Goethe-Institut Myanmar The villa reveals its history

Din Q Le
Din Q Le | Photo: Goethe-Institut Myanmar / Stephanie Müller

A talk with artist Dinh Q. Le about his artwork for the exhibition “Building Histories”.

You have presented your work in some of the most renowned galleries in the world. What was your motivation to participate in this project with the Goethe-Institut Myanmar?
Three reasons: One reason is that I have worked with Mr Augustin in Hanoi before, when the Goethe-Institut in Hanoi had just opened. It was in a similar situation, when the building in Hanoi was still being renovated, and I participated in an exhibition there. And of course I have worked with the curator Iola Lenzi before. Reason number two is Burma. It is really interesting to be here and witness the changes. It is an amazing experience that I want to be part of. Reason number three is this fabulous villa that the Goethe-Institut will move into. The history of this place is unbelievable. So these three reasons really convinced me to join this project. This project is very special for me. There is maybe even a fourth reason: The region is changing and the art scene is really growing. It is always a pleasure for me to be able to work in the region rather than elsewhere, such as in Europe or America.

What have been the main steps in preparating this artwork? And how long have you been working on it?
I was quite fascinated by what I was told about the history of this house. Then I started digging and asking around, and of course, when you start digging into a topic, it gets deeper and deeper. It is interesting to read about the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), but also about the story of the two founders; one of them was General Aung Sun. This aroused my curiosity about his life and the circumstances that led to his assassination and how Burma came to be in crisis. So the story of this building and its strong connection to the history of General Aung San and his AFPFL is very fascinating.
It took me about six months to prepare for the show. The discussions started in September 2014, when I met up with Iola Lenzi and we were discussing the history of the house. When I went back home I started reading about General Aung Sun. Coming to Yangon in December 2014 was very helpful for the preparations, especially seeing the villa, and visiting the General Aung San Museum as well as meeting up with Zargarnar and Aung Soe Min, who filled me in with many interesting stories. These stories are not in the books. That’s why I really want people to come to this exhibition and talk about this house and General Aung San, who was such a central character of this history. There are so many stories which are unwritten. I think this could be a start to openly talk about him, and to bring forth all the hidden information we don’t know yet.

Was it the building of the future Goethe-Institut Myanmar that gave you the inspiration for your performance “Aung San’s Dinner” in this exhibition?
Yes, definitely the history of this house was my inspiration. It is the house itself, you don’t need any artwork here. It is such a fascinating history as it is and of course the building is beautiful. Therefore I decided to bring back some aspects of the house as my part of the exhibition instead of making something new. We can imagine that when the people of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) were here, there must have been amazing political discussions taking place in this house. There would have been discussions about the future of Burma, what these people wanted for Burma, to free it, and of course all of that was disrupted when General Aung San was assassinated and when the party was banned later on. When I think about this I am wishing in a way to hear these conversations myself. I think this was the impulse to create this “Dinner”, which is a political dinner with political discussions and acts as a kind of witness of that time and those conversations. It is a chance for people to be here and to listen in.

You have witnessed the reaction of the audience during the opening night of the exhibition. Was that what you hoped to achieve?
Obviously I don’t know what the conversation was, as it was in Burmese, which was on purpose because it was for the people here, not for the foreigners. So we can observe now, but we can only understand later, when we see the translation on the wall. It is really for Burmese people, I think many of them found it fascinating to have all these amazing people come together to have this conversation. The participants of the performance are from very diverse fields: artists, writers, historians, researchers, comedians. However, they all have one thing in common: they are actively working to bring democracy to Burma, many of them have paid a price for their activism.
So, I think the audience noticed that these people came together to have this conversation and I have been told that the audience found the conversation very interesting. They are looking forward to coming back here when it is less busy to listen to the conversation more carefully. In terms of the form itself, as an artwork, I think it is a bit different for Burma but the work will also be changing over time. I think it is unusual to see this kind of performance in Burma.

In other artworks you have reflected on Vietnamese history. This work is about Bogyoke Aung San, a key figure in the history of Myanmar. Does that make a difference in your work or preparation?
Not really, because most of my work deals with particular parts of history. So this dinner about General Aung San is part of the same process, really. For many of my works I pick a subject and I cover a person by interviewing people on the subject or by talking to witnesses of that time and then I make a film. But this time I make it in a reverse way. I create the event and then make the film later.

Your installation will be exhibited for two weeks in the Goethe villa. What do you expect people to associate with it when they see the left-overs and empty chairs from your performance?
It is a continuous performance, really.  So everything is still on the table, the food, and the drinks. What I expect people to do is to come and experience this interruption – the fact that “something has happened”. That all this was left behind, nobody is cleaning up, that there is this kind of disruption, also that the conversation was disrupted. The vision of a modern Burma was also disrupted when General Aung San was assassinated. So you basically have this abandoned dinner table which is a kind of marking of this disruption in the history of Burma. I think there should be some sort of memorial of this disruption, and we should always remember it as a very painful event.

Aung San’s Dinner
Performance in collaboration with

Aung Lwin (Actor)
Aung Soe Min (Artist, Director Pansodan Gallery)     
Bo Bo Kyaw Nyein (Independent researcher, Son of Kyaw Nyein)
Grace Swe Zin Htaik (Actress)
Khin Lay (Triangle Women Group)  
Kyaw Swar Moe (Journalist, Chief Editor Irrawady Magazine)
Myint Soe (Artist and Performer)   
San San Nwe (Writer)  
Soe Myint (Journalist, Chief Editor of Mizzima Magazine)
Than Soe Nain (Politician and Writer)
Tun Win Nyein (Editor and Writer)
Zargarnar (Comedian)