Nge Lay: Spectres from the Past

Nge Lay, Endless Story # Jogja 2, 2019, colour print on archival matte paper, 91.44 × 137.16 cm, edition 1/5 + 3AP. Image courtesy of the artist.
Nge Lay, Observing of Self Being Dead, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.
Nge Lay, The Gate, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
Nge Lay, Relevancy of Restricted Things, 2010, print on archival paper. Image courtesy of the artist.
Nge Lay, Flying in the Fragmentary, 2016-2018, Myanmar student uniforms, schoolbags, and textbooks, rattan, blackboards, black slate pencils, iron, video, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.
Portrait of Nge Lay. Image courtesy of the artist.
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THE 2020 SOVEREIGN ASIAN ART PRIZE

Deeply informed by the socio-political and cultural context of her country, Burmese artist Nge Lay explores our conceptions of time, memory, and Myanmar’s traditions, with a focus on gender issues. She expresses herself mainly through performances, installation art, and photography, and is deeply involved in community-based art projects. For the second time, one of her works has been selected for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize.

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery

 

“Endless Story” is an ongoing series of photographs that Nge Lay (b. 1979) began in 2012 in Yangon, Myanmar. Each artwork consists of two juxtaposed layers of photographs: the background image is usually an ancient black-and-white photograph or an old postcard, images that Lay has been collecting for years from flea markets, antique stores, and second-hand shops. The second layer is a contemporary, staged colour photograph taken by the artist in such a way that the subjects and forms of both layers almost match. The outlines of the figures and the faces of the people are thus always blurry, as if they were already in the process of vanishing. The artist is interested not only in playing with the contrasts between the two time periods—past and present, each with their specific social rules and traditions—but also in pointing to our inability to fully comprehend either one. The confusing superposition of epochs, figures, or buildings throughout the series attempts to mirror the working processes of memory, be it individual or collective, during which events can easily be mixed up or invented.

Endless Story # Jogja 2 (2019), which has been selected for the 2020 Sovereign Asian Art Prize, was created during the artist’s residency in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in 2019. It followed the second iteration of Endless Story, produced in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2016. In the earlier work, the artist focused on the evolution of local customs, questioning what the idea of modernity could mean in Southeast Asia. In Yogyakarta, she sourced some archival images from the private collection of Indonesian artist Angki Purbandono, who also let his photo studio to Lay during her stay.

 

Nge Lay, Endless Story # Jogja 2, 2019, colour print on archival matte paper, 91.44 × 137.16 cm, edition 1/5 + 3AP. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

The caption of the particular postcard in Endless Story # Jogja 2 mentions the date 1880 and the city of Batavia, which was the name of Jakarta during the Dutch colonial era (1800–1949). At that time, a rigid social order dominated society. The image represents a lady sitting on a chair above her servant, who is sitting on the floor. The photograph was certainly taken in a studio, with a simple setting: a flower bouquet on a table and curtains in the background. Lay acknowledges one can only assume who the characters were; yet she noticed the expression on the face of the servant, who looked fragile, and imagined she was not well-treated by her mistress. However, as native women were not free to move around at that time, both were probably obliged to stay mainly indoors.

Lay chose the image because of the ambiguous relationship between the two women, which she contrasts with another kind of duo: a curator and a member of her staff, photographed in their office inside the National Museum in Yogyakarta. These independent women, who work “as hard as men,” according to the artist, were in the midst of preparing for the Jogja Biennale. The staff member sits on a trolley board, which she uses to move artworks, yet this position does not imply a submission relationship anymore. The wall behind them is covered with their own graffiti and notes, reflecting their freedom of expression. As such, they embody a form of feminine emancipation—a key theme for the artist, who struggles to be recognised as a woman artist in her country.

In a very daring series with a related theme, Female Identity (2010), Lay photographed naked and imperfect female bodies, focusing on their sexuality: close-up shots on buttocks, loose bellies, or dangling breasts. Here, women’s bodies are depicted in ways they should not be, revealing wrinkles, fat, old age, and skin ailments; all features that are excluded from canons of beauty and femininity. For Myanmar, this foray into female nudity is deeply provocative, since it is still largely taboo to address such topics. The series also suggests one accepts reality as it is, including one’s own impermanence.

While she scrutinises time’s various formal manifestations and transformations, Lay also conceives it as an illusion. A Theravada Buddhist believer, she practices Vipassana meditation, an ancient technique based on a deep connection between the mind and the body that aims to release any form of suffering. This spiritual approach, which deeply informs her work, can be understood as yet another form of emancipation.

