Interview with Chaw Ei Thein
April 15, 2010
2517 41st Ave
Long Island City, NY
AAA’s Chair Jane DeBevoise and Ali Van sat with artist Chaw Ei Thein to engage in a conversation about her recent and past works as well as her time as a resident artist in New York City.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Shall we sit down to have a conversation?
Chaw Ei Thein (CET): We can sit here. Or there, oh, how about in the corner?
JD: Good idea. It’s a nice, meditative space.
CET: Yes, this is good.
JD: So you’re now here in the US for a while?
CET: Yes, for a while. During my residency, I tried to extend my stay here.
JD: I remember the last time we spoke, or maybe someone told me; there was something about your passport disappearing…
CET: Yes. I’ve dealt with a few complications and some bad timing during my stay here.
JD: It’s all so complicated.
CET: Yes, very complicated. I’m not sure I want to stay here permanently; there are a lot of things that are currently up in the air.
JD: Where are you living now?
CET: I’m living in Amherst [Queens, NY] with a friend. My friend is studying Journalism at the New School. She said I could live with her so I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a place to rent for a while.
JD: That’s really nice of her.
CET: Yes. Also, ACC has been an extremely helpful resource for me and people have been very kind to me as well. Burma’s current situation is critical; yesterday, during the New Year Water Festival, there was a bomb blast. We really don’t know what is going on there.
JD: Do you have any way of contacting your family?
CET: Yes, I used to call them every week, but it’s quite expensive calling Burma from here. Calling Thailand is cheap; $2 dollars for 100 minutes, but calling Burma is too expensive. Sometimes I email a friend in Thailand to find out how things are going back home.
JD: Well, you’ve been quite active since you’ve been here. You’ve been in several shows, yes?
CET: Yes. When I first arrived, I organized a group show for sixteen Burmese artists. I think I sent the information to AAA.
Ali Van (AV): Yes, you sent the information to us. Thank you.
CET: Through ACC, I met several Asian artists from Taiwan, Japan, China, and Korea…and they all have their communities here and seem to have connections. They work together when they are here too. I learned a lot from them. At the same time, I was talking to Burmese people who live and work in New York and it turns out there are many Burmese artists here too. But, they work all year for their survival and cannot do much about their artwork. Another problem is they feel subordinated and never try to get involved with the New York community, or the art communities here. I found this out and immediately wanted to do something with these artists. I had some friends who helped me organize an exhibition for them. Fortunately, through Cecily [ACC program manager], I met with another ACC grantee who introduced me to [Walter] Beebe, co-founder of the New York Open Center. He said I could use a space at the Center so that I wouldn’t need to worry about rent.
JD: I wish I had gone to see that show. Do you have photographs?
CET: Yes. I have a CD of photographs from the event.
JD: That would be great. We would love that. If possible, we too would love for you to come and maybe present the art; your work and the work of other Burmese artists, in a very informal manner. I think a lot of people would be interested. It would be held in a relaxed environment.
CET: Relaxed, that’s a really good thing! Most of the artists don’t want to involve themselves in any political issues. But I don’t want to tell anyone what to do and what not to do, because we’re in America. However, sometimes you just can’t control the media. Everyone wants to know what Burmese politics are like. After the media got involved in the group show, one of the sixteen artists emailed me and said I was using him and other artists for political gain. I felt terrible, but I understood where he was coming from.
JD: It’s hard to avoid, I can imagine.
CET: Luckily the artists had a great time at the exhibition; they saw themselves as artists again, so that was good. They also want to get more involved in the arts too, which is good.
JD: I think a lot of people are really interested in what is going on in Burma and there’s just very little access to find out what artists are doing. Now most of these artists you speak of have lived here for a very long time, or –
CET: Yes, quite a long time, some have been here for 15 years and have never left.
JD: Right. And they were practicing art when they lived in Burma?
CET: Yes, some are very well known, but here, they spend most of their time working to live, so they don’t have time for their art. This exhibition was an opportunity to show what Burmese artists have been making.
JD: But it is obviously a very culturally rich country. Where in Burma are you from? Rangoon [Yangon]?
CET: Yes, I’m from Rangoon. My father is a painter too, and has a gallery in Rangoon where he teaches art to children.
JD: Are you currently working?
