Po Po: Primeval Codes
Yavuz Gallery, Singapore
24.07.20 – 09.09.20
In the beginning was the word – or should that be the image? This question hangs in the air in Burmese artist Po Po’s slow burn of an exhibition, Primeval Codes, at Yavuz Gallery in Singapore. Comprising a body of paintings sketched in 1986 – 8 but realised only in 2020, the works depict simple geometric forms in austere compositions and a red and black palette. The works are, so we are told by the wall text, inspired by third-century to thirteenth-century scripts from Pyu, Bagan, Inwa and Pinya that influenced the Burmese alphabet, as well as contemporary traffic signs. This unexpected combination of influences has been distilled to a recurrent vocabulary of squares, rectangles and triangles, whose meanings remain open. That is, until you get to the titles.
Two right-facing triangles stacked one over the other: Fertility. A black square divided into four by red lines: Partnership. At first the titles sounded completely arbitrary, but after some time with the works a weird thing happened: I started to agree with them. Not through any logical deductive process; more through cumulative exposure. For example, a red bar bisecting a black square vertically is titled Freeze. Makes sense: verticals are decisive. Solid. Unmoving. When a red bar bisects a black square diagonally, the title is Wholeness. This is unexpected, but again, perfectly reasonable. This diagonal, or slash, represents divisions or fractions. Here, there is no numerator and denominator, just a division sign with nothing to divide – an elegant way to imply an empty sort of wholeness.
How are these meanings generated? It could be that the images echo other signs, and the titles pinpoint one of these associations. But it could equally be that these paintings are inherently neutral, and that the titles call their meanings into existence. Or there could be a third way: the series creates meaning in both directions – image influencing title influencing image – in a mutually reinforcing feedback loop.
These works, which explore semiotics in such a playful and confident manner, were conceptualised when Myanmar was ruled by a military junta and largely isolated from the rest of the world. Since the late 1970s, Po Po has been creating a diverse body of work including paintings, sculptures, installations and performances, whose subject matter is a hard-to-summarise mix of Buddhist philosophy, socio-political commentary and whatever he happened to be into ( such as the ancient languages in Primeval Codes ). Because of the state’s strict isolationist policy, it was not until the late 1990s, when the borders began to loosen and Burmese artists started exhibiting abroad, that he became more widely known.
A lot has been made of how Po Po developed his art in an isolated culture. But he didn’t exactly operate in a vacuum from the outside world. He allegedly studied Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art ( 1912 ) over and over again, and ingested whatever scraps of Western philosophy he came across in information-starved Myanmar. This knowledge gets regurgitated in his art in weird and wonderful ways. In his first solo show, for example, his representations of Greek gods ( a response to what he read in a stray text on Greek mythology ) as undifferentiated tubes of cloth stuffed with cotton, seem gleefully opposed to the hardness, realism and idealism of classical marble sculptures. Narcissus ( 1987 ), inspired by the myth of a beautiful young man in love with himself, is a silk bolster tied by criss-crossing rope, lying on top of a mirror laid on the ground. Evoking both a tied sausage and a limp phallus, the work oozes a defeated, blocked sexuality: self-obsession, as bondage and impotence.
A common refrain about Po Po’s work, especially by viewers outside of Myanmar, is to say how remarkable it is that it feels familiarly contemporary ( at least in the ‘global’, i.e. Euro-American, sense ), although a large part of it was made in almost complete obliviousness of such trends or art vocabularies. This judgement is inadvertently patronising, because it assumes that the adoption of a recognisably ‘conceptual’ practice signifies an arrival of sorts for an artist. Still, there is a seductively legible quality to Po Po’s creations, a deceptive familiarity to international audiences, as if they are encountering a regional dialect to an official language. But even the most well-intentioned attempts to connect Po Po to an international context have resulted in awkward moments, such as the inclusion of Red Cube ( 1986 ) in the National Gallery of Singapore’s blockbuster exhibition Minimalism: Space. Light. Object in 2018. Featuring a rectangular canvas tilted at an angle, below which is a pile of rocks, Red Cube could, in formal terms, pass as one of the geometric works that dominated the rest of the survey show. But Po Po had never heard of Minimalism when he made his piece. Instead, according to press interviews, he had been experimenting with different shapes for canvases and ways of hanging them. At the same time, he also had some granite stones in his studio that he had been stacking into a pile, a practice informed by that of Buddhist monks meditating in the jungle, who would use such techniques to focus the mind. One day, he noticed he had positioned the mound of rocks right under the slanted painting, and Red Cube was born.