One Vipassana technique is based on a practice of self-observation as a way to distance oneself from reality. Lay was nine years old during the Yangon 1988 pro-democracy protests, which were violently repressed. She faced death and felt traumatised by this experience, imagining herself dying even years after the events. As a response, she created a set of colour photographs, Observing of Self on Being Dead (2011), where she played dead in various dramatic landscapes. One of these images was selected for the 2011 Sovereign Asian Art Prize. It features Lay, bleeding and dressed in tattered clothes, lying alone in a desert. The light is crisp and the details sharp in this very realistic, yet staged image.

 

Nge Lay, Observing of Self Being Dead, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Nothing seems to be left from Lay’s life, only a few scattered and fragmented objects—a toy, a broken plate—last remnants of her or family belongings. What could be left from the past, anyway? Echoing the “Endless Story” series, but from a more personal perspective, Lay has been exploring and re-interpreting some old family photographs that she found, in a state of decay, in forgotten boxes. “The Gate” series (2016) traces her endeavour to reconstruct the story of her mother from these fragmented and poorly preserved elements. This impossible quest is epitomised by the words “expired, cancelled, used” stamped on the ghostly images.

 

Nge Lay, The Gate, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

In fact, death is often present in Lay’s work. In addition to the spectres from the past, revived in her “Endless Story” series, she embodied her deceased father in a series of performances and photographs entitled “Relevancy of Restricted Things” (2010). Hiding behind a mask modelled on the face of her father, and wearing his clothes, the artist stood together with other families whose male figure had disappeared. In these very serious, re-created portraits, shot at night, an artificial light is oriented towards Lay’s face, leaving the other members in the dark. Thus, even as a ghost, the male figure seems to stand out, claiming his position as an irreplaceable pillar of the Burmese family. Lay’s performances and incursion into these families opened up hitherto impossible dialogues between the women, inviting them to freely discuss their condition and status.

 

Nge Lay, Relevancy of Restricted Things, 2010, print on archival paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Far from haunting spectres, and definitively turned towards the future, Lay has also been intensely involved in community-based art projects, working in particular with the rural community of the Thuye’dan village, the hometown of her husband, the artist Aung Ko. Pointing to the weak education system of the country, and to the deep gaps that oppose urban and rural populations, the artist started a long collaboration with the village schoolchildren and local craftsmen in 2007. They first co-produced The Sick Classroom (2007), exhibited at the 2013 Singapore Biennale, and more recently Flying in the Fragmentary (2016–18). These two, large-scale installations represent the local classroom with its young students, wearing their classic Myanmar school uniforms. The former was produced in a figurative style, with sculptures of the students and their teacher carved in wood. The latter, more conceptual, consists of 30 rattan models, headless, hung from the ceiling. The schoolchildren seem lighter, and they are flying; yet their arms and legs are amputated. In fact, they look more vulnerable. In an adjacent documentary video, they naively share their dreams and ambitions for the future, involuntarily creating a discomfort: one can only hope they will not be cut off from these brighter aspirations.

 

Nge Lay, Flying in the Fragmentary, 2016-2018, Myanmar student uniforms, schoolbags, and textbooks, rattan, blackboards, black slate pencils, iron, video, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

 

 

K11 HACC, K11 ATELIER, 728 Kings Road, Quarry Bay

 

 

Portrait of Nge Lay. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

About the artist

Nge Lay (b. 1979, Myanmar) holds a BA in Painting from the National University of Arts and Culture, Yangon (2003) and is also trained in Jewellery Design. She is a multidisciplinary artist that works in performance art, installation, sculpture and photography. Much of her work is self-referential and reflects upon inner perception of prevailing Myanmar societies and their historical background. However, her main focus is on education and arts projects in rural Myanmar.

Endless Story # Jogja 2 is a contemplation on our ever-changing world. Lay believes that our everchanging society brings about diverse cultural, political and global dissimilarities and affects the physical and mental properties of the self. She believes that, while nothing is permanent and exists forever, old photos can illuminate this diversity between past and present. Her works reflect an exploration these differences regarding a country’s changing culture: societally, economically and environmentally. Endless Story and Urban Story are ongoing projects Lay started in 2012 and continued in Cambodia in 2016. She plans to continue the series in different countries.

Lay has participated in numerous solo and group shows internationally. She took part in If The World Changed at the Singapore Biennale (2013), the 8th Asia Pacific Trienniale of Contemporary Art (APT8) QGOMA, Brisbane (2016), BAB Bangkok Art Biennale (2018) and the Children’s Biennale at the National Gallery Singapore (2019). She co-organized the Thuye`dan Village Art Project and was a finalist in The 2011 Sovereign Asian Art Prize.

 

 

 
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