CET: No, I can’t work yet because I don’t have the proper documentation. It’s all such a headache! This is definitely the hardest time I’ve had to live through. Sometimes I just end up sitting in a place, wondering how I got here, thinking about how lost I am…
JD: I hope you have your art to focus on. You should also write down what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling.
CET: Yes. Lately, I’ve been thinking about ‘identity’ a lot. Ah, I’ve been thinking about so many things. I’ve tried to turn these things into artworks. The Bed, here, is a part of these thoughts.
JD: Tell us about the bed.
CET: Yes. It started off as a narrow idea; I was thinking continuously about a bed. This piece isn’t just about a woman and a bed. It’s about many different kinds of people. It’s about men, women, lesbians, gays… One day I saw a couple – one man was African and the other man was older than he was. On the subway, the older man was kidding around with the African man, and through a pinched smile, the African man was telling his boyfriend [the older man] to stop kidding around. Through his eyes I could tell he [the African man] just couldn’t take it anymore. It made me think that men can feel a similar kind of abuse to women. Then there is also pleasure; sometimes we dream good dreams, sometimes bad…and sometimes we can’t follow our dream paths. And then I was exploring this further and thought ‘Oh, a bed is universal!’ So, the bed became more and more interesting to me. Before this show, I thought about just using this black cloth, the mosquito net and several sketches to make the work. The sketches were originally going to be placed along the top of the mosquito net – drawings I hope to share with you later – but I changed my mind. So I continued to think about materials, and at the grocery store was so excited to see a basket of red bell peppers; their shape, their red color…they became my bed. I took my sketches away because they were too direct. I used the mosquito net because it reminded me of my childhood. When I was young, as the eldest in my family, I used to have to take care of my siblings because my parents worked late. I was scared at night, but I couldn’t be scared because I had to be responsible for all four of us. I used to bring them all under the mosquito net to feel safe. It was our protective layer. That memory came back to me when I was putting this piece together. I cut the mosquito net in half here to show that even though you are in a net and feel secure, you are also not really secure. Secure and insecure! The bed represents a place for stories too; I originally had a statement next to my installation telling my story about the bed but I took it down because my story isn’t what is important here; everyone has their own story and the bed is a place for different memories to come together. It is up to you to create those stories. One can get anything from the bed. At first I wanted every red pepper to represent a woman, but felt that showed a limited perspective. The title is still ‘Woman’ but the piece represents everyone.
AV: Was this piece created solely for this show, knowing that the show would consist only of works by female artists?
CET: This show [at Fardom Gallery] is titled ‘Bedtime Stories, Monotone Dreams’ and consists only of women artists, yes.
JD: But it’s not site-specific right? That is, it wasn’t only created for this show. You made the piece before –
CET: Oh, yes. This is the third time I’ve shown this piece; the first time was at the open studios event at ISCP [International Studio and Curatorial Program]. It was shown a second time at the Soapbox Gallery in Brooklyn, alongside the work of one other artist. The curator of Soapbox contacted me through ISCP and asked to see if I would be interested in having the piece shown at the gallery.
JD: On the wall of your ISCP studio, you showed images of some of your other projects, like the sugar project that I had seen before in Singapore. Maybe you can talk a little about that in a bit, but there was another project, which I had never seen before, where you were wrapped in cloth, with people pulling from both sides…I thought that a very effective piece. Can you talk a little bit about that?
CET: Yes. That was the very first performance piece I created, in 2004, in Burma. I started taking an interest in performance art around 1999-2000, because some senior artists were doing performance art. I really liked it, but I didn’t quite know where to start. One day, I invited some friends and a photographer over and said I wanted to do some sort of performance. I didn’t want to have too many people present, so at the time, it was just for friends and family. I had this material, and began asking my mom to pull me one way, and my cousin to pull me the other way. My mother didn’t understand what I was doing but she still pulled. I had to struggle in the middle –
JD: In big bolts of cloth, all wrapped around you. And you were being pulled on both ends.
