Kyi and other dissidents there?”; “Do you approve the existence of the military regime?”; and “Do you approve of their constitution?”

“Fly,” performed on June 10, was the series’ only performance in a closed space, a ball room of a Helsinki hotel. A closed space was fitting for a performance which was a violent flashback of the artist’s own harrowing prison experience. The performance began with a blindfolded Htein Lin walking into the room, followed by a reenactment of the routine degradation of a Burmese political prisoner.

Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) performed the interrogator’s role.

After Bo Kyi role was ended, and he left the space, Htein Lin calmly removed all his clothes and continued his performance fully nude. Perhaps, the removal of his clothes alluded to the loss of all human decency and dignity inside a Burmese prison.

Apparently shocked by the sight, one Burmese lady of a certain age hastily retreated from the room while another Burmese lady of a similar age, but with an artistic inclination, remained gripped by the scene. Some insecure laughing and murmurs broke out among the Burmese audience members, but people were soon forced into a stern silence by the mesmerizing performance.

Htein Lin is a maestro of improvisation. He put everything he found in the room to good use. A computer, an overhead projector, desks and chairs arranged in disarray in the foreground, a grand piano, among other things, including a few people in the audience, all became part of the show. At one point, the artist, with his hands tied to a chair, struggled in semi-darkness against an invisible fly hovering around his head.

Later, he freed himself and groped around for flies that seemed to be buzzing all over the room.

Flies may be the nastiest creatures, besides interrogators, inside Burma’s interrogation centers. They even annoy hapless, sweaty and bloody prisoners during breaks between torture sessions. The fly symbol may also refer to the well-known “fly hunt” by Burmese prisoners who are routinely ordered to catch as many flies as they can to kill time.

It was a painful experience to watch a performance that came from the tragedy and horror of the artist’s own traumatic past. Hope was not abandoned, however. At the end, it was gratifying to see Htein Lin get dressed, bow to the audience and gracefully exit the room like a prisoner walking into freedom.

Just like many other artistic types with traumatic backgrounds, Htein Lin may feel compelled-or even condemned-to repeat his story in his own way. His performances and paintings have always been informed and inspired by Burma and his own past. They are proof that his spirit has not left his homeland.

It should be noted that, in some quarters, muted artistic expressions like “Fly” may speak louder than political statements calling for the release of Burmese political prisoners. Performance artists have been called “living sculptures,” but I would rather call Htein Lin a “moving monument,” not as much for his monumental skills in creating art in public spaces as his ability to move you deeply.

Ko Ko Thett is a Burmese critic who lives in Finland.