Calling Po Po a Minimalist, then, might be construed as a heroic embracing of the ‘intentional fallacy’. But it is also a wilful erasure of the circumstances and thought processes behind the work, which are far from the common reference points of a more homogeneous and globalised art world. Knowing the contexts in which Po Po worked may impede his easy insertion into well-trodden art-historical narratives, but it can open up other vistas. For one thing, it illuminates his interest in codes, as communicating in secret signs and systems might be a necessary condition of artmaking in Myanmar, where speaking truth to power could get you tortured or thrown into jail under the regime. Both the colour scheme and form of Primeval Codes are politically loaded. The censorship board under the junta frowned upon white and black for the contrasting images of goodness and evil they represented; as well as red for its association with revolution and, after 1988, its link with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Abstraction was also viewed with suspicion, because it could smuggle in political criticism or foreign influence. In this respect, it can be argued that the works in Primeval Codes have an element of resistance.
However, ‘decoding’ the exhibition in this way – not just with political reading but any other kind of interpretative axe-grinding – goes against the spirit in which they were made. Po Po created these paintings through an idiosyncratic process of distillation and combination of various languages. They have a ‘meta’ quality: you could argue that they are meta-pictures or meta-codes ( i.e. reflecting on the nature of both ), and more about codification than creating an internally consistent code. Of course, you could try to crack a pseudo-cipher about other ciphers, but it would be missing the point. Indeed, by preserving the mystery of signification instead of unveiling it, and by flirting with the pattern-finding part of the brain, Primeval Codes keeps viewers looking. Under close attention, certain motifs seem to emerge, and yet when I try to pin them down they recede. Left-facing triangles tend to be aggressive ( Provocative; Warrior ) and tall rectangles imply some form of blockage or stoppage ( Constraint; Defence; Encounter of Death ) – but these are vague tendencies, not hard and fast rules, suggestive of a system without fossilising into one. ( If Po Po had an unreleased painting from this series in the storeroom and the title were hidden from me, I wouldn’t be able to guess it. )
As such, meaning flickers in and out of focus in the show, and the viewer is poised between knowing and unknowing. It dramatises the fact that encountering an artist of any consequence, from anywhere, requires learning a new language that may never be mastered. Driven by a fiercely personal logic, shaped by his environment but irreducible to it, absorbing outside influences and then mutating them, passing through Minimalist, Conceptual or contemporary art without having heard of them at the moment of creating, Po Po’s language is communicative without being completely legible.
But are there ways to get him? Po Po’s exhibition title, Primeval Codes, suggests that he is trying to tap into something ancient and primitive about communication – a part that is more instinctive and unreasoning, perhaps even fundamental to life. Take the powerful, even talismanic image, Unknowable, which depicts the outline of a circle within the outline of a square, their sides touching. It is mathematical, almost fated: a mandala; Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man without the man. Against the solid black background, the circle glows thinly, the Sun’s corona during a solar eclipse. Moon over Sun. Day, night, unknowable. Yes.