CET: Yes. What I wanted to say was that as an artist, as a Burmese, or whatever one is or tries to be, it is hard finding quick solutions to things. Under the Burmese political situation, we try to find a way to assuage our thoughts to fulfill our expectations. We are always lost; we lose our path and are under pressures of the outside world. We have fears that we can’t openly express. We also have several stresses, and sometimes you can’t always do the things you want to do because of the limitations one may have in life. It’s like self-censorship or something. The fabrics I used were from my sister’s business and I fell in love with the silk fabric, which is why I used it in my performance piece. Whilst I was struggling in the middle, I told my photographer-friend to take some pictures. It was an experiment, and because I wanted to paint a self-portrait at some point, photographs of myself were good to have around. I also realized later that I could have these photos to see what the performance was like from an outside perspective. After the photographs were developed, I didn’t want to paint a self-portrait anymore because I liked the photographs the way they were. So the piece exists as a 36-photo series.
JD: Was the performance videotaped?
CET: No, I didn’t have enough money to buy a video camera at the time, but now I really regret it! I should videotape it at some point. The sugar piece too – we only have photo documentation of the work. I really want to have a video record the decay of the [sugar] temple.
JD: Before we talk about the sugar piece, let’s talk a little bit more about the pulling piece, the wrapping piece. I think it’s very interesting because you speak about yourself as being Burmese, and you’ve talked of the situation that you’re in when struggling in the middle, but that situation of not knowing which direction you are being pulled is a universal problem. People all over the world can find themselves in an inextricable bind.
CET: Yes, definitely. Personally, I can’t seem to ever find a solution. You can see this in the pictures; that the process is almost endless, that no answers can be provided. Towards the end of the performance, I was exhausted, and slowly giving up – well, not giving up, but just getting too tired. The piece is about me; where I am, who I am. Sometimes one’s reality and one’s expectations of reality are so far apart. I want to know more about myself – it’s somewhat self-centered to say, but I want to know more. Here, I can’t survive as an artist alone, I have to do something else to stay afloat. The photo series also talks about my friends. I used to run a magazine with some friends and the magazine provided information on the cultural arts in Burma. When I interviewed other people, usually other young people, it sounded like they were lost, that they didn’t know what to specialize in even if the options came up. We don’t know what is best suited for us until something happens. Lately, this has been the case in Burma.
JD: I think it’s happening everywhere.
CET: Yes, yes. Especially in this I.T. age where everything happens so quickly and there is so much information to deal with. Email, for example, is so confusing and frustrating! I get stressed when I have to check emails – sometimes I don’t want to check, but if I don’t check for a day, I end up with 500 emails to check the next day. I’m always confused about what to do, and feel like they control me, and I’ve lost my own time for thoughts about what best to pursue. These are the things I’ve been thinking about.
AV: Have you repeated the pulling-silk piece?
CET: Yes, first at home, then at ISCP here in New York.
AV: When you performed at ISCP, could your audience participate or did you have specific people involved in pulling either end of the fabric?
CET: Yes, the audience could come pull on me. The photo series crops both sides so you can’t tell who is pulling me. My photographer-friend knew what I wanted to say and took so many photographs, exactly the way I wanted them. I picked the photos I really liked.
JD: But did it matter to you who pulled you on either end? For example, it was first your mother and cousin pulling on each end –
CET: In the performance it mattered, but in the photo series, no. In the series I just wanted to show the fabric, my expression and the struggle I experienced.
AV: Could you be unwound? Could the fabric be untangled? Or was it tight enough –
CET: Yes, very tight.
JD: The wrapping was like a mummy.
CET: I could not be untangled.
AV: Can you tell us about your sugar temple?
CET: Yes. That piece was a piece in collaboration with my husband Rich [Streitmatter-Tran], who at the time was my boyfriend. That year, in 2007, the Saffron Revolution just concluded. The 2008 Singapore Biennial was entitled ‘Wonder’. Rich and I were emerging artists so it was pretty amazing for us to be a part of the Biennial. It’s hard to get in, but we met with Joselina [Cruz], a curator from the Philippines who happened to be traveling through Saigon, Vietnam at the time, and who said we should apply. We thought about a project that had to do with Burma. The exhibition was to be held in September. September-Wonder-Saffron Revolution… At the time, we saw a Burmese temple in Bagan painted white…what is it called –
CET: Yes, and it was painted by the local people. When we saw those white temples we thought ‘Oh, they look like they are made of sugar cubes’. We thought to use the temple because it represented home, and we wanted to use an unusual material to make the temple. We chose sugar because it easily decays. It’s a piece about erosions of hope. Day by day our hope is disappearing dramatically. We worked and did research for nine months to get the right sugar mixture. Finally we just heated sugar, and mixed it with rice starch and made a mould for our project. We shipped everything to Singapore and used moulds to build the temple. The thing is, we couldn’t use anything to bind the pieces together; no glue or nails, so we used an interlocking system and in this way built up the stupas.
