A Show of Hand

Artist Hetin Lin at work.

Since my return to Burma in July 2013 after six years in London, I have been hoardingarms.   Those arms are the forearms of former political prisoners (PPs), captured in plaster of Paris (PoP).  I now have several hundred, but the incarcerating enthusiasm of the military regime which ruled Myanmar from 1962-2010 – or arguably until 2012 or even today – means that I have several thousand more to cast.

The purpose of plaster of Paris is to fix a broken bone.  I had my own broken arm – a bicycle accident – during my break in London, and as a result, I developed an interest in the art of breaking, fixing and healing.

After six years, I was able to return to Burma for the first time in February 2012.  I met a number of my old friends, former political prisoners, freshly released from prison.  In the eighteen months since, almost all political prisoners havebeen released.

During this period, fresh from jail, they remain strongly cohesive, bound by their common past.  Over time, they will start to take different paths, as politicians, business people, journalists, activists and parents. I wanted to capture this important period in their lives, and gather them and their experiences into an archive, called ‘A Show of Hands’.

A Show of Hands is a multimedia work.  It combines sculpture, in the plaster of Paris arms, photographs of the making process, videos which record both the plastering, and the past, their experience in jail.  There are texts cataloguing the individuals and the years they sacrificed in jail.

Under decades of military rule since 1962, Burma became a broken country.  But now it is starting the slow process of healing, not least by the return of the political prisoners to society, and their contribution to a better future.

If you break your arm, your bones heal thanks to the immobilization of the plaster, and the natural healing of your body.  But it takes time to heal, and during that time you are immobilized.Over 3,000 political prisoners were immobilized in prison and sacrificed years of their lives during the period 1988-2012.    I may well not gather them all.  Some are dead, dying in jail, or after their release, and some may never get in touch.

3,000 is just a number.  But the visual impact of over a thousand arms will remind the audience of just how many people gave up their freedom of movement to try to fix a broken nation, just as the cases of bones in Cambodiadocument the evils of Pol Pot.

A Show of Hands is more than just a show of hands.  It is a process of community engagement, performance, and public art.  I have foundold jail comrades and new friends, put faces and arms to names of those whom I never met but heard about through the prison grapevine.  I have found them in their new environments: monasteries, teashops, newspaper offices, hospitals.

The casting process requires trust, just as a political movement requires trust.  I have asked doctors who have plastered a hundred arms themselves but never experienced it, to submit to my amateur wraps.  I have asked former prisoners whose fingers were broken in torture to have them immobilized years after they should have received treatment. There is the initial promise that the plaster will only be temporary, and the trust of taking a knife close to the skin to release the arm from the cast.

This year was the 25th anniversary of the 1988 uprising.  I have found many arms at memorial events and celebrations.  As I have plastered my subjects, old memories and even oldallergies have returned; a former prisoner who suffered a bad allergy to water while in jail found a similar rash build up under her damp cast.

A Show of Hands is being both recorded and being extended via the social media.  Through the website http://www.hteinlin.com/ and through Facebook and other social media, word of the project is spreading, and more former prisoners are tracking me down. We are putting political prisoners in touch with their friends and families in exile. Even as the plaster dries, former prisoners have recorded and uploaded their own casting experience. They have been contacted across continents by Skype with friends in the diaspora, using social media and internet opportunities which we did not even dream of at the start of our struggle in 1988.

These connections represent the importance of the community in Myanmar, and reinforce the importance of treating our fellow men and women with respect, compassion and loving kindness.   People often ask us how we survived under the military regime, and how we survived in jail.  Each of us had oursurvival strategies, but the main answer to that question is that we had the support of our community, and we had solidarity between individuals, just as plaster of Paris supports the arm and the healing bone.

Htein Lin
Yangon, October 2013