The southeast wing of the Secretariat building in Yangon, Myanmar, is both decadent and crumbling. Red brick walls give way to exposed rafters whereupon pigeons and sparrows—the true tenants of this building—roost in the afternoon sun. Shutter-less windows look onto a courtyard and farther onto Mahabandula Road, crowded with vendors selling everything from cell phones to mild stimulants.
Carved into the floor of that wing are three dates: 16-10-24, 15-8-18, and 22-01-17—the last likely referring to 1917, a year right in the middle of British colonial rule of what was then Burma, which lasted from 1824 through 1948.
Once the center of British colonial affairs in the country, the Secretariat carries a dark history for Yangon residents. During the British colonization of Southeast Asia, the area was an attractive destination, filled with an abundance of natural resources—teak, tea, opium, and more—and situated as a prime trade route between China and India.
After 1948, when Myanmar gained independence, the Secretariat became the building where the country’s first independent government drafted new laws, and later where General Aung San, the father of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was assassinated.
Heavily guarded and with a purposefully tall arrangement of trees surrounding its perimeter, the Secretariat is a mysterious feat of architecture. But for one day out of the year, July 19, when visitors flock to commemorate Aung San’s death, the building has typically been closed to the public.
However, over the last few months, the Secretariat has been turned into a space for the arts, reemerging in the city’s consciousness as a place for both adventurous work and a reminder of the country’s not-to-distant violence.
For three weeks early this year, adjacent to those hand-carved dates lay a square marble slab, its shallow depression filled each morning with milk, which accumulated a film of dust as the day raged on. Perhaps anywhere else in the world—or, at least in international art hubs like New York and Paris—the milk stone and its ritual filling would be an immediate marker of renowned German conceptual artist, Wolfgang Laib.
Laib’s milk stones, among other pieces, were the focus of his Myanmar debut, “Where the Land and Water End,” which ran through February 4 at the Secretariat.
Now 66, Laib has become known for using large quantities of pollen, milk, beeswax, and brass in his work to convey the stark wonder of nature’s remnants. Once a student of medicine, he abandoned biology, believing that both medicine and art have similar healing purposes.
Though Laib has a decorated CV—he received the 2015 Japanese Praemium Imperiale and had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2013—he is virtually unknown in Myanmar, which is not surprising since the country was politically and economically isolated during 50 years of military dictatorship.
On opening day, January 14, crowds swarmed the building’s southeast atrium, which is defined by a massive, dark green spiraling staircase. At the center of the room lay pale yellow pollen in the shape of a square. Its ashen color calls to mind the lodging of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Laib’s pollen, however, is not a testament to suffering, as it is for Raskolnikov, but rather the physical evidence of the artist’s annual springtime cull from a number of trees on the outskirts of his home in rural Germany.
Though the Secretariat recently opened its gates to the public, nature still dominates the venue, with the occasional bat fluttering overhead and pigeon droppings—new and old—staining the walls like raindrops.
Laib’s pollen—which journeyed from the bees, to Laib, and finally to Myanmar—was too precious to face the elements for a long period, so it was only on view during the opening weekend, during which time Laib could be spotted, quiet and monk-like, tending to the pollen with a tweezer.
During a panel on the second day of the exhibition with Laib and three Myanmar painters and performance artists, Chaw Ei Thein, Po Po, and Aye Ko, Laib explained that the pollen is “in itself the artwork.” Yet here in Myanmar, he continued, “the pollen becomes a statement about the future of this building and also of the country.”
A collaboration between the Goethe Institut in Myanmar, the Institute for Foreign Relations, the Yangon Region Government, the Yangon Heritage Trust, and the Anawmar Arts Group, the new leasers of the Secretariat, Laib’s show certainly provided a hopeful look for the future of the building.
In a sense, the other pieces in the three-room display emanated an ahistorical quality, bearing no reference to time, place, or theme. The brass ships and beeswax figurines sat glowing in a long room that may have once been a bustling office. Positioned vertically for the passerby, the ships appeared to be adrift at sea, sailing towards the back wall.
Lining the outdoor corridor, which faces the famous clock tower at the center of the compound, were a row of brass plates filled with rice. Day after day, the brass plates sat with their offerings, whether to the building, the pigeons, or the spectators.
The gold coloring and modest nature of the brass sculptures and beeswax molds resonated strongly in this Buddhist majority country, the landscape of which is marked by pagodas adorned with gold flakes and shrines encased in Bodhi trees.
But what was striking about “Where the Land and Water End,” a name Laib took from a Buddhist holy site called Cape Negrais, in the neighboring Ayeyarwady Region, is how the art and audience grated against the building’s politicized atmosphere.
On one occasion, a British tourist attempted to sketch the clock tower but was met with a stern warning by security. It should be noted that it is prohibited to photograph or enter any areas of the Secretariat outside of the art show.
“This is a military exhibition,” a security guard said to the tourist, pointing to the compound.
This incident, which may have happened countless times during the show’s three-week run (many visitors came to the show armed with selfie sticks), highlights the tensions between historical memorialization, free expression, and an ever-evolving Myanmar.
During the panel, Myanmar performance artist Moe Satt asked why Laib, as opposed to a local artist, was permitted to show in Secretariat. Many Myanmar artists on the panel and in the audience expressed their desire to show in such a charged place.
Veteran performance artist Po Po wondered if Laib, having been given this honor, had considered the Secretariat’s history when putting on the exhibition. He then brought up the example of Berlin’s Reichstag, which, up until the reunification of Germany in 1990, sat empty, like the Secretariat in its current state.
In 1995, artists Christo and Jean-Claude ambitiously wrapped the Reichstag in cloth, paying homage to its dark history and sequestering its demons inside. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger described that display as “at once a work of art, a cultural event, a political happening, and an ambitious piece of business.”
Twenty-two years later and only six years after the end of Junta rule in Myanmar, Goldberger’s words still resonate. Laib’s work was simultaneously spectacular in its location, its origin, its ever-present security guards, the crowds of artists and otherwise it drew, and the creatures that squawked above it—the theater of it all.
Both disrupting the Secretariat’s slumber and reawakening its history and beauty, Laib’s work helped, to some degree, to rid the building of a bit of its mystery, despite steadfast military control. Provocatively, the director of the Goethe Institut Myanmar, Franz-Xaver Augustin, likened this process to an “exorcism.”
Now, in the moments after the exorcism, we will see if the Secretariat’s art debut will inspire more artistic events or more likely, commercial projects, and whether the former doctor, Laib, has in but a small way, healed a timeworn wound.