CET: The piece is 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It eroded day by day. I have process photographs that I can share with you. One month later, I saw the temple and I was so sad. The whole top part was gone already; it was beautiful but painful at the same time. It’s not a sturdy, stable temple; it melts, and gets eaten away at…
JD: It rains almost every afternoon in Singapore too; the eroding process would have been quite efficient.
CET: It’s a durational work, and I couldn’t record the whole process. Every time I wanted to visit Singapore, I would have to apply for a visa and would have to experience long conversations with the Singapore Consulate-General in Saigon. Many letters would have to be mailed; back and forth…the process was so long. All for a 2-3 week visa! So during the installation of the piece, with so little time in Singapore, I had a lot of volunteers help out. Luckily, there were several Burmese migrant workers working in Singapore who offered to help. Then I also had Malay workers and other friends who had their friends come help. There were so many hands working.
JD: That’s really nice.
CET: Yes. I also said I would pay them an hourly wage, but once they found out about the concept of the project, they didn’t want to take any money. Forty-eight volunteers total and about seven to nine people daily. I plan on making a book because I have so many photos from sketch to finish, but no video. I’d like to share it with them. There were also so many bees and I got stung many times!
JD: Wow, I hadn’t even thought about that.
CET: Yes. It was really very much like Burma, hard work, oh, hard work all the time. Always having to find a way to make something happen without ample time and under a lot of pressure. Everything about the structure had to fit in the mould and in the interlocking system. There wasn’t room or time for mistake. It was challenging for me, Rich and all our volunteers. I remember experimenting at home and thinking ‘wow, these blocks are so light’, but in actuality, everything just felt and got heavier and heavier and more difficult, and with such a big temple, it was hard to move anything without lots of help. It was like Burma; the man power, the people, the intermingling of process, reality and unity, or lack there of… When this project was going to be put into the newspaper, I was thinking that religion could raise a possible issue. I didn’t want to offend or disrespect any one or any religious group, so I invited the monk to come and asked him if the project was okay or not. He said it was fine, and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. Then, the journalist from The Straits Times was there and was really interested in the work. He didn’t understand what was going on, and was really curious…he took a photo with the monk in front of the temple and published it on the cover of the newspaper! The monk gave his name and contact information to the journalist too. The monk called me the next day and was angry, saying I used him. I was so worried and upset, and I told him that I didn’t know this was going to happen at all and that I didn’t mean to hurt him. Some of my friends called me to see whether I had read the paper. I decided to have the journalist accompany me to visit the monk, to get him to tell the monk that it wasn’t my fault this all happened. But, I think, even today, the monk suspects I used him for my art or for political power. ‘You are just a politician, not an artist!’ he said.
JD: That’s very unfortunate.
CET: Yes. And then there was another case; our artist-friend from Burma came to help us in Singapore and when he went back to Burma the airport officials stopped him and kept him for two hours to question him about the project. They called him shameless; speaking about his own country in bad ways…he told them it wasn’t his project and so they released him. He called me later that night and said ‘it’s not safe for you to come back’, because of this and that. That was another story, all because of this sugar temple.
AV: Goodness gracious.
CET: Yes. I mean, we didn’t even say anything bad about Burma, but the journalist decided to use that photograph under it, read ‘This is a tribute to the Saffron Revolution’, only that line, that one line! Those words got us into trouble. If it weren’t for the Straits Times, nothing would have happened. A lot of my work has to do with Burma, but in some countries, my projects are never made known to the Burmese. For example, in Japan, my pieces were written about but in Japanese so the Burmese didn’t understand what was being said. Sometimes artists need media coverage to have their art made known, but at the same time it only brought us trouble.
