Late for Nowhere

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Beyond the visual: Exploring the stillness inside the Burma Railways building

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Below is my article about an exhibition of paintings by British artist Kate Bowen, originally published in the March 13 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine. The article’s layout, with images of paintings from the show, is posted beneath the article.


Downtown Yangon’s iconic Burma Railways building is the subject of an exhibition of paintings by British artist Kate Bowen, which is on display at Gallery 65 on Yaw Min Gyi Road, Dagon township, from March 14 to 22.

The exhibition, titled The Mee Ya Hta Building, includes 50 artworks in a range of mediums, including oil on canvas, gouache on paper and watercolour on paper.

Bowen, who studied fine art at Gloucestershire College of Art and Design, arrived in Myanmar in late 2013. Before then, she had focused her artwork on the changing cityscape in London during the Olympics, with her interest drawn, as she explained, “toward the cranes, the diggers, the moving of the earth and the reconstruction of space”.

Once in Myanmar, she was immediately captivated by Yangon as a fast-developing cityscape rooted in different cultures and an extraordinary history.

“I wanted to really get under the skin of that,” Bowen said. “I made a plan to focus as much as I could on just one subject, and I started off by doing drawings from the top of Sakura Tower trying to map the city a bit.”

Two of the paintings that resulted from these drawings are included in the exhibit, but the bulk of the work stems from spending more than a year working in and around the Burma Railways building at the corner of Bogyoke and Sule Pagoda roads.

Bowen gained access to the compound after meeting an engineer who was working onsite and who arranged permission for the artist to set up an easel there.

The Burma Railways building provides an apt exemplar of those aspects of Yangon’s transition in which Bowen was so interested.

Built in 1877, it has been empty since 1994, when the Ministry of Railways vacated to move to a new headquarters. The old structure is now being restored as part of the US$400 million Landmark Project, which encompasses more than 10 acres of prime downtown real estate and under which the Burma Railways building will be developed into the luxury Peninsula Hotel Yangon.

“I decided to focus on this one building … and started on the outside until I was allowed inside,” Bowen said. “I then worked around all the passages on the ground floor, all the passages on the first floor and then the top floor and out onto the roof looking down.”

She described the work as a “good experience in understanding one building”.

“It’s been a springboard for experimenting with different mediums, pushing the boundaries [and creating] much more abstracted pictures: the light on the floorboards, the shadow of the sunlight where the windows are broken,” she said.

One of Bowen’s aims was to evoke something more than just the visual aspects of the structure, an instinct that is perhaps rooted in her appreciation of artists such as Mark Rothko who strive to create particular moods through their meticulous colour choices.

“I wanted to get into the empty spaces of the building, the ruined space, the dilapidation, and the quietness and silence,” she said. “As I worked through the building, there were passages and rooms that were very silent and very empty, but there were ones which were quite edgy and spiky and almost threatening in a funny way. I wanted to try to get that across in the pictures in various different ways.”

Among the results of these efforts were ink studies of the shadows within the passages, as well as works on black paper where the artist “tried to imagine how a particular shape, with the sunlight on the floor, would look at night”.

The Burma Railways building is also notable for the fact that the lower floor was constructed using red-tinted laterite blocks made from rich, clay-like soil cut from Myanmar’s riverbeds, and Bowen has integrated this material into some of her work.

“The laterite stone, that pinky kind of earth stuff, is fantastic in itself as a pigment,” she said.

Her method was to collect laterite powder from the building, mix it with white acrylic paint and use a palette knife to draw into the wet paint on black paper.

Bowen said that at some point she would also like to work on a piece of wood that comes from the building, but understands this will not be possible “until they know what they’re keeping – and they are preserving so much from it, and it’s being beautifully restored at the moment by master craftsmen”.

One of Bowen’s favourite mediums is oil on canvas, and those paintings were done in her home studio based on sketches completed at the building site. However, working with oil paint has provided one of the biggest technical challenges she has faced as an artist in Yangon.

“With the humidity and the rainy season, even with air-con in a room, oil paint can draw in the moulds. I had to work out how I could tackle this by using Liquin, which speeds up the drying of the paint and therefore makes it possible to work in a very fluid way,” she said, adding, “I wasn’t going to be defeated in working in oil because I don’t like working in acrylic paint.”

Aside from the inspiration provided by the Burma Railways building, Bowen said she was happy to be working in Yangon at this “really exciting time” for the local art scene, particularly in light of the greater freedom of expression that has come in the wake of the lightening of censorship.

“I think the arts scene very vibrant,” she said, “and there are a lot of hungry people here who are desperate to have their voice after feeling that they didn’t dare in the past.”



Written by latefornowhere

March 18, 2015 at 4:07 am