Po Po： 原始代码
这些作品以如此有趣和自信的方式探索着符号学，在缅甸被军政府统治、基本与世界隔绝的时候得以概念化。自20世纪70年代末以来，Po Po已经产出了丰富多样的作品系列，涵盖绘画、雕塑、装置和行为表演，艺术家讨论的议题很难一言以蔽之，有关佛教哲学、社会政治评论以及使他碰巧感兴趣的事物（ 例如“原始密码”中的古老语言 ）。由于国家严格的孤立主义政策，直到20世纪90年代末，缅甸的边境才开始松动，缅甸艺术家们落地国外展览，Po Po才变得为外界所熟悉。
Po Po究竟是如何在一个与世隔绝的文化中发展他的艺术的，我们已经做出了很多研究。但他并不是在与外界彻底隔绝的环境中展开实践。据称，他曾一遍又一遍地研读瓦西里·康定斯基的《论艺术中的精神》（ 1912 ），并如饥似渴地吸收他在信息匮乏的缅甸所能读到的任何西方哲学的碎片。这些知识以奇怪且奇妙的方式在他的艺术中形成反刍。例如，Po Po在他的首次个展中描绘了希腊诸神（ 对一篇他曾看过的关于希腊神话的零散文章内容的回应 ），艺术家制作了许多塞满棉花的毫无差别的布管，似乎与古典大理石雕塑所体现的坚硬、现实主义与理想主义大相径庭。《纳西索斯》（ 1987 ）的灵感则来自一名美丽的年轻人爱上自己的神话，它在Po Po这里变成了一只用绳子交叉捆绑的丝枕，躺在放置于地面的镜子上。这件作品既让人联想到被绑住的香肠，又似乎是一根软弱无力的阴茎，它散发出一种失败的、受阻的性欲：把自我痴迷视为束缚和阳痿。
关于Po Po的作品存在许多常见的看法，尤其对缅甸以外的观众而言，它们是多么的引人瞩目：给人一种相当熟悉的现代感（ 至少在“全球”范围内，比如欧美 ），尽管Po Po在大部分的实践中几乎完全忽略了那些所谓的趋势或艺术语汇。这样的判断在无意中暴露出施恩的姿态，因为它假定了对于艺术家来说，采用一种耳熟能详的“概念性”实践便意味着艺术家的某种品质。尽管如此，Po Po的作品在国际观众看来还是具有一种诱人的易读性，这是一种欺骗性的熟悉感，就像他们在一种官方语言中遇到了另一种地方方言。但即使是企图将Po Po与全球语境相连的最善意的尝试，也遭遇了一些尴尬的时刻，比如新加坡国家美术馆2018年轰动一时的群展“极简主义：光、空间和物体”（ Minimalism: Light. Space. Object. ）中的作品《红立方》（ Red Cube, 1986 ）。这是一幅倾斜着的长方形画布，画布下面是一堆石头。从形式意义上说，《红立方》可以算作是此次展览中占主导地位的几何作品之一。但Po Po创作它的时候从来没有听说过“极简主义”。相反，根据媒体的采访，他一直在试验不同形状的画布以及悬挂它们的方式。与此同时，他的工作室里总是收集着一些花岗岩石头，他向来把它们堆成一堆——在丛林中冥想的佛教僧侣会使用这种技巧来集中精神。有一天，Po Po注意到他堆放的石头正好处于倾斜的画布下方，于是就有了《红立方》。
称Po Po为极简主义者，可能会被理解为是对“意图谬见”的勇敢承认。但这也是针对作品背后的语境和思维过程的蓄意抹杀，它们与更加同质化和全球化的艺术世界中所有人共同寻求的参照点相距甚远。了解Po Po工作的背景，可能会妨碍我们将艺术家轻松地置于人们熟知的艺术历史叙事当中，但其他的视野也随之打开。首先，这说明了他对“密码”的兴趣。因为在缅甸，用秘密符号及其系统交流可能是艺术创作的必要条件，身处于这个国家的政权统治之下，对权力说真话可能会令你受到折磨或被关进监狱。“原始密码”的色彩方案和形式都带有政治色彩。军政府统领的审查委员会不赞成黑白所代表的善恶；同样对和革命有关的红色深恶痛绝，1988年后，这种色彩与昂山素季领导的缅甸全国民主联盟缔结了更深的联系。连抽象艺术也遭受怀疑，因为它可以在政治批评或外国影响中夹带私货。在这方面，可以说“原始密码”中的作品诉说着抵抗。
然而，以上述方式“解密”这场展览——不仅仅是政治性的理解，而是任何其他形式的解读——都违背了它们创作之初所代表的艺术家精神。Po Po是通过对不同语言加以提炼和组合的独特过程来创作这些画的。它们具有一种“元”的特性：你能够认为它们是元图像或元代码（ 即同时反映两者本质 ），更多关乎编码的方式，而不是试图在内部创建某种一致的代码。当然，观众可以尝试破解一个关于其他密码的伪密码，但这极有可能会使你错过展览的重点。事实上，保留意义的神秘而不是揭示它，通过与大脑中寻找模式的思维区域相调和，展览令观众保持着观看。在密切的审视下，某些议题似乎浮现了，但当我试图确认它们时，它们又消失了。朝左的三角形代表攻击性( “挑衅；战士” )，长边矩形则意味着某种形式的堵塞或停止（ “约束；防卫；与死神相遇” ）——但这些都是模糊的倾向，而非硬性的规则，暗示着一个没有僵化的系统。（ 如果Po Po 的工作室里还藏有一幅同系列的未发表作品，那么我是猜不出来它的标题的。 )