JD: Indeed, it was widely covered by the media. But it’s interesting because when I first saw the piece, I didn’t really focus on the fact that it was related to the anniversary of the Saffron Revolution, or uprising – I responded to the ephemeral nature of the piece. There are different ways you can take it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be politicized. I mean, it is easily identifiable as a religious edifice, but the ephemeral nature, whether it has to do with spirit or time passing or death or transience or something else… you can take it in different ways. I think we previously posted it on AAA’s website too. I remember being very taken by it.
CET: Thank you.
JD: But not necessarily for its politics, as that was only something I understood later.
CET: Yes. And another thing I would like to say about the piece is that it is about impermanence. One day we will have to leave everything and things will be gone.
JD: The use of sugar is also very evocative. In one sense, it attracts everybody with sweetness, but too much sweetness also repels.
CET: I learned a lot from that piece; bees and ants came. I learned a lesson from them. Bees are quite greedy; they suck the sugar and then their stomachs get too big so they can’t fly home. Sometimes I would talk to them and tell them not to be so greedy. Some bees moved their beehives closer to the installation! Every morning they would come, and at 5pm they would leave. Some of them were fat and getting fatter! The ants were smart though; they would come and go, come and go. Carrying the food home with them, not eating it all in one bite. It was quite interesting. (Laughter) Actually, an organization here in New York wanted me to make it again, but how would I control the bees? The city would surely sue me!
AV: I suppose you could try doing it indoors to see what would happen.
JD: It probably wouldn’t decay quickly enough.
CET: Yes, I need rain, or something to have it decay on its own. So I explained to the organization that I would need an outdoor space that wouldn’t become bee infested and I would need many volunteers. They eventually gave up on the idea. We were lucky to be able to do it in Singapore.
JD: It was like a marble temple.
CET: Yes! When the sun came, it would make the stupa shiny and sparkly.
JD: It was naturally very beautiful. I mean, I think that’s one of the things about your work, even with this bell pepper piece here and the silk piece at ISCP; there’s a great sense of physicality. The silk being pulled, the color of the fabric, the textures and the luminescence of the sugar, and then the peppers, the natural decay and its interesting surface qualities. Your choice of materials seems quite important.
CET: Yes, Rich and I are always interested in materials and are interested in how we can use certain things in different ways. When I made this [bed-bell pepper] piece at ISCP, I took several process photographs of the peppers changing. First the peppers were perfect, fresh and shiny; and then they had wrinkles, like old people, and then they got yucky, mushy and dark. They looked really awful. They looked sad and regretful. Then, I moved all the peppers away and what was left on the bed was a white watery color and texture. Suddenly you would see life flash before you, from beginning to end.
JD: When we went to your ISCP studio, the smell of the peppers was really strong, really rich and added another dimension to the work. Here, I don’t smell the odor. That room was well insulated and had no windows.
CET: Yes, it was best installed there. I also had it at the Soapbox Gallery in Brooklyn. The other artist [Brad Darcy] who exhibited had a small piece in the space, and I had the bed set up next to it. It was a small room, and there was more of a smell there too.
AV: Was the piece made in collaboration with Darcy’s piece?
CET: No, he just had a painting and it was in the back room. They were kept separate.
AV: Considering the importance of impermanence to you, how do you feel when you remake a piece somewhere else? Does the change in location affect you or the work, that is, the way these materials physically decay, or maybe your internal reaction to the work…does projects resonate with you in the same way the second or third time around?
CET: The experience is quite the same. Or, maybe I’m misunderstanding the question?
JD: Your work has a cycle in a sense; it is created, it decays and then in a sense it’s gone; it leaves traces, remnants…and then you do it again in another space. Do you feel differently about the piece each time, or when you do it a second time?
CET: Yes, all the same. Only the space changes. Sometimes it’s small, sometimes it’s big. This space here is bigger than the space at Soapbox Gallery. Everything else is the same, for me.
JD: Now are you thinking of doing more projects?
CET: Yes, actually, I have another project, which deals with the temple as well, and is about my friends who are in prison right now. I want to use scrap metals, to make another variation of the sugar temple. This piece has more to do with politics than do my other pieces. The prison will be life-size like. Most cells in Burma are 8×6 feet, some are 8×4 [feet], so I would like to make a room 8×4, with bars on the front. The other three walls are made out of iron or another metal. Like the bolts and screws on the subway – that’s where my idea came from; they are so big and rusted, and I like that feeling. I want to put a mirror inside the room too, so that the viewer will be inside the prison through their reflection. I just finished the small-scale model.
