Borbála Kálmán meets Aung Soe Min, owner of Pansodan Gallery and Archives (Yangon) to talk about the hidden sides of collecting, the importance of personal history and the need for institutions to build the future of the Myanmar art scene.
Entering a vast apartment on thevthird floor of a Pansodan Street building, close to Bogyoke Road, it’s almost like discovering the Den of AliBaba; gold and precious stones are replaced by archive documents, prints, photographs and objects of all sorts. One wonders how it was possible to collect these treasures that make up the Pansodan Collection and Archives. “We are now focusing on the process of enlarging the archives. We have started inventorying and classifying the items but we will need some time to finish,” says owner Aung Soe Min with the smile of someone who knows exactly how infinitely huge the task is that he has begun.
For those who have an interest in Myanmar art, Aung Soe Min’s name will surely ring a bell. Pansodan Gallery is a major hub of the Yangon cultural scene and attracts people from a wide spectrum of the arts. “The gallery was to start in 2007, but because of the difficult situation the opening had to be postponed several times before finally being launched in 2008. My main concern was to change the existing business model, to run a gallery which is not merely a place to sell, but which allows several activities at once,” Aung Soe Min explains.
The space above the Gallery hosts – mainly in form of various vintage prints – a specific part of the exclusive
collection that has grown over the two decades. A satellite space of the main gallery is the Pansodan Scene, which opened two years ago in one of the most imposing colonial buildings of Downtown, has become a major space for cultural events. Whereas the Gallery showcases mostly the works of the contemporary artists that Pansodan embraces, the Scene welcomes temporary exhibitions: solo shows, and also international projects, as well as lectures, round-table discussions and debates.
Aung Soe Min has succeeded in realising a complex vision. “Our main concern is to show art in many different spaces. You could think that we are creating our own rivals or competitors, but we are creating a new generation. Yangon is changing in so many ways and art should be everywhere. Art is not only in the form of a painting: sculptures or public installations can add so much to the city. By experiencing art through gallery exhibitions, people may understand this more easily. Design and art have to be part of the current changes of the society and the country, art should be a basis for everything,” adds Aung Soe Min.
His first experience with a gallery was in 1995; he then had supported a friend to open a project in Bagan. Later, besides being involved in several “gallery stories”, he started collecting, mainly the works of 19th/20th century Burmese masters, while working in the movie industry or as a publisher. Around 2000, he was planning to somehow back up the country’s upcoming artists with his own gallery but the time was not yet right.
“A while ago, artists had regular jobs and regular incomes. They could create during their free time. It was a good way to support the artists and their community. Art classes at school needed teachers; magazines, literary publications illustrators; and the movie industry, posters and painters. Today, all this is gone. Media culture has changed, so has the artists’ lives. I think the worst period for the Myanmar artists was between 1993 and 2005; they had no kind of support at all, even the people who wished to collect were not ready; the art system had a lack of serious infrastructure. A friend of mine tried several times to open his gallery. He closed after eight months; he had sold only two paintings – both were bought by me”, adds Aung Soe Min with a laugh, convinced that a good location or good contacts are not enough for a gallery in a long term.
“It was the business model and the gallery system that had to be changed. I tried to design my gallery in a way to create a dynamic gathering place with activities. Before 2009, the media didn’t think that gallery exhibitions should be part of the news. I tried to prove the contrary, which might also have contributed to rise people’s attention. I felt there were too few spaces encouraging contemporary art, also artists in general didn’t have spaces to exhibit; sadly we “lost” a lot of them this way.
The best example is Bagyi Aung Soe. He mostly participated in group exhibitions, proving his talent publicly only through illustrations. The works of the artists who were strongly influential within society were simply unknown by the public. This created a huge gap,” says Aung Soe Min.
Through the past decade, Aung Soe Min has established one of the biggest collections of contemporary art in Myanmar. “I bought my first contemporary paintings, among them Ei Kaza Cho and Soe Naing works, around 2005. I sold my properties and my original collection of high quality pieces so as to buy contemporary works. Everyone said, ‘U Aung has gone mad! He sold big masters for no names, for painters who paint like children!’.” Today Soe Naing is considered to be among the unique figures of the contemporary Myanmar painters’ scene. Since the country has gradually opened up, the international focus on the country’s contemporary art has continued to grow. “I think this phenomenon is mostly positive. Working closely with the international scene brings big changes, but also it will help the artists gain a much larger exposure.
However, it also raises questions. Take a tree that brings fruits; you need to wait the right time to collect the fruits. To avoid the fruits to drying, you need natural growth – a lack of support or an exceeding amount of external energy can result a bad influence. You surely must be careful.”
Hence the importance of Aung Soe Min’s vision: implementing art into various levels of society, grassroots projects to grow and become strong, like fresh plants. But plants need a stable soil to unfold, Aung Soe Min explains, “Artists need institutions to reflect the work of the local scene, and show the context that they belong to. In Myanmar, the art scene is very ‘hot’ right now, but it has all happened in a very short time. Too short to evaluate and analyse yet. As a kid, I used to collect postcards and comics. These were characteristics of the 1970s. In Myanmar, every decade has an outstandingly popular, special kind of art form: in the 1980s – radio plays, in the 1990s – video-films. But most of these art forms stopped existing after ten years. No one remembers them anymore. Institutions should maintain these. To tell history and to approach history, the notion of museum is highly important. People nowadays don’t think about their history, they even sell their family treasures on the streets. I think the concept of the museum is the main key in order to switch people back towards their own history.”
No wonder the direction Aung Soe Min is heading right now: introducing a museum-like approach into his own spaces, while at the same time emphasising major aspects of Myanmar art history that has never been written down in books. “The main gap in Myanmar art history is between 1972–1990. People don’t know about the art of that time.
What we will try to do at Pansodan Scene is to have three-week long museum-like exhibitions, next to contemporary art shows. We don’t have a big space but we have to work with what we have.”
That’s not all – as usual, Aung Soe Min had one more surprise up his sleeve. Two months ago, at 100 Bogalayzay Street a new member of the Pansodan family was born – Pansuriya. Its speciality is photographs. The material comes from the Pansodan Collection and Archives and its exhibitions are curated along different topics, to serve as a new model. The exhibitions not only allow a glance at exclusive vintage prints, from the end of the 19th Century up to a decade ago, but it’s also a way to show how photography has (technically) evolved over the years. “I believe that every town should have its own museum. My project is to inspire them, and work with them. But I also plan to have contemporary photography in Pansuriya – we always think of contemporary and historical together,” adds Aung Soe Min, already focusing on his next idea.
Pansodan Gallery Art Space
286 Pansodan, first floor (upper block), Kyauktada Township, Yangon
100 Bogalayzay Street, Botahtaung Township, Yangon
144 Pansodan Street, Cnr of Mahabandoola Street, 2nd Floor, Kyauktada Township, Yangon
This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #11, September 2015.