JD: Yes, I remember seeing that one at ISCP.
CET: Yes. I just finished another model.
JD: You say this one is obviously overtly political and that you have friends in prison in Burma. Is this something you feel is more important now that you are outside of the country, or do you think you would have wanted to make this piece if you were still living in Burma? In other words, is this an idea that has come to you since you have been away from home?
CET: Definitely since I’ve been out of Burma. I came up with the idea a couple months ago. It’s quite painful to think about.
JD: Yes, I understand.
CET: When I make-work now, I’m always thinking about home and the issues that appear in my life; I can’t escape them. A lot of Burmese artists don’t like me because they think I am trying to increase my popularity with the kind of work I make. Oh my gosh! This is my reality, the reality I face everyday. How can I be an artist making ‘beautiful things’, like flowers? I just can’t. I’d like to, but I can’t because of my reality. I do with what I have. I have been accused many times for my art.
JD: It’s a very difficult situation. You are going to have to be very strong.
CET: Yes, I must be. I’ve learned a lot, especially here.
JD: What can you say about your experience here in the United States? Are there certain things here that have intrigued and inspired you or your art?
CET: Everything happens so fast here. I wrote down some things a while ago during my time in the ACC residency apartment. ‘If I am with me, I can do all.’ You can’t depend on anybody. I think living in New York has given me the strength to be more myself. I am still trying to figure out some things and being here has helped me think about a lot of different things.
AV: Have you spent a lot of time visiting museums and galleries to see shows?
CET: I used to go a lot because the ACC apartment was in Chelsea, on 25th street. I only had to walk a few blocks. It’s a nice neighborhood-y area. ACC would email all the New York art events to its grantees, so I used to see a lot every season and wouldn’t have to walk that far for it.
JD: If not the US, where would you like to live next?
CET: I don’t know where I would like to be. Saigon maybe? I don’t really like Saigon, but maybe it’s more appropriate for me, and is a place that provides me with greater opportunity to participate in art projects. But I like Burma because I have a lot to do there. I can’t go back though. I don’t know how to be a part of this [New York] culture. I need to learn how to be with the locals. I’ve learned a lot from the Burmese artists who have been living here for many years and understand why they are the way they are. They can’t be a part of normal society, or go out to have beer with other local artists. They will go to work and then go home to be with their family. But I don’t have a family to return to, so I’ve started to encourage myself to go out and spend time with local artists. I need to make my contacts and build a network. The other Burmese artists are living in ‘Little Burma’; they communicate with the same few people, alongside their families. Some of them have never been to MoMA; I brought a few to MoMA and told them ‘you have so many places to go, so many things to do!’, but I also understood where they were coming from and why they didn’t push themselves beyond familiarity. They do what they need to, to survive. I’m still trying to find my place [here].
JD: The sense of isolation, the lack of connection with a larger community…are some things that I think many people who live in an urban environment feel, especially people who come from overseas. Trying to develop a sense of oneself within a larger context is something many experience. You are not alone there.
CET: Yes, New York is in many ways a great place because of its diverse community. It’s one thing that comforts me; to know other people are going through a similar process. I’m lucky though because I can communicate [in English]; many Burmese artists don’t speak English and it’s a big barrier for them and their livelihood. They can’t get good jobs, they can’t speak to other people, and some are too old to [want to] study English. At least there are many different types of people here and people who are able to find ways to survive. Yes, I’m not alone and I try to encourage myself through these comparisons.
JD: I think it’s very important that you think about these things. You have a gift that many people don’t have; I mean, if you can find a way to express your thoughts, it will help make other people better understand their own situation too.
AV: It will be exciting to see your photographs; it sounds like process is incredibly important to you. You curate these photographs; you make croppings and consciously manipulate them after the performance has been held. In a way, through the impermanence you previously described, you also introduce a level of control over the works so that the works and your actions can become permanent too.
CET: Yes, I really look forward to sharing my photographs with AAA. Not everyone gets to see the performance so the photographs are really important for me.
JD: I think it’s been wonderful meeting you and having time to talk to you. We would love to continue this conversation sometime soon. Thank you!
CET: Yes, that would be great. Thank you.
Transcribed and revised